It took four years, a tireless violinist, a persistent music composer and countless sips of wine for the ‘suitable boy,’ Vikram Seth, to complete his latest book, ‘The Rivered Earth.’
The Spring Fever 2012 by Penguin Books India took off with the versatile writer reading out verses from his new book to an audience of young fans with their favourite books by him resting comfortably on their laps. An open-air setting with a humble library on stage stocked with books from classics to comedy, when enlivened by the poet’s resounding voice, assured an enchanted evening for any book lover.
Marriage of a poet and a musician: The Rivered Earth is a book, earlier titled ‘Confluences,’ written in four libretti wherein Seth traverses three civilizations of Europe, China and India. A ‘libretto’ is essentially text for a musical work, a book that guides people during an opera. In collaboration with composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Honore, the author became the linking thread in synchronising the literary with the musical. Since ‘Confluences’ sounded technical, the author selected a more suggestive title, ‘The Rivered Earth’, a phrase taken from the last of the libretti. Interspersed with the author’s own calligraphy, this book of songs is indeed one of its kinds.
‘The Rivered Earth’ and the libretti: Elucidating the four divisions in the libretti, the first set titled ‘Songs in Time of War’ is the poet’s discovery of the period of Tang Dynasty that spelled tragedy and devastation in China. It was in his twenties when Vikram Seth took to reading translations of Chinese poetry that slowly motivated him into learning the language so that he could devour the nuances in original. His translations of Chinese poets like Du fu made way into Roth’s music in the first libretto. The second set, ‘Shared Ground’ shifts from the grief-stricken Tang era to the quaint dwelling of the English poet and Anglican priest George Herbert who died in his Salisbury house in 1633. Recounts Seth, “When I decided to buy the Old Rectory, (up for sale) in Salisbury, I had a colloquy with him as to whether to buy the house…and I found myself being granted permission by him!” His fear of living with Herbert’s spirit and his feeling like an unworthy guest echoes in the poem ‘Host.’
After covering the geographical spaces of Europe and China, the theme for the third libretto, ‘Traveller’ finds itself in the cycle of human existence structured around the stages of life in the Rig Veda- childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. Vikram said, “I added two more – the unborn and the dead, making it seven pillars of the Rig Veda.” The concluding libretto ‘Seven Elements,’ like an overarching presence, is a cosmic union of the previously travelled three culture zones.
On being a novelist: It is not his magnum opus, ‘The Suitable Boy’ (1993) that Vikram found a defining moment in of his literary career. It was during the days of conceptualising ‘The Golden Gate’ (1986) that the writer in him was born. His accident with a writer in him came about in, “A chance encounter with the English translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in a second-hand bookstore that made me change tracks. I remember, once I started reading it, I did not realise that four hours had gone by. Living as an economist, I then discovered the other side of the river, i.e. fiction, and that became home for me. I never thought I would be a novelist,” Vikram shared.
Wine played the trick: On being asked whether there was difference of opinion with the composer and the musician in this project, Vikram said, “Only once. The poem ‘Fire’ did not please Alec. He said it’s ‘fine as a poem but useless as a text.'” So what came as a solution? “He advised me to get drunk… that worked. That’s how from the fumes of wine, ‘Fire’ was born.” Trained in Hindustani Classical music, Vikram added, “I definitely had a kick out of ‘Fire,’ after all boys want to have fun.”
What about ‘The Suitable Girl’? Eager readers asked him by when will the sequel to ‘The Suitable Boy’ hit bookstores, and the unassuming writer said, “You know, I just finished deciding on the names of the characters of the book four days ago. So, I am sure they exist somewhere, all set to be fleshed out in narrative soon. Till then don’t tempt me,” he signed off.
The musically poetic evening ended with readers thronging the dais to get their copy of Seth’s work signed by the author himself.
Can words have a powerful impact on music? When Vikram Seth is the writer with a heart of a musician, nothing can go out of tune!