In 2002, I was a young trainee journalist with The Times of India, Ahmedabad. At some point in time during that year, a PR (public relations) professional gave me her copy of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
I fell in love. Immediately. Instantly. With A Suitable Boy and with Seth. I told my editor that I wanted to marry Seth.
As the years went past, my love for Seth remained steadfast, though it transformed itself from a foolish infatuation to one of deep respect and admiration. I wanted to meet him. Someday, somehow.
I would get that opportunity in 2009 when I would go to the Jaipur Literature Festival along with Susan madam, my professor of English and her daughter Nina. (My professor and I had kept in touch after I finished my graduate studies in English Literature and went on to pursue a postgraduate degree in Mass Communications. To this day, we still remain in touch – I am always welcome to their home, sometimes dropping in without even making a phone call when I am in Baroda, India.)
From the day that I arrived at the Jaipur Literature Fewtival, I wanted to see Seth – just catch a glimpse of him. I had carried along with me my copy of An Equal Music to be autographed. And as luck would have it, Susan madam and Nina would catch a glimpse of him many times but the minute I would turn around, he would have disappeared into the crowds.
It almost seemed that I was going to go back from Jaipur without meeting the man I so admired. To me it felt like going all the way to Paris and coming back without seeing the Eiffel Tower.
And so, as the second last day of the Festival dawned, I began to feel a little despondent. Then, as fate would have it, I saw Leila Seth. Leila Seth (Vikram Seth’s mother) was a highly accomplished woman herself – she was the first woman judge of Delhi High Court and was also the first woman to become the Chief Justice of a State High Court in India. She had two books to her credit as well.
Without much thought, I made a dash for her. Breathless and feeling a little sheepish, I keeled down near the chair she was seated at and said, “Mrs Seth, this must seem incredibly silly and foolish to you, but I have been looking for your son since the past few days. His writing has inspired me a lot and it was my dream to see him in flesh and blood. But I have not been able to catch a peek of him and tomorrow the festival ends. Would you be able to help me find him?”
She looked at me and said, “Of course. But you see, we come (to the festival) and go (back) separately. We have our own cars and stay in different hotels…” She glanced at the copy of An Equal Music that I was holding in my hands and asked – “Do you want this autographed?”
“Yes,” I replied back.
“This is what I will do. If you don’t find him by evening today, I shall take this copy from you. I will get it autographed for you and leave it at the query desk tomorrow. Is that fine with you? And I will tell him you are looking for him. What’s your name again?”
By this time, I was both happy and incredulous at the way things had turned out. However I needed to make sure that this was really happening.
“Really,” I asked, “Would you do that for me?”
“Yes, I would. And is An Equal Music your favourite?”
“No,” I said, “It’s A Suitable Boy. But my copy of A Suitable Boy is a borrowed one. So I thought I would rather get An Equal Music autographed because it is my own.”
“Yes, most of his readers seem to love A Suitable Boy. Why don’t you sit down with me?,” said Leila Seth. And as I did, I couldn’t help but marvel at how elegant she looked.
Cut to two hours later and I was the Durbar Hall (one of the halls at the Diggi Palace where the Jaipur Literature festival was being held) where a steady stream of people were filling in.
I was in a queue to get to the empty seats at the front when I found ahead of me, a man – not very tall, and while he did have some hair, you could make out that he was balding. It took me a few seconds to acknowledge what my subconscious already knew – the man in front of me was Seth!
I wanted to run up to him, but I couldn’t. I just stood there, motionless and transfixed. Nina who was just behind me, saw what was happening. So she quickly ran after Seth – “Mr Seth, Mr Seth, wait a minute please.”
With that, he turned around to face us.
I was speechless. Nina had to do the speaking on my behalf. She pointed to me and said, “She’s my friend, Mr Seth and she’s been looking for you since all these days. Can she have a word with you?”
He looked at me: “Yes, but why don’t we grab a seat first? The hall going to be packed in a minute. Let’s just go to the seats; the ones right up near the stage. They have the best view.”
I found my voice.
“With you? Can I come and sit with you? In the front row?”
“Yes, yes, but hurry,” and he gently held me by my elbow and suddenly we were seated in the foremost row.
For the next five minutes, my heart beat so fast that I was afraid that everyone in the hall would hear it. And so at first, I simply thrust my copy of An Equal Music at him. “Would you…?”
He took it and turned a page. I felt the colour rise to my cheeks. Because this copy was bought in 2003 – a year when I was still incredibly dreamy-eyed and foolishly romantic. I had a habit of scribbling something down on every book I would buy. On this particular book I had scribbled, “… There goes a Pantaloons top and a new leather purse. But oh, the pleasures of buying a book…”
I prayed that he wouldn’t see the page where I had written this note. He did.
“Was my book worth your sacrifice?,” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” I said, finding my voice and realising that I was behaving in a very silly manner and not at all like someone who was going to turn 30 very soon. I wasn’t a teenager; I ought to be more dignified.
As he bent down to autograph my copy, he asked me what I was called. When he returned the novel back to me, I found he had written:
“Dearest Prerna, with all good wishes for a new leather purse …. Love Vikram Seth, Jaipur Literature Festival, 2009.”
He then turned to me and said, “Do you know why you were named Prerna?” I told him the story the best I could and he really listened. Afterwards, it was my opportunity to ask him what I had always wanted to. That one question that had stayed with me after I had read and reread A Suitable Boy innumerable times.
“Mr Seth, why did Lata not marry Kabir? Why did she break his heart?” (Lata is a 19-year-old university student in A Suitable Boy and Kabir was her boyfriend.)
“I don’t know why Lata did that. She never listened to me. I didn’t even know whom she would choose in the end, I really didn’t.”
“Was it simply because Kabir was a Muslim and his mother was schizophrenic?”
“Well, the time in which the novel was set, conditions like that weren’t clearly defined or diagnosed. Remember, his mother was never diagnosed with anything. Plus there was something else to her behaviour as well; she also tore up her husband’s research papers. And yes, I think Lata’s family did have reservations about marrying her into a family in which the mother had a streak of madness or what they thought it was but it wasn’t just that particular reason.”
“Is she happy with Haresh? What happens to Kabir, Mr Seth? I have been haunted by these thoughts and until you write a sequel, so many readers like me will never be at peace. Wouldn’t you ever write a sequel?
“Maybe, Prerna. I don’t know how Lata is. I don’t know how Kabir is. You liked Kabir very much, didn’t you?”
And then the reading starts. Mr Seth sketches on a sheet of paper – really lovely sketches. This was something I had no idea of.
In a bit, Nina comes around and quickly takes a photo of me beside Mr Seth. I look like a Cheshire cat, grinning away to glory. As the reading ends and we get up, I thank him. And then as he goes away, I realise, I want another picture with him. So I run across and spot him at the parking lot.
“Mr Seth, I want a solo pic with you; as in without the crowds nearby. Would that be ok?”
He graciously agrees.
This is how, in 2009, I finally realised my dream of meeting Vikram Seth.
Of course, I would not go on to marry him – that was just my silly infatuation taking over the respect and admiration that I have for the magic that Mr Seth’s words create. My infatuation would go away, but my deep-seated admiration would remain.
In 2012, I bring home ‘A Suitable Boy’, a man that I would marry. His last name, as a luck would have it? Sheth!
Happy Valentine’s Day folks!