To reading heaven and back: a non-critical, whimsical piece on Vikram Seth’s travelogue


I have just finished reading Vikram Seth’s travelogue “From Heaven Lake: travels in Sinkiang and Tibet” (1983). It’s an unusual travel book. Steering clear of all Lonely Planet Guides and regular travel routes, Seth manages to sketch a picture of China, Tibet, and Nepal from a hungry (quite literally) student traveller’s perspective. He was at that time a student at the Nanjing University. Taking time and money off from the Standford University, Seth stays in China for 2 years. When the time comes for him to return home, he decides on a mega unconventional route. Abandoning all idea of taking a flight out of Xian or Chengdu (cities other than Beijing and Shanghai that we are not familiar with). He decides to take a rather long, hungry, cold rounadabout hitchhiking trip that takes him into the world’s least known areas. The time is the 80s. Seth knows Chinese so well that at one point in time during the trip he had to speak it badly with effort so that people come to his aid.

Seth has been called the “pin-up boy” of Indian Writing in English partly because of his rugged good looks and partly because of “A Suitable Boy.” But in this lesser known work, he shines through both as a writer and a humourist. Unlike other travellers, Seth concentrates on the inner journey as much as the outer.

Seth writes like a song. The flow in uninterrupted and he has amazing control over his words. Each word has been chosen in keeping with what precise emotion he wants to convey. As Arielle says, he is a classical writer, no gimmicks.

A litany of places with sing song names like Turfan, Tarim, Changau, Antioch, Yarkhand, Khotan, Urumqui, Kashgar, Kuche, Xian, Liuyuan, Dunhuang, Sichuan, Qinghai, Nanhu, Chengde, Germu, Lanzhou, Xining, Chaidam, Naqu, Anduo, Liaoning, Jokhang, Drepung, Norbulingka, Chengdu, Zhang mu, Dingri, Chamdo, Shigatse, Nilamn, Zhangmu pepper the travelogue but the writescape starts to get less exotic and more familiar by the time Seth reaches Lhasa and then Kathmandu.

Reading Seth is always a pleasure: like sipping iced tea in hot weather. It refreshed my city-weary mind. It’s all the travelling that I can do without getting bee-stung, flea-bitten, and frozen-toed not to mention altitude sickness. There is one phrase that I can’t get out of my head: “delicious calm.” It makes me taste “calm” like some specific cuisine. Salud to the delicious calm of reading Vikram Seth!

Rating: * * * * * Khallas (Deadly)

My Rating System:

* * * * * = Khallas (Deadly)
* * * * = Bindaas (Great)
* * * = Jhakaas (Good)
* * = Timepass(Okay)
* = Bakwaas (Avoid it)

12 thoughts on “To reading heaven and back: a non-critical, whimsical piece on Vikram Seth’s travelogue

  1. Accidental fame junkie,

    That’s a nice write-up on Vikram Seth’s book.

    This article aside, I have always been a bit sceptical about Indian English authors who thrive on selling Indian-mystics(wonder whether they exist at all?) to their primarily western audience. Everytime, I had earlier read a few ‘magical realism’ books, I think they belie the crux of the story with their mystic content. I felt a bit let-down when I read Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ and Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pie’. Does Vikram Seth explore ‘magical realism’ in his books ?

  2. Hi Sancho!!! First of all, thank you for the compliment! To answer your question, no, Seth is not into magic realism at all! He is a very realistic author who’s grounded in everyday life. And I’m sure you’ll like him because of that! As for me, I think – I beg to differ- that magic realism is a very different way of looking at reality. The fantastic aspect of everyday life can be portrayed only through magic realism.

  3. Accidental Fame Junkie,

    Guess, they are making a movie based on ‘Midnight’s children’. I am hoping to see “Midnight’s Children” whenever this movie hits cinemas. Maybe the movie will help my cause.

    ‘Magical realism’ article in wikipedia made-up a good reading. Wonder why folks like Salman Rushdie and other Indian magical realism writers ‘ names were left-out! Seems like it is more of Latin phenomenon.

    Going by your review will try to read this Vikram Seth book for sure 🙂

  4. Hi Sancho…. I’m glad you are gonna read this book. You know I just lend out my copy to a like-minded friend 🙂

    About Midnight’s Children, I think the movie has been in the making for a long time. Infact, I have read the screenplay written by Salman Rushdie himself!

    hey, I’m glad you are reading up on MR (Sounds like a disease rather than an art movement, nah?). Magic Realism started as a Latin American movement but now can be seen in diverse novelists like the Japanese Haruki Murakami and the American writer Audrey Niffennegger (whose work has alos been classified as sci-fi as well). And from my reading, I know that each writer approaches the magic realist angle in his own style. I mean no two writers can be said to be similar even though they use magic realism in their work. I guess it is because it is quite hard to pin down the exact definition of magic realism.

  5. In my last blogpost, I had classified the the movie ‘Life is beautiful’ encapsulates ‘MR’ in movies. I am seeing MR everywhere 😀 !

  6. hey Sancho, that’s really original of you to do that! I have seen “Life is Beautiful” and I have loved it.

  7. heyyyy Bison, thanks mate! Thanks for the thumbs up! I liked your blog too… But why on earth could I not leave a comment on your blog? Please enable that nah.

  8. I read that article. And have read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The trouble is.. I can’t put the two together. Include Life is Beautiful as well.. And now am totally comfuzed.

    Mebbe. I’ll need to read Solitude again.

    And Seth is something I am yet to explore.

    This write-up, of course, is Khallas.

  9. Heyy JM, thanks for the compliment. Magic Realism better not be read as a definition. If you have read 100 years, shouldn’t MR be clear to you? Marquez himself once tried defining Magic Realism. He said, if you say a girl is followed by a cloud of butterflies, this is realism. But if you say, a girl is followed by a cloud of yellow butterflies wherever she goes, then that is magic realim. Does this help?

  10. JM, in magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconnected because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world.

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