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Book Review : Vikram Seth

The Rivered  Earth

Penguin/Hamish Hamilton

Vikram Seth

By Manju Kak

At first glance,  a  collection  like this leaves me with a small feeling of dread. Not yet another attempt at `cultural crossings’, I think. But then it’s Vikram Seth!  And this,  a collection of libretti, the earlier being Arion and the Dolphin (1994)  written  for the English National Opera. So I plow through,  albeit with trepidation only to be satisfied, nay drawn in, in fact compelled. For as always Seth is nimble. His language resonates with  the lyrical music he hears. He is known to circle the air with rallying cries only to dive in and pick out  that kernel of truth that  propels all true artists to seek and to create.

This slim collection, of both translated and original verse, came about  when three talented friends—a writer and two musicians– collaborated  on a project `Confluences’ for the Salisbury and Chelsea festivals, spread over a period of four years (2006-2009).  The resulting  four libretti are  indicative of a  variety of ideas, geographies, forces that suggest the beauty of our shared planet, with its title The Rivered Earth,  given by its music composer, Alan Roth.

A libretto, for the uninitiated,  is  the text used for an elaborate  musical work such as an opera, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical says Wikipedia. It also  refers  to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, or the story line of a ballet. Seth’s  pieces are accompanied by four pieces of calligraphy in Chinese, Hindi, English and Arabic, also  by him.

The first verses belong to a  beleaguered poet of the 7th century Chinese Tang dynasty era– Du Fu—translated as “ Songs in the Time of War”.  Moving to a personal note in  `Shared Ground’ Seth explores both his  relationship with the house of the English 17th  century poet,  George Herbert of Salisbury, as well as the personal one he shared with Phillipe Honore, the violinist,  while living  there. In  India, seven verses of the  Rigveda and other sources were translated as  `Traveler’ to reflect on man’s earthly journey from inception, birth, death and hereafter;  these include verses  from the Pali `Dharampada’,  from the blind poet Surdas, Tamil 7th century Shilappadikaram and 4th century Tirukurral, timeless Rahim, the Bhagwad Gita, a Gandhian bhajan and so on. The last quartet is on the 7 elements– earth,  wood, fire, metal, water, air, etc., followed by a short coda to ‘ the  hermit on ice’.

The book is a slight but dense offering, which  can be read in a couple of hours. Though Seth’s eye for translated verse is keen and some selections are extraordinarily evocative and taut, but not all  are as inspired.  The dialogues of the three protagonists are  illuminating of the curious processes of the creative, vivid and meandering course taken before  reaching fruition.


With a  Preface on each section, the work spans the contemporary concerns of our world: while man hastens to destroy the planet as efficiently as he can,  poets, artists, philosophers  are responding with a call to return to the roots of humanism, and evaluate our reason for being. It is not accidental that the Buddhist way is repeatedly acclaimed through, congresses, writings, polemics, or movements.

However the Introduction is  lengthy—growing at times tedious, and making the reader feel this is truly a book offered by a great author who is “ between books”.  He must say all he has to,  before new grass will grow, new stories will come.

But timed as it is—for the holiday—this could be  a cherished  gift for a loved one —to keep, and to find solace.