Many of my favourite authors have surnames starting with S, not even considering The Bard, who of course, is so much more than just a favourite author. I was halfway through a post on Shaw when I decided to write one instead, on Vikram Seth whose poetry was a great influence during a period of my life, albeit a past life, once upon a time.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another. Like how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Seth’s ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
While Hamlet dreads ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, Seth’s poetic narrator has no such fears for he ‘To one who knows this life is all there is’ and yet chooses to live in the hope of happiness, for objective curiosity and out of filial attachments. (Mappings)
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain”
John Keats, From Ode to a Nightingale
“To cease upon
The midnight under the live-oak
Seems too derisory a joke.
The bottle lies on the ground.
He sleeps. His sleep is sound.”
Vikram Seth, From Ceasing Upon Midnight
Which is better, to cease upon the midnight, or to raise a toast to the moon and fall asleep, laughing at the joke called life? Seth’s translation of Heinrich Heine perhaps has the best answer – “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”.
“All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
An emptiness above–
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all your years.”
― Vikram Seth
These lines are characteristic of Seth’s early poetry; poignant, reflective and elegant. I must have read his collected poems (Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight and Three Chinese Poets (Translations from Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei) about five times, if not more, during a period of my life darkened by depression. I also read and re-read the book that many consider as his magnum opus – The Golden Gate.
It is not easy to write about depression even after being cured for years, less easier still to read about the condition when one is depressed. Trying to connect with writing on the subject, I had sought out Sylvia Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar, The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen…their words only rattled my mind that had been rendered fragile and trembling in the darkness. But The Golden Gate helped. A few pages into the book and I was laughing aloud for the first time in years. The humour had less to do with it, than relief in the knowledge that everyone shared the feeling of loneliness at some point of time in their lives. I had very little in common with the protagonists in the book but could relate to their ambitions, idealism, dreams, disillusionment and especially their sense of alienation. I clung to the book during those long, dark years. The verse was a source of comfort, solace, even fleeting moments of happiness.
On his other work, I loved From Heaven Lake and found parts of A Suitable Boy a joy to read. An Equal Music was rather sentimental (I kept wanting to give the character Michael two tight slaps and ask him to get a life) and Two Lives really needed an editor. The Rivered Earth was so disappointing it put me off from reading Summer Requiem. I have no intention of reading A Suitable Girl. But I remain grateful for The Golden Gate, so much that I dedicated my first novel The Reengineers to the poet who wrote it.
A related excerpt from The Reengineers in which I pay my respects:
“The darkness had almost got me for good one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.
There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out.
Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life…His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.”
I didn’t realise how far I had moved away from the past until last Hilary term when I chose to do a critique of The Golden Gate. I found myself nodding wholeheartedly as my Professor explained how the rhymes in the sonnets were was rather clumsy and how the verse was far clunkier than, for example, Byron. My avant-garde poet classmates had strong views on the book – ‘It was horrible!’ ‘Hated it!’ they said, cheerfully. I surprised myself by agreeing. For now, I see the book as it is. But I remain grateful for the verse and to the poet who along with many others inspired, consoled, energized and sustained me with words through those years of literal and metaphorical exile.