I'm a writer, not a fighter

Vikram Seth protests that the idea of a feud with Salman Rushdie is ridiculous. But after the superlatives which greeted his doorstopper- blockbuster, A Suitable Boy, many are eager to make his new novel another headline-grabbing sensation
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I'm on the top of the 94 London bus with Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, reliving whole sections of his new novel An Equal Music, an elegant tale of string quartets, Rochdale and lost love. He's pointing out places and things as we coast the northern border of Hyde Park. "There's the statue of the bear, can you see it?" he says excitedly, gesturing at the drinking fountain near the water gardens of the park. I find myself nodding but I'm a little concerned. A key section of the narrative takes place on this very bus route. When we reach Selfridges, how will he respond? Will he glimpse his soul-mate, as the main character does, whizzing past on the 94 going in the other direction?

Surprising - I suppose - to find an author usually pigeonholed as "exotic" writing a novel partly set in Rochdale; you suspect a certain bloody-mindedness on his part, a desire to confound expectations, especially noticeable now that he's going up against Salman Rushdie's latest in a battle of the subcontinental titans.

But let's go back a bit, to 1993, when Vikram Seth woke one morning to find himself famous. Before A Suitable Boy he'd been little more than an impecunious poet with two economics degrees from Oxford and Stamford in his knapsack. A perennial student, he'd spent two years in deepest China researching "the economic demography of seven villages" before returning to Stamford to chuck in the PhD he was writing. He'd then eccentrically written a verse novel about San Francisco, The Golden Gate, which had a genuine cult following, but otherwise notched up pretty indifferent sales.

The follow-up was that true rarity: a literary best-seller. A Suitable Boy became a phenomenon, a word-of-mouth hit, from the moment its vast, 1,349-page bulk slammed on to creaking bookshop tables. Many critics derided its simple, old-fashioned family drama, but its omission from the Booker shortlist drew some of the most vituperative exchanges in the prize's history. The public loved it to death, this doorstopping epic of post-colonial Indian provincial life without parallel in modern times. People were overwhelmed by its size, if nothing else - it's the longest novel ever published. It's gone on to sell three-quarters of a million copies.

Six years on and he has a new novel in the shops, a slim chamber-work in comparison