Faced always with the daunting task of finishing unread and half-read books, there are very few books I have taken the liberty to re-read, however good they are. But there is one book that I have read many times over and each time I do it, feel rejuvenated and recharged. When most people talk about loving a book like this, they do so about a sacred text like the Bible or Gita. Else it could be books with the inspirational tag like ‘Conversations with God’ or ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ or even an inspiring biography. In my case I am talking about an unlikely candidate, a novel by Vikram Seth, that too in verse. The Golden Gate, whose style is inspired by nineteenth century Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, came out in 1986, when Seth was 34. The writer had chanced upon Charles Johnston’s English translation of Onegin, also in verse, at a used bookshop in San Francisco. By that time the Kolkata-born Seth had done a stint at Oxford and also pursued an economics degree at Stanford University. From there he took off for China where he read classical Chinese poetry at Nanjing University. He hitchhiked his way from there to Delhi via Tibet, in the process gathering material for a travelogue called ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet’. With his vast and deep knowledge of music and many languages and proven excellence in all forms of writing including poetry, novel, play, libretto, biography and children’s literature, Seth truly deserves the description of ‘polyglot’. I was very eager to meet him when the organizers of the Thiruvananthapuram Hay Festival of Nov ’10 announced that he was flying down for the event. He arrived a bit late one afternoon, having made a dash to Kanyakumari earlier in the day and getting caught up in a queue there for the boat to Vivekananda Rock. Bald, diminutive and attired in formal trousers and full-sleeved shirt, the man who Shobhaa De believes will be our next literary Nobel Prize winner could easily pass off for a file-pushing babu from the government secretariat. But talk to him and you will be spellbound by his erudition and charmed by the warmth of his personality. He obliged a long line of autograph-seekers, young and old, male and female, Indian and foreign. Some of them held dog-eared copies of the wrist-wrenching A Suitable Boy (a best-selling novel that has sold a million copies, it runs in to 1349 pages and took him eight years to write) like a labor of love. Seth’s other major works are Two Lives (a memoir of his Indian uncle and German Jewish aunt who first met in London), An Equal Music (story of a love affair between a violinist guy and a pianist girl) and volumes of delightful poetry titled Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight, Three Chinese Poets and Beastly Tales From Here and There.
Seth who once had a steady life partner in Frenchman Philippe Honore lays threadbare his own bisexuality in a poem called Dubious which is included in Mappings. Seth’s mother Leila Seth, who was India’s first woman Chief Justice of a High Court, writes poignantly in her autobiography On Balance about how she first encountered the fact of his peculiar orientation. Initial shock was giving way to gentle acceptance. This fact is not wholly irrelevant in the context of The Golden Gate. San Francisco which once elected gay rights activist Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors is well-known as a haven of same-sex relationships. The protagonists of Seth’s novel are John, Janet, Liz, Phil and Ed. One of them is gay and another is bi. Ed’s pet iguana (!) Arnold Schwarzenegger and Liz’s cat Charlemagne are also prominent players in the plot. Seth thrills us with an amazing wordplay peppered with clever similes, fun rhymes and rich imagery. The 307 page novel is divided into 13 chapters and comprises of 590 stanzas written in iambic pentameter. The table of contents, acknowledgement and dedication are in verse too. The novel runs the whole gamut of emotions of love, possessiveness, betrayal, sorrow, rapprochement, death and hope. There are profound musings on nuclear disarmament, world peace and the survival of the planet for which the technology hub of the Silicon Valley provides the perfect backdrop. Unrest of youth manifests in protest marches. It is the lighter passages, and they are many, that have me rolling on the floor laughing. Debates ensue about the pros and cons of keeping an iguana for a pet or the merits and evil doings of the cat which threatens to rock the boat of the John-Liz relationship. A couple of pages are devoted to marveling the Tintin comic characters. John rakes up a case against having babies – ‘ugly… sumo wrestlers plush with needless, kneadable flesh….’ A stanza educates us on how cooking is an act of cruelty whose terminology itself is awash with images of torture like whipping cream, beating eggs, stoning cherries, etc. Grappling with his homosexuality, Ed evokes questions of religion and religious diktats, about the true nature and pursuit of love including the physical. He battles inner demons when it comes to the matter of uninhibited love. The novel definitely makes the reader sit up and think about the hollowness of conventional morality, self-imposed by the repressed societies we inhabit. The disillusionment of the ‘80s yuppie holds water even today, come to think of it. The poet-novelist himself dons a cameo part in the book as Kim Tarvesh (an anagram of his name), a professor of Economics.
Even though penned by an Indian author, The Golden Gate is not an Indian or even a Diaspora novel. Gore Vidal grandly called it The Great Californian Novel. It is Californian to the last wine detail, yet the universality of its message raises it beyond even an American novel. The book can be opened randomly at any page and enjoyed. The Golden Gate won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi for English in 1988. Surprisingly the bold experiment with form has not spawned any imitators yet, a full twenty five years on.