3 years

Open Space

Fine Loss, Finer Verse

Vikram Seth (Photo: ALESSANDRO ALBERT/GETTY IMAGES)

Mappings, Vikram Seth’s first book of verse, bears translations of poets Heine, Nirala and Faiz Ahmed Faiz; the work is young but energetic, in the foal one glimpses the stallion. A clear documentary light distinguishes The Humble Adminstrator’s Garden, precise yet atmospheric homage to landscape that is transcendent of earthly measure. The Golden Gate is electric proof of genius, a novel-poem so universal in its disquiet as its affinities, it might only ever be personal, so the rhymes stick in your head as if memories you did not know you had. In All Who You Sleep Tonight flaring longing is subsumed in imagined lives, signaling the start of a love affair with loneliness.

Anyone who has felt like they did not fit will feel right at home in Beastly Tales, parabolic ode to the invincible loser. Three Chinese Poets tips its hat to the toil of ancient others, a collection of such scholarship that it soon becomes its own pure thing. Innumerable students read The Frog and the Nightingale, what they originally encountered as text they later embraced like knowledge of their most private selves. The Rivered Earth came from living in a historied house, from gazing out at an enormous expanse of green, and discovering that all erudition is weak before the threat of love’s retreat. And a foremost compilation that cements Seth’s dogged pursuit of what is even, true and good in the world, Summer Requiem, exalts readers out of ordinary time and into magic hours.

In private, the poet is known for unfailing allegiance to his family, dutiful son and devoted brother, the bridge-playing uncle – and a man who watches over his companions. A beloved friend to a select few: mercurial, vigorous, charming, witty and always honest, his life is gilded on the surface. Even so, this admirable and singular body of poems may have emerged from solitude bordering loneliness. But the harvest of the poet’s isolation companions the quiet hours of others: his readers. For anyone who has ever sat in a room wondering when it would end, the long evening, they might reach for the verse of our laureate. In its meter and rhyme they would see they were not alone; in fact, all consolation and exhilaration, the pleasures and each promise, meaning and deep fulfillment, beauty as well as truth, it was all right here: an equal, handsome and suitable companion, waiting between the pages.

(This is the full text of the citation for the award of Poet Laureate conferred on Vikram Seth on 29 October 2015 at Tata Lit Live in Mumbai)

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is a novelist and columnist

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