Vikram Seth’s Writing Journey Beyond his Magnum Opus, ‘A Suitable Boy’

Indian poet, novelist, and travel writer Vikram Seth has a long list of writings that should be a part of every literature lover’s library. On his birthday today, we take a look at his work and the journey that led to it.

Srushti Pathak
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Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth

The TV Series, ‘A Suitable Boy’, became a hit with Tabu and Ishaan Khattar bringing to life on the screen, Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel. But there’s a lot more to his work. He has penned several books of poetry and novels. And for many of them, he has received several awards and accolades. On the occasion of his birthday, we celebrate the writings of author and poet Vikram Seth.

Kolkata to China to New Delhi

Vikram Seth was born in Kolkata, India, on June 20, 1952 to Prem Nath Seth and Leila Seth. His mother was a lawyer, she served as the first female judge of the Delhi High Court and the first-ever woman to hold the position of Chief Justice of a state High Court in India. Seth did his graduation from Corpus Christi College in Oxford and attended the prestigious Indian Doon School. He did his master’s in economics from Stanford University in the United States in 1978. For further eduction he travelled to China and attended Nanjing University. In 1987, he returned to India and settled in New Delhi. 

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth: The Poet & Novelist

Seth's poetry is considered a craft. He has been called a neo-formalist and has also been labelled as the writer of polished poetry. His use of rhyme and metre, and older forms of verse such as the sonnet, in an age when free verse is refreshing.

Here are some of his most popular books.

The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate is Vikram Seth's first novel. The work is a novel in verse composed of 590 Onegin stanzas. It was inspired by Charles Johnston's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

A Suitable Boy

Set in post-independence India, the novel follows for eighteen months or so four linked families in Calcutta, the province of Purva Pradesh and its capital Brahmpur, and the cities, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, trawled by the leading lady's mother in her search for a “suitable boy”. The book is divided into 19 parts, each part focusing on a different subplot. The story is all about four families and a peek into their lives over a period of 18 months.


This is Vikram Seth’s first book of poems. These poems are about love, life and landscape. They are intimate, inventive and immediate. Interspersed with original poems are translations of a poem each by Du Fu (Chinese), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Urdu), Heinrich Heine (German) and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (Hindi). 

Books by Vikram Seth

The Humble Administrator’s Garden

This is his second collection of poems. In here, Vikram Seth takes on on three cultures he knows well; India, California and China. Chinese noblemen and hermits; lovers whom he has outgrown or who have outgrown him; the night sounds and sights on a deserted California beach; the power of moonlight and music to both hurt and heal are all part of this book. 

All You Who Sleep Tonight

In this book, Seth talks about the varieties of love. The kind that's lost, remembered, and deferred. He speaks of life’s ironies, horrors and regrets in ‘other voices’. The voices are of the poet Mirza Ghalib; a German commander at Auschwitz; a Japanese doctor in Hiroshima after the bombing. 

Arion and the Dolphin

This book is an opera in nine scenes. Arion and the Dolphin is a libretto by Vikram Seth. It spins the tale of Arion, a young musician at the court of Periander in Corinth. Thrown overboard on his return from a musical contest in Sicily, Arion is saved and befriended by a dolphin, but their sublime friendship ends in tragedy. 

Vikram Seth Books

Beastly Tales from Here and There

Since they were first published in 1992, Vikram Seth’s animal fables in verse have garnered a cult audience. Familiar characters in a magical new form, like the tortoise who outran the hare and the monkey who outwitted the greedy crocodile—take their place beside a freshly minted gallery of brilliantly quirky, comical creatures. Of the ten fables told here, two come from India, two from China, two from Greece, two from Ukraine and two, the author tells us, directly ‘from the land of Gup’. 

The Rivered Earth

Drawing on a range of personal experience and literary influences, and mixing translation and original creation, The Rivered Earth consists of four verse libretti written by Vikram Seth for the composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Honore. The first three, entitled ‘Songs in Time of War’, ‘Shared Ground’ and ‘The Traveller’, are about places?China during the T’ang dynasty, the Salisbury house of the English poet George Herbert, and India, where the poet returned in late middle age. The fourth libretto, ‘Seven Elements’, is about the earth, water, wood, metal, fire, air and space?and about ageing and mortality.

Three Chinese Poets

Vikram Seth translates three T’ang dynasty poets in this book. Those include Wang Wei (699–761 AD), Li Bai (701–762 AD) and Du Fu (712–770 AD). They are considered to be among the greatest literary figures around the world. Responding differently to their common times, these poets bring their inner and outer worlds together in a delicate tapestry of spare beauty. 

An Equal Music: A Novel

This is a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians. Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl. Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet

After two years as a postgraduate student at Nanjing University in China, Vikram Seth hitch-hiked back to his home in New Delhi, via Tibet. From Heaven Lake is the story of his remarkable journey and his encounters with nomadic Muslims, Chinese officials, Buddhists and others.

Two Lives 

Two Lives tells the tale of a century and a cross-ethnic love affair. As the title suggests, it is the tale of two exceptional lives—those of his German Jewish great aunt Hennerle Gerda Caro and his great uncle Shanti Behari Seth.

Vikram Seth

Awards and Recognition

1983 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
1985 Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) for The Humble Administrator's Garden
1988  Sahitya Akademi Award for The Golden Gate
1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) for A Suitable Boy
1994  WH Smith Literary Award for A Suitable Boy
1999  Crossword Book Award for An Equal Music
2001  Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2001  EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) for Best Book/Novel for An Equal Music
2005  Pravasi Bharatiya Samman
2007  Padma Shri in Literature & Education

Vikram Seth

The Fight Against Discrimination

A subtlety is present in Vikram Seth’s poems. Many of his poems are not gendered. 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 has been instrumental in the fight for LGBT rights in the country. His voice, like many in the nation, 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. It was addressed 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.

Seth gave an interview to commemorate 25 years of A Suitable Boy. In that, he remarked on the 2018 judgement that decriminalised same-sex relations. He 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." 

More to Come

A Suitable Girl is an upcoming novel by Vikram Seth that is a sequel to his 1993 book, A Suitable Boy. Seth had mentioned that the book will be set in the present, rather than in 1952 when A Suitable Boy finished, and will therefore be what Seth calls a "jump sequel". The book was announced in 2009 but has yet to be completed.

An Equal Music: A Novel A Suitable Girl The Golden Gate A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth