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The Rediff Special/Tathagata Gupta in Kolkata
Meet Vikram Seth, the actor
October 19, 2005
Third Stop: Kolkata
If he weren't such a good writer, our man could well have ventured into acting.
So it seemed on Monday night at the memorable Kolkata launch of Two Lives, as the Crystal Room of the Taj Bengal hotel came alive with footfalls of the city's rich and famous. There was eagerness writ large over their faces; eagerness to bask in the august presence of a literary genius.
What they got was also a latent showman called Vikram Seth who enacted a dummy photo shoot reading session!
"I will pretend to read from the book for a while and you take your photos," said the writer. It was lights, camera and an immaculate white shirt and dark trouser clad Vikram Seth in action, much to the delight and relief of shutterbugs.
With that one masterstroke, Seth cleared the decks of all media intrusion.
Next came an enthralling reading session starring his book, which begins with his journey, from the city's Dum Dum airport in 1969, to London and to his uncle and aunt.
Call it the Kolkata chromosome of the man born in this eastern metropolis 53 years ago, or whatever else, but Seth was in his element. For nearly an hour, he held the audience in thrall, reading not just extracts but entertaining them with anecdotes too.
While Aveek Sarkar, Penguin's managing director and also the head of the Ananda Bazar Partrika group, inaugurated the evening with an introduction of Two Lives, Seth was clearly the host with the most, revealing before the audience how after his birth he was first christened Amit after Amit Ray, the famous character in Tagore's immortal classic Sesher Kabita (The Last Poem). "I was called Amit when I was born and my love for verse perhaps had a connection to it," he said.
As he veered from his book to music to his experience of learning German (Aunty Henny of Two Lives was a German who had escaped the Holocaust) and Chinese, the audience relived the experiences of the author who said "he feels like a migratory bird at the moment."
"I have to wake up at 4 am tomorrow to catch a flight," lamented Seth, who thinks the adulation, launch functions and awards pale in comparison to the real bonding forged by a reader and writer. "Writing and reading are such private activities. Besides all these functions and everything, what is important for a writer is when a reader is gripped by a book and delays his dinner to read a few more pages," he said.
As he started taking questions, one among the audience actually sketched Seth and showed it to writer in a delightful diversion as Seth exclaimed: "There is now art in this session as well."
While a long list of the city's celebrities -- including the new US Consul General in Kolkata Henry V Jardine and some of the city's top industrialists and intellectuals -- graced the session, Kolkata lived up to its reputation as a city of connoisseurs. Despite a dash of glamour, the gathering had no trappings of a Page 3 evening of cleavage and clowns.
The city's glitterati actually queued up to get their copies autographed by Seth whose book fuses biography and memoir and is about his great uncle Shanti, a dental surgeon who lost his right arm in action during WWII, and his German Jew wife Henny, a couple he was closely attached to. The book took years to grow, during which Seth dug up their past, their escape from Nazi Germany, and their struggle to begin life anew in England.
"It was a chance discovery of a trunk in the attic of my uncle's house, where that I found the letters, documents and pictures of Aunty Henny," said Seth. The book entwines a third life -- that of Vikram himself. He denied having at all fictionalised the characters. "As a biographer, you can select or analyse facts. In Two Lives, I am also a memoirist. It's also a book about writing this book."
"When I thought of writing it, I didn't know how much I would be affected by it," he added, admitting to a "sense of discomfiture" for having made his aunt's private letters public.
Going by the welcoming response to his latest book though, he doesn't seem to have done any wrong in the eyes of readers.
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