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Book Reviews: 'An Equal Music' by Vikram Seth, One of the Great Books of the Last Decade of the 20th Century

An Air Warrior and devotee of Lord Krishna has published over 120 short stories and 15 books on fiction and 4 on military history.



The British ruled India for close to 200 years. One of the spinoffs of British rule was the English language that is spoken and understood by millions of Indians today. At a conservative estimate nearly 400-450 million Indians speak English. This is more than the combined population of the USA, UK and Canada. There is excellent literature emanating from the sub-continent but it is only now that grudgingly the English world has realized the power of English writing from India and many Indian writers have won the Pulitzer Prize and other literary awards.

A string of writers from Mulkraj Anand, Kushwant Singh, Manohar Malgonkar, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth has appeared on the scene. Out of these famous names Vikram Seth has carved a niche for himself in the field of English Literature. Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952 and now alternates between England and New Delhi. He has written a number of books and novels that have won critical acclaim. Another Indian origin writer Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has won the Nobel prize for literature.



Vikram Seth is a stand out writer. Before I write about his book "An Equal Music" it is important to realize that he has been honored by the government of India with a Padma Shri. He has also won the WH Smith Literary Award and Crossword Book Award.This award was instituted in 1998 by Indian book retailer Crossword with the intention of competing with The Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers' Prize or The Pulitzer Prize.

The novel ‘An Equal Music’ was published in 1999. This book published after the success of ’A Suitable Boy' in 1993 has been greatly appreciated by critics. One aspect of Vikram Seth’s books stands out. The writer has himself acknowledged that most of the fictional characters depicted in his books are drawn from his personal life. His mother Justice Leila Seth in her autobiography has mentioned that the character Haresh in ‘A Suitable Boy’ is based on her husband. In ‘An Equal Music’, Seth has himself hinted that the idea of the novel was inspired by his live-in partner at that time the French musician Philippe Honoré. Philippe Honoré (born 21 March 1967) is a French violinist who has been a regular recitalist in France and the United Kingdom. His live-in relationship with Vikram Seth raised eyebrows in India and conservative people in England.

The novel is set in Europe with Venice and Vienna forming a magnificent backdrop. The plot concerns Michael, a professional violinist, who loved a pianist, named Julia a decade back. However, Julia remains in his thoughts and he just cannot forget her. Seth writes a tale of romance and love as Julia re-enters the life of Michael after 10 years. The ravages of time take their toll as she once again appears in the life of Michael.

The situation has changed as Julia is married and has a child. Romance blossoms between the two and the lovers confront the truth about themselves. Seth brings out the intense love between the two as they meet in secret. There is a twist to the tale as the musical careers of the lovers is affected and there is a deep pathos as the knowledge dawns on Michael that Julia is slowly going deaf. This is the heart-rending part of the novel. The book is voluminous and runs to 383 pages.

Vikram Seth writes brilliantly and portrays the international music scene vividly. The accuracy of Seth’s descriptions of music in particular enthused musical fans. No less than Paolo Isotta a renowned music critic in Il Corriere della Sera has stated that no European writer or any novel before had been able to convey the full gamut and potential of a person who practiced music for a living.

A deviant but a great writer

Vikram Seth remains one of India’s finest writers. Seth claims he is bisexual and in 2006 he led the campaign in India which called for deletion of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which concerns homosexuality. He has openly acknowledged his preference for a male partner and never married. His parents were initially surprised but then accepted his preference.. Seth was aghast at the Supreme Court verdict but 10 years later this verdict was overturned. Many question Seth about his life but he has openly acknowledged his preference that he is a homosexual.

Seth's books have received an astronomical sum of money as advance payments for his books which is mind boggling. Readers will be surprised to learn that he was paid £250,000 for A Suitable Boy, with £500,000 for An Equal Music and £1.4 million for Two Lives. This is something hardly any English writer in America or England has matched.

Just for the record Seth was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2001.

Last word

It is a matter of regret that Seth has not written anything worthwhile for over a decade. He had announced almost 10 years back that he would write a sequel to the Suitable Boy a book A Suitable Girl. Maybe it has something to do with his breakup with Philippe Honore. What ever the reason I wonder if he has lost his creativity.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 25, 2021:

Thank you, Peggy, read him and you will like his writing, hope so.

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Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 25, 2021:

I am unfamiliar with this author. I appreciate your review of the book"An Equal Music."

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 25, 2021:

Thank you, Bill, so nice you spared time and commented.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 25, 2021:

Manatitaji, nice comment. Naipaul spent a lot of time searching for his roots in India and finally traced them to Bihar. I liked your comment about learning to make roti. Yes, the British ruled and lived like nawabs. I remember reading a small placard at the Calcutta club stating, "Indians and dogs not allowed." It is kept as a souvenir. But as Nirad Choudhry has written they left a lot of good things like the English language and when we step out of our houses, everything that we see is a contribution of the imperial Raj.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 25, 2021:

Pamela, thank you for your valued comment.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 25, 2021:

Thank you for the review, my friend. Very helpful, appreciated, and well-written.

manatita44 from london on July 25, 2021:

Excellent work my brother! I don't see Shaloo anymore. You've taken over! Exquisite review!

We claim Naipaul in the Caribbean. Indian yes, but I believe he was born in Trinidad. Quite near me. Again, the West Indian Indians contributed a lot to the black culture. We learnt making roti from them and I saw some great Indian movies in Grenada, more than 50 years ago.

Finally, Yes, we know how bad the British Raj treated you and black African slaves but it is true that English was a gift to Mother India. Om Shanti!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 25, 2021:

This is a very good review, MG. The book sounds very interesting and it is always nice to know a bit about the author.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 24, 2021:

Thank you, Vanita, Vikram Seth is a writer all Indians should be proud of.

Vanita Thakkar on July 24, 2021:

Nice review, MG Singhji - interesting and informative. I have heard about Vikram Sheth and his book titles are also known. Haven’t read them though.

Have a great day ahead.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 24, 2021:

Thank you, Isabel, for a wonderful comment. In another 2 decades India will be the hub of English writing or something close to it.

Isabel on July 24, 2021:

Writing from England I will say I am impressed. I have read this book and it made a deep impression. Wonderfully written and thanks MG, for bringing it to the notice of English writers in the UK.

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