His father was an executive of the Bata India Limited shoe company who migrated to post-Partition India from West Punjab in Pakistan. His mother, Leila was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court as well as the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court, at Simla. She studied law in London while pregnant with Seth's younger brother and came first in her Bar examinations conducted only weeks after she delivered her second child.
His younger brother, Shantum, leads Buddhist meditational tours. His younger sister, Aradhana, is a film-maker married to an Austrian diplomat, and has worked on Deepa Mehta's movies Earth and Fire. (Compare the characters Haresh, Lata, Savita and two of the Chatterji siblings in A Suitable Boy: Seth has been candid in acknowledging that many of his fictional characters are drawn from life; he has said that only the dog Cuddles in A Suitable Boy has his real name — "Because he can't sue". Justice Leila Seth has said in her memoir On Balance that other characters in A Suitable Boy are composites but Haresh is a portrait of her husband Prem.)
Having lived in London for many years, Seth now maintains residences near Salisbury, England, where he is a notable participant in local literary and cultural events, having bought in 1996 and renovated the house of the seventeenth century Anglican divine and metaphysical poet George Herbert, and in Delhi, where he lives with his parents and keeps his extensive library and papers.
At Doon Founder's Day gathering in 1992, he remarked about his "terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation" while studying at the prestigious institution. He said,
Sometimes, at lights out, I wished I would never wake up to hear the chhota hazri bell. For days after I left I thought of school as a kind of jungle, and looked back on it with a shudder. I was teased and bullied by my classmates and my seniors because of my interest in studies and reading, because of my lack of interest in games, because of my unwillingness to join gangs and groups.
in his speech to the Doon students he also spoke of the advantages the school conferred on him and offered words of encouragement and inspiration. And in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Margaret Throsby, his slightly younger contemporary at Doon, the anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh, expressed surprise at the report of how Seth had characterised his school days: in his own recollection Seth had been deservedly lionized by both students and staff, his winning personality and brilliant intellect having been well in evidence even then.
He completed his A-levels at Tonbridge School in Kent, England, and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He undertook doctoral studies at Stanford University where he has stated that he spent "11 years (from 1975 to 1986) not getting an economics Ph.D." While formally engaged in postgraduate economics courses at Stanford he also undertook poetics studies — he was Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing in 1977-1978 — with the poet Timothy Steele, whose traditionally structured verse with formal rhyme and metre (together with that of Robert Frost and Philip Larkin) inspired Seth to adopt a similar formal discipline in his own poetry. "I wanted to have some contact with the writing program," Seth recalled in 2003 interview. "So I went to this office and asked if there was anyone who could help with poetry. There were two poets there and the one nearest the door was Timothy Steele, who writes with rhyme and metre. If the other fellow had been closer, I'd probably have turned out a poet of free verse." He also enrolled in Mandarin language courses at Stanford that later helped him gain fluency in the language during his stint in China.
In 1980-82 Seth did extensive field work in China gathering data for his intended doctoral dissertation on Chinese population planning; he was attached to Nanjing University while in China and became fluent in Mandarin within six months, later translating Chinese as well as Hindi poetry into English. He took advantage of his Chinese language fluency to return home to Delhi overland via Xinjiang and Tibet, resulting in From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), a combination travel narrative and personal memoir written at the suggestion of his father.
Vikram sat at one end of a long table and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked.
But notwithstanding the acute commercial savvy Seth has become renowned for, he later explained to Gordon that he had passed the interview not because of commercial considerations, but because unlike the others he was the only agent who seemed as interested in his poetry as in his other writing. That being said, Seth followed what he has described as "the ludicrous advance for that book" (£200,000 for A Suitable Boy) with £500,000 for An Equal Music and £1.4 million for Two Lives. He prepared an acrostic poem for his address at Gordon's 2005 memorial service:
- Gone though you have, I heard your voice today.
- I tried to make out what the words might mean,
- Like something seen half-clearly on a screen:
- Each savoured reference, each laughing bark,
- Sage comment, bad pun, indiscreet remark.
- Gone since you have, grief too in time will go,
- Or share space with old joy; it must be so.
- Rest then in peace, but spare us some elation.
- Death cannot put down every conversation.
- Over and out, as you once used to say?
- Not on your life. You're on this line to stay.
