Why Indian author Vikram Seth is angry

Vikram Seth on India Today magazine cover Image copyright courtesy: india today

Vikram Seth is an angry man.

The celebrated novelist, who is writing a sequel to his epic bestseller A Suitable Boy, is incensed with the recent decision of India's top court to uphold a law which criminalises gay sex - a ruling seen as a major blow to gay rights.

So much so that the usually calm and dapper writer has posed - unshaved, dishevelled and looking distinctly angry - on the cover of India Today magazine holding a plastic chalkboard speaking 'Not A Criminal' to promote his moving essay in the magazine on gay rights.

No wonder the powerful cover has become a talking point - one doesn't remember any Indian writer doing such a thing ever in the past.

Mr Seth, who took a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, was once described by The New York Times as a person with a "polite wit". I found that wit intact when I spoke to him this morning on the cover that is making waves.

Why are you so angry?

I am appalled by the Supreme Court judgement [criminalising gay sex]. The judgement is intellectually shallow and ethically hollow.

It is slipshod in its reasoning and pusillanimous with regard to defending fundamental rights. It was squarely in the province of the Supreme Court to decide the matter, but this normally activist court has kicked the football onto the pitch of an illiberal parliament.

The constitution protects the liberties and rights of Indian citizens. It is not for the judges to confer rights or take them away.

It takes a fair amount to get me incensed. And a judgement which takes away the liberties of at least 50 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in India is scandalous, its inhumane - and if you wish, you can remove the e at the end of that word.

Yet the way you have expressed your protest - posing on the cover of a magazine - is quite unprecedented.

There's nothing heroic in doing what I have done.

There are [gay] people who live lives of quiet desperation in India's towns and villages. They are bullied by their families and relatives.

They need people to voice their dismay and disappointments, people who present themselves as role models. People who, however reticent or reserved they are normally, can present themselves as role models.

There are several prominent India businessmen [who are gay] - who would be wonderful role models. That they don't come out is a sad dereliction of their responsibility to be sympathetic to those who are like them but much more powerless, lonely and isolated.

Can you imagine the difference it would make if four or five widely admired people from different walks of life were to stand up and say: 'This is no big deal or I am bisexual'?

People who have come out in the freedom of the last four years since the high court judgement can't be simply pushed back into darkness of the closet.

But I am talking not of them in this respect, but of those people, full of self doubt or with bullying families who desperately need people to point to and say: 'They are like me too'.

So how did this cover happen?

Photographer Rohit Chawla came up with the idea.

He shot over two sessions in the morning and evening at my residence. There is one set of pictures where I am clean shaven, by the way.

The night before the shoot had been busy and I had gone to bed late. So when Rohit arrived in the morning and found me in the state I was in, he said don't shave.

He came with two assistants, lighting equipment. [But it] was pretty relaxed actually, we had a glass of rum. And then he said he would come in the evening and do another set of pictures - the clean shaven ones!

Rohit very much wanted this picture. He was generous enough to leave the final choice to me. I was rather scared of my parents' opinion that I looked like an unshaven goonda (thug) [in the picture].

In fact I am now shaving as we speak, so that I can redeem myself at lunch.

I did finally agree to Rohit's choice because he said it would help get attention for the piece inside the magazine which I have written and, therefore, help the cause in general.

You look rather angry in the picture. Quite unlike you.

My expression came pretty easy. I had just read some parts of the illogical judgement. That's where my furrowed eyebrows come from. I hadn't shaved anyway. And I had an imaginative photographer.

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