“To sneer at love, and wrench apart/The bonds of body, mind and heart/With specious reason and no rhyme:/This is the true unnatural crime.” These lines were written by popular novelist and poet Vikram Seth in response to the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, which shoved the LGBT+ people back into the closet. The apex court had just overturned the Delhi High Court verdict of 2009, which held the provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised same-sex relations unconstitutional. It was now criminal to have same-sex relations again; it was ‘unnatural’ to be gay and to be in love again as depicted in the law.
The usually reticent Seth also appeared on the cover of India Today magazine, looking resigned and angry, his hair dishevelled and his face unshaven. In what appeared to be a prison mugshot, he was carrying a chalkboard that read, “Not A Criminal.” Those three words were enough to say what needed to be said. This single image signified the dread we all felt at the time.
In a brief but powerful essay in the magazine, he wrote about how love and to know that you have loved and been loved makes life bearable: “To not be able to love the one you love is to have your life wrenched away. To do this to someone else is to murder their soul.” Referring to the cover in an interview with the BBC, he had said that the 2013 judgement took away the liberties of millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in India, and he called it “inhumane”. His penchant for wit was apparent in this remark: “…and if you wish, you can remove the e at the end of that word.”
Such was the anger of Vikram Seth, who we know primarily as an important personality in the English literary pantheon. His work ranges from the novel in verse The Golden Gate and the bestseller epic novel A Suitable Boy that has sold millions of copies worldwide to his poetry collections and travelogues. Through his mellifluous penmanship, he manages to find humanity and hope despite the many fractures and divisions in our society.
Many people may not know that before becoming a revered author, he was supposed to be an economist, and he was, at one time, doing his PhD in Economics at Stanford University. During a session with Vikram Seth and his mother Leila Seth (who was the first woman in India to become the chief justice of a high court) of another literature festival, she said that she was horrified when he moved back home to write poetry instead of completing his education. In the same conversation, she spoke of her worry when she got to know about his sexuality. “I thought he is a young man, and somebody could misuse it. It is something one is not normally used to,” she had said.
Seth, who identifies as bisexual, has created memorable snapshots of intimacy and identity in different modes of writing. One of his poems comes to my mind, where he plays with the popular Jack and Jill nursery rhyme. In an offhand manner, he writes, “I’m glad I like them both but still/I wonder if this freewheeling/Really is an enlightened thing.” He does not stop there, and questions the premise of rigidities on such matters. He wonders what his status is in these clearly demarcated categories: “In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight/What is my status: Stray? Or Great?”
Even when he is handing over these ideas to us through his unique humour, his sensitivity knows no bounds, as is apparent in almost all of his works.
It is most prominent in A Suitable Boy, his 1993 novel of around 1,300 pages and 600,000 words, which remains a feat of ambition even today in portraying a microcosm of life in post-independence India. Maan’s character stands out as a creative and queer impulse in this massive work. Of course, there is poetry in Maan’s love for the courtesan Saeeda Bai. But there is comfort in the beautiful companionship that Maan shares with Firoz. Their quiet solicitude for each other becomes louder as they run for their lives during a communal riot. It turns into something tender and soft like the memory of a childhood crush when they are in bed together, and Firoz’s jealousy of Maan’s other ‘friendships’ comes out. Their physical intimacy as Maan takes Firoz in his arms offers only hints of the history of their love for each other. It makes for a subtle template of queerness.
A similar subtlety is present in VIkram Seth’s poems that are, in many cases, not gendered, and how he lets readers take what they want from his verse. The value of his words is not limited to the readers of his books and poems. His penmanship, when proffered, has been instrumental in the fight for LGBT rights in the country. Though he has not always been at the forefront of the headlines, his voice has been important among many others in the fight for the recognition of queer rights in the country.
Even before 2013, Vikram Seth was one of the luminaries responsible for releasing an open letter in 2006 to the government of India, members of the judiciary, and all citizens to express protest against “the cruel and discriminatory law” that made queer people susceptible to blackmail and punishment. In this petition supported by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and signed by many public personalities, Seth and all the co-signees remarked on the misuse of the law to systematically persecute and terrorise sexual minorities.
Vikram Seth’s position as an acclaimed author who has been felicitated with the Padma Shri also holds sway in public perception. Many platforms list him as one of the accomplished Indians from the LGBT+ community. Looking back at his career as a writer as well as a proponent of LGBT+ rights in the country, we recognise that he is one of the role models that young queer people can look up to.
Seth gave an interview to Hindustan Times, to commemorate 25 years of A Suitable Boy. In that he remarked on the 2018 judgement that decriminalised same sex relations, and said that it reflected the inclusiveness of the constitution of India. “Inclusiveness, the idea of fraternity, to my mind, must also include our respect for other religions, castes, linguistic groups, the tribal people of India and so on,” he said. These words should guide us as we continue to fight for the rights and freedoms of the various marginalised communities in India today.