A couple of low teak sofas are arranged around a cedar coffee table in the lively living room of a house in Lahore’s Gulberg. As the city gets ready to bid farewell to winters in the last week of February, the cushions covered with blue and black floral fabric add warmth to the ambiance. Instead of a large floor cloth, I see small woven rugs tossed about in the centre and two little dogs sitting on one of the rugs. Vikram Seth sits comfortably on a sofa peeling an orange.
It’s been a few days since the Lahore Literary Festival ended. He is happy that I have arrived in time.
While I wait for him to get himself settled for the interview, he speaks sternly to somebody over the phone who probably did not show up on time a day before. He is a stickler for punctuality. I am glad I have been lucky.
Before the interview begins, he leans forward and says, “We’ll have a relaxed conversation.” As he speaks to me, I notice him using my name a couple of times which sets the tone for a casual chat. He seems to have all the qualities of a storyteller: marvellous memory, capacity for wonder and interest in unusual ideas and people. This tends to make room for an engaging and eloquent talk. Wearing a casual red shirt with blue pants, he speaks enthusiastically, paying close attention to detail — perhaps a pattern that wouldn’t surprise his readers.
It is not everyday that one gets to meet a notable Indian writer and poet who happens to be an excellent musician. Vikram Seth, the author of two highly acclaimed novels, A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music besides many other books on poetry and non-fiction, is trained in Indian classical music and also plays flute and tabla. Music is his first passion and, just as Friedrich Nietzsche said, life without music seems like a mistake to him. “If I am stranded on an island, I might survive without books but not without music,” he declares.
The LLF this year began with rains. Just as the monsoon comes laden with a medley of emotions, romance, longing and poetry, all interwoven in the shimmering colours of a rainbow, the Indian classical music has similar charms that can invoke intense emotions and feelings. Seth is delighted to know I have been trained in Indian classical music and have also performed Raga Kalavati at the All Pakistan Music Conference.
“The only mention of Raga Kalavati can increase the pleasure in the interview,” he says.
We start conversing about Khamaj Thaat. Khamaj represents eternal love — perhaps the kind of love between Radha Krishna. The murkis or the ornamental beautification of ragas like Kalavati, Des, Jog and Jaijaiwanti if performed with apt devotion can depict the flavour of romance.
“Raga Kalavati is a Carnatic raga. Interestingly, South Indian ragas do not come with any particular time associated with them but because it is adopted by the North Indian musicians it has been assigned the time of midnight.” Humming Sa Ga Pa Dha Ni, the five notes of the oudhav raga, Kalavati, he tells me that it is also a major chord in the Western music.
I have never really been fond of Western classical music; though after watching Amadeus, a film about the life and works of Mozart, I was overwhelmed by the sheer range of Mozart’s musical competence. However, it wasn’t before reading An Equal Music by Vikram Seth that I zealously explored the compositions by the greatest music maestros of all times.
Be it Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Brahms or Haydn, their compositions are so perfectly woven into Seth’s elegant classical-music-romance novel that they come out as a gift to music enthusiasts. From Haydn’s Op. 20 to Schubert’s Trout, from Beethoven’s Quintet in C minor to Mozart’s Allegro and Bach’s Art of Fugue, all the performances are so elaborately detailed that one but feels like listening to those involving, exciting and baffling pieces of classical music.
I want to know what techniques or strategies Seth has used to capture the beauty and emotions of music through writing. “One of the things that words can do is to evoke but one can’t produce music through words. Especially, if someone like you, who comes from a different tradition of music, may not have heard the string quartets but can only get the sense of enthusiasm and feelings that the musicians have. I can’t say it was successful but the technique that I tried to use was to write about it through Michael’s voice, in the first person, because he himself is a musician. So even when talking about the technical details, the readers can guess his enthusiasm or passion. But just in case it was written in the third person, it would have been somewhat dissertational in its style. Someone quite wisely said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (laughs). It’s not doable. Also, I am glad that people are led from my book to exploring the works mentioned.”
Interestingly, An Equal Music invited the release of an accompanying double CD with performances of the musical works figured in the novel. I tell him I had a chance to listen to the CD online. “That’s a great compilation. I was very happy when they decided to bring it out,” he says.
Talking about his early interests in music, he says, “Nobody is a musician in my family. In fact, my mom is anti-music. When I was about two-and-a-half, she would sing lullabies to me and I would say “Mum, please don’t sing. Let Aunty come and she will sing for me instead’. Though she would sing with affection, it was totally out of tune and I could naturally not stand it. Later, my interest developed and I began to love Indian classical music.”
In order to understand it, he thought he should rather go for formal training. He requested Pandit Amar Nath in Delhi who happens to be a shagird (student) of Ustad Amir Khan, one of the most influential figures in Hindustani classical music and also the founder of the Indore Gharana. “My interest in Western music developed when I was abroad and there I learnt piano and cello.”
