Born in Calcutta in 1952 to Prem Seth, a shoe company executive, and Laila Seth, a judge, Vikram Seth is the oldest of three children in the Seth family.
He was sent to Doon school, a prestigious boarding school for boys, at the age of six. As a young student Vikram was very shy, “Incapable of looking people in the eye,” he says. But what he lacked in sociability, he more than made up by excelling at his studies.
After passing his ‘O level’ exams with distinction, Vikram won a scholarship to Tonbridge School in Kent, U.K. From Kent he soon went to the prestigious Oxford University on another scholarship and earned degrees in philosophy, economics, and politics. Not content with all this, Seth went to study at the Stanford University in the U.S. for a Ph D. in Economics. He spent the next 11 years “not getting the degree”, as he says. Two of those years (1980-1982) were spent in China, where Seth studied poetry and languages at the Nanjing University of China. It was while in China that Vikram realized he was “more interested in poetry than economics.”
In 1986, while still at Stanford, Seth produced a novel entirely in rhythmic verse (sonnets) called ‘The Golden Gate’, a story about life in San Francisco.
Vikram had been discouraged by many of his friends who felt that
the book would never sell,l but he didn’t mind their comments,
even included them into the text – “Drivelling in rhyme’s all very
well/The question is does spittle sell?” ’Golden Gate’ was widely appreciated when it was released and sold over a 100, 000 copies.
In 1992, Vikram was invited to Doon School to give the Founder’s Day speech. In his speech, Vikram confessed “I had a terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation during my six years here………….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.”
Seth’s next novel ‘A Suitable Boy’ was published in 1993 and shot him to instant world fame, selling over a million copies. The novel is the story of an Indian mother’s search for a suitable match for her daughter, set against the backdrop of life in India in the 1950s. With 1,349 pages, the book is the largest single volume novel in English. In his introduction to the book Seth urges potential readers: “Buy me before good sense insists/You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.”
Seth wrote the first hundred pages of ‘A Suitable Boy’ and then lost momentum – he decided that he didn’t know enough about the period he was trying to recreate and spent the next year researching!!! He read old newspapers and records of legislative proceedings, interviewed old freedom fighters and musicians and even went to live for a while in a remote village where he spent time with leather workers.
Seth’s second novel ‘ An Equal Music’, released in 1999, was a love story among members of a music quartet. It deals with the feelings of Michael, a professional violinist who never recovers from the loss of his only true love, a pianist he knew as a student in Vienna.
The Golden Gate – a novel entirely in rhythmic verse
All You who Sleep Tonight
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.