Vikram Seth is five-feet-two-inches of all brain. Within minutes of meeting him, he seems gigantic. His educated Indian accent floats words around the high-ceilinged room like strands of music but it can’t conceal the whirring, clicking, spinning gears in his mind. His conversation, like his eyes, jumps from French phrases to Chinese, to Hindi. He writes my name in Urdu, discusses British politics and sculpture. He’s written a book about hitchhiking through Tibet, ; done a Ph.D in economics at Stanford while writing a novel (in verse) about San Francisco, ; and translated Yang dynasty poetry into English while studying the Chinese economy. His latest book, (Knopf, 1990) is a collection of poetry. He is currently working on a massive novel about post-Partition India.
A small, wiry soap opera enthusiast with well-defined features and a ready smile, Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952 (also the home of Indian literary giant Rabindranath Tagore). Throughout Seth’s childhood, his father Prem Seth was a shoe company executive and his mother Laila Seth served as a judge. Vikram Seth is the oldest of three — his brother conducts Buddhist meditational tours and his youngest sister serves as an Austrian diplomat (Robinson, Rachlin).
Vikram Seth is arguably an odd writer to figure in this series of outstanding British prose writers of the last century. In the first place he is Indian and he did not stay on in England after his education, unlike Naipaul, an Indian who grew up in Trinidad but has since lived in Britain. Whereas Naipaul settled down in England after his undergraduate days at University College in Oxford, Seth (who was at Corpus Christi College) went on to America for graduate studies in economics, did field work in China, and finally returned to India to settle down.