Born in Kolkata, India in 1952, Vikram Seth is a widely acclaimed poet and advocate against Section 377 of India’s Penal Code, a law against homosexuality. Based on Seth’s education alone, one would find it hard to think that he would later author award-winning poetry and prose that explore various cross-sections between emotion and sociality. Throughout his youth, Seth spent his time in multiple cities, receiving schooling from some of the best institutions in the world. This educational journey took him from private schools in Patna and Dehradun to Oxford and Stanford University, ultimately leaving him with a Ph.D. in economics.
It is easy to assume that from there, Seth would ensue his climb up the corporate ladder to a position of considerable wealth and business influence, but he opted for a rather different path. In hindsight, Seth recalls that he spent “eleven years (from 1975 to 1986) not getting an economics PhD.” Instead, he found himself drawn to poetic studies, and was even awarded a fellowship to pursue this interest while at Stanford. It was through this fellowship that he met fellow poet, Timothy Steele, and truly began to define his writing style. Influenced by Steele, Seth began to refine his style to write with rhyme and meter. Following the completion of his fellowship, Seth traveled to China between 1980 and 1982 to gather data for his doctoral dissertation. While he did fulfill that goal, he also gained fluency in Mandarin, later allowing him to translate Chinese and Hindi poetry into English.
Though he completed his Ph.D. in 1986, Seth had already decided to continue a literary career. Having published From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, and The Golden Gate in 1983, 1985, and 1986 respectively, he began to grapple with and explore contemporary sociocultural situations. The Golden Gate is particularly notable due to Seth’s writing style—he composed the entire piece metered, rhyming fourteen-line stanzas. Though using a rigorous structure, Seth still managed to address key themes as the novel’s characters discussed issues such as overwork, nuclear stockpiling, and Roman Catholic philosophies on sexuality.
Seth continued to address key sociocultural themes, a pattern that is especially evident in his novel A Suitable Boy. Set in post-partition India, the book follows four families’ lives through a period rife with political tension, engaging with prominent themes such as the caste system, land reform, and family issues. The piece also addresses homosexuality, carrying on the trend from The Golden Gate. In this vein, Seth has used his pieces as vehicles for discussing his sexuality, stating that “the ‘I’ in my poems is almost always me”. It could have been easy for his bisexuality to become the central theme of all his writing, but Seth maintains that he does not want to be defined by his sexuality, and continues to write about other important contemporary themes as well.
That said, Seth does actively advocate for the LGBT community in India as he has publicly spoken out against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Citing its illogical nature, cruelty, and considerable health risk, Seth is a staunch opponent to the criminalization of homosexuality. In a 2006 interview, he explained that “I don’t particularly like talking about these matters myself. I am a private person and I don’t feel my friends’ lives and my own should be part of the public’s right to know. But in a case like this where so much is at stake, where the happiness, at a conservative estimate, of 50 million people and their right not to be fearful or lonely and to be with the people whom they love is at issue, and the happiness of their families as well, then it really is incumbent on us to speak out.” Due in part to Seth’s public protest against the law, Section 377 of the IPC was repealed in 2009, thereby making it such that “a homosexual in India does not have to feel that he or she is an unarrested criminal.”
For his literary contributions, Vikram Seth was awarded the Padma Shri in Literature and Education in 2007 and an Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2001, both distinctions that recognize the highest level of civilian contributions. Though he has, by any metric, achieved all that one in the literary field could, Seth has not yielded. He has expanded his repertoire to include fluency in multiple languages including English, Hindi, Mandarin, Welsh, Urdu, and French, while also enjoying the cello and German lieder on the side. Although Seth is Indian, his works span cultural, social, and economic realms that are able to explore key themes, making him not just someone who has contributed to the Indian-American experience, but to the human experience.
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