The Telegraph
Thursday , January 30 , 2014
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Bikrom syaar writes a ‘suitable’ note

Schoolteacher Nikita Modi must be used to sending her students home with “notes”. But on Tuesday, the 25-year-old went home with a note herself. Here’s what happened.

Nikita (in the audience): Sir, book lovers often tend to identify themselves with the characters. As an Indian girl who is facing almost the same dilemma as Lata [of A Suitable Boy], I hope I can derive inspiration from her in the next book.

Vikram Seth: Well, as I said earlier, you’ve got to be yourself. And Lata had to be herself, given whatever her experiences were, whatever her thoughts were. But in your case, just don’t go by fiction, okay? Do what you have to do. Be brave.

Nikita: Please say that to my father!

Vikram: Bring me a piece of paper and I’ll write him a very severe note.

A literary meet is about writers. And ideas. And readers. At KLM 2014, one learnt that it is, above all else, about moments. Moments like these.

Vikram Seth was in conversation with Samantak Das at a session titled Go East Young Reader, dwelling on the wealth of inspiration that lies to the east of India on Day 4 of the Kolkata Literary Meet, co-hosted by Victoria Memorial Hall, in association with The Telegraph.

Das started by taking Seth to China, where he had gone hitch-hiking across Tibet and rural China, researching for an economics degree at Stanford, which he later abandoned. “My first real sense of China was in the 1962 war. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, these strange people, coming from the north and taking over our country’. In other words, my first impression was of the Chinese being a kind of threat. It was only when I went to England and picked a book off the shelf... the poems of Wang Wei. They were translations of this 8th century Chinese poet. A nature poet, he also wrote a lot about friendship, he was a great painter and a great calligrapher as well. I was very moved by these poems, I couldn’t think of anything like them in English literature or Hindi literature… and I remember thinking to myself that if I am so affected by these poems in translation, I wonder what they would be like in their original,” the writer said.

Years later, Seth not only learnt Chinese but being quite unhappy with the English translations available, did some himself, including those of Wang Wei and his contemporaries, Du Fu and Li Bai.

But Seth has not gone back to China in a long time, for a reason. “I never went back to China after the incident of Tiananmen, where crowds of peaceful protesters were mowed down. Yet I would say, it was in the aftermath of that event that I decided to translate these poets because the time they lived in, China was undergoing a great civil war, with a lot of death and destruction…. So it was consoling to know that in times of great sorrow and suffering, these poems written then would also be able to comfort Chinese people going through troubled times now.”

Speaking of eastern influences, Seth also regaled the audience with how he almost came to be called Amit after the hero of Shesher Kobita and how he had resigned himself to the fact that in Calcutta — incidentally his birthplace — he would always be “amader Bikrom”, and now, “Bikrom syaar (sir).”