- Some men like Jack and some like Jill
- I'm glad I like them both but still
- I wonder if this freewheeling
- Really is an enlightened thing,
- Or is its greater scope a sign
- Of deviance from some party line?
- In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
- What is my status: Stray? Or Great?
Seth has said that "the 'I' in my poems is almost always me," so one might well early have concluded from his citation of this poem alone that he identified as bisexual; also, Mappings and Seth's other books of poetry contain love poems addressed to both male and female objects. However, Seth's mother, Justice Leila Seth, laid the issue to rest. She wrote in her memoir On Balance ,
At the time [of a dispute with Seth over sleeping arrangements for a visiting friend] I didn't realise that Vikram was bisexual. This understanding came to me much later and I found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality. Premo found it even harder....But we loved him and accepted it without understanding it.
Beyond the dedication in An Equal Music, Seth has expressly acknowledged his ten-year relationship with his former partner, Philippe Honoré. Indian-born San Francisco journalist Sandip Roy reports that Seth discussed the issue of his sexuality candidly in a television program with his sister Aradhana. In a book tour radio interview, Roy probed further: Seth said that this was not something he'd ever hidden, but that he just didn't wish to be defined by it. On the other hand, he said that he was conscious of the fact that being open about his sexuality might help other bisexual or gay people, and that he had given leave to his mother to write about it partially for that reason.
Seth has been increasingly forthright in recent years on the issue of gay rights in his native India. In an interview on CNN-IBN aired 21 January 2006, Seth talked about the law in India relating to homosexuality. He called section 377 of the Indian Penal Code barbaric and archaic. He advocated its removal, saying that the British who introduced this have removed it in their own country. He gave three reasons for it being removed: (1) it is silly (as India is following something outdated); (2) it is cruel (as it causes intolerable pain and self-doubt); and (3) it is harmful (as it promotes underground activities which pose a health problem). He wished that young Indians would not have to worry about their sexuality. He suggested that the government was afraid of losing votes and it was fear that drove its indisposition to amend the current draconian criminal sanctions against homosexuality. Continuing with the theme, Seth said in an interview with Sheela Reddy published in Outlook India on 2 October 2006,
I don't particularly like talking about these matters myself. I am a private person and I don't feel my friends' lives and my own should be part of the public's right to know. But in a case like this where so much is at stake, where the happiness, at a conservative estimate, of 50 million people and their right not to be fearful or lonely and to be with the people whom they love is at issue, and the happiness of their families as well, then it really is incumbent on us to speak out.
Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier student days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias. (p.35)
In the text of "The Golden Gate", Seth rhymes his own surname with the word "away", implying that the English pronunciation of his name is similar to "Say". This is not the case, as a reading of the Hindi version of his surname shows.
Readers and critics without musical knowledge occasionally complained that Michael, the protagonist, was simply not a likeable (or unlikeable) enough character to sustain interest throughout a substantial novel and that the focus on the music for its own sake can be trying for the uninitiated. Musically knowledgeable readers, especially those who perform, were with rare exceptions unstinting in their enthusiasm and praise. Paolo Isotta, one of Italy's most significant music critics, wrote in the influential newspaper Il Corriere della Sera of the Italian translation that no European writer had ever shown such a knowledge of European classical music, nor had any European novel before managed to convey the psychology, the technical abilities, even the human potentialities of those who practise music for a living
- Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
- Had our words turned to other things
- In the grey park, the rain abated,
- Life would have quickened other strings.
- I list your gifts in this creation:
- Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
- Peace to the heart with touch or word,
- Ease to the soul with note and chord.
- How did that walk, those winter hours,
- Occasion this? No lightning came;
- Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
- Our story lit with borrowed powers -
- Rather, by what our spirits burned,
- Embered in words, to us returned.
Seth together with Philippe Honoré marketed a double CD of the music mentioned in An Equal Music, performed by Honoré.
In most of Seth's writing (apart from An Equal Music, narrated in the first person by its central character), there is a strong, engaging narrative persona — sometimes, as in From Heaven Lake, obviously Seth himself; at other times, in his novels and poems, intermittently so. He has complained about some of his readers assuming on book tours a degree of intimacy with him that they have not earned.
A film of A Suitable Boy is slated to go into production in 2007, an earlier attempt at a television serialisation having been abandoned.
The Traveller  with composer Alec Roth. Premiere, Lichfield Festival July 2008.
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