Seth tells me about a fabulous small gathering of classical musicians that he attended just a few days back in Lahore. “Ustad Naseerudin Saami from the Delhi Gharana performed Raga Sohni, Bilawal and also the Multani kaafis. He was incredible. After listening to him, I don’t think we have any other better Hindustani classical vocalist in the whole of subcontinent. I hope sometime I get a chance to listen to his renditions of morning ragas like todi, lalit and bhairvi.”
As we begin our discussion about the essential features and moods of different ragas and the broad time cycle assigned to each of them, we inevitably talk about the controversial subject — the state of Indian classical music in the subcontinent. “In a sense we have been luckier than let’s say the Japanese in preserving our music. There has been a real appreciation of classical music through most of the last centuries. At the time of independence and partition of India, music was under severe risk. All India Radio became a lifeline for many musicians. So in a sense the tradition was not broken.”
Referring to the new patrons he says “Interestingly, Imperial Tobacco Company, an organisation which had spent its time ruining throats and health of the population, stepped in and became a huge patron of classical music. Sangeet mehfils and baithaks were often organised as a step towards propagating it. Presently, Spic Macay, a non-profit organisation is doing its bit in creating an appreciation of classical music amongst the youth.”
Seth thinks there are two possible dangers to Indian classical music: one is that people will lose interest in it; and two it will get so mixed up with other genres that it might lose its character. “The danger exists but is somewhat exaggerated. I hope the music will continue anyway.”
Seth has also written about several aspects of Indian classical music in his novel, A Suitable Boy such as the tradition of courtesans, Hindustani classical musicians and Urdu poetry. “One of my characters, Saaeda Bai Firozabadi, is a courtesan who sings beautiful ghazals. Then there is Ustad Majeed Khan, a Hindustani classical musician and teacher and Ishaq Khan, a sarangi player.”
A Suitable Boy, Seth’s magnum opus, illustrates a complex and detailed portrait of India immediately after the independence. Published in 1993, it is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in English language. How important is experience when writing a novel? How did he manage to write an epic novel like that at such a young age and what challenges did he face?
“My first novel [The Golden Gate 1983] was published when I was thirty four. Experience matters a lot in writing but it is not necessary to have experiences of all the characters in a book. Some experiences have to be imagined. Therefore, a novel can be written within the range of one’s experience and imagination. If one has never been in love, never faced loss or knows nothing about politics, economics and history, then of course producing literature of that kind would be difficult. In A Suitable Boy, Mrs Rupa Mehra is very much similar to my grand mom. Other composite characters are mixed up with traits of different people. Maan was an important character but I have no idea where he came from. I have never come across anybody like him and I enjoyed writing about him the most.”
The novel covers various issues faced by post-independence India, including Hindu-Muslim strife, abolition of the zamindari system, land reforms and the empowerment of Muslim women. According to some critics, it adopts the Nehruvian model of secularism. There are certain forces in India that want to deviate from secularism. Does he see India developing as a more secular and liberal state in future?
“We are a few months away from the general elections. I think it will be a very important election, precisely because of the point you have made. In a sense, it will be a considerable test of secularism — both the result of the election and what happens after it, no matter who wins. But there are certain secular values to some extent interlined in the constitution which can, of course, be subverted if the courts allow themselves to be subverted. But otherwise that act is something of a check upon central authority. Secondly, we are quite a strongly a federal country so no matter who is at the centre, there will be quite a lot of other stuff going on all over India. It is possible to have a secular government with various unsecular states or vice versa. So very difficult to say what happens a few months before the election.”
But he agrees that India’s secular values are under some kind of pressure, perhaps more than at any other time. “Yet, the idea of being born in another religion makes you any less Indian is an absolutely abhorrent idea to most of the Indians. The idea is completely against all the values on which India is based.”
We move on to the partition of India. “Remember I was born after independence or partition. But if one thinks about the reasons for partition there is no way that any country involved would want to undo what went before.”
He believes that the two countries should look ahead and develop peaceful relations, forgetting what happened in the past. He points out the reason he is able to travel to Pakistan is that he belongs to a certain class. He condemns the fact that those from the poor or middle classes do not have the facility or the possibility of visiting the other side because of the impossible visa regime instituted between the two nations.
What role does Seth think literature plays in bringing a change in society? “I think literature can bring a change in society but we have to ask two questions: over what period is the literature being written and what kind of literature is it. If it is sort of very radicalised like poetry, for example, then it can almost be used as a slogan for demonstration. Talking about novel which has a certain point of view about, say, position of women in society or secularism, there, the effect might be strong in the medium term. But the means by which it operates is more subtle because of the author’s tone of voice and philosophy that evolves in the course of the novel; it slowly influences other people’s way of thinking.”
Seth thinks writers should be involved in various political matters and human rights issues but only in the sense that every citizen should be involved. “Writers don’t have more of a responsibility. They have as much responsibility as any citizen to participate in matters of importance to their country or world as a whole and also to speak out against any injustices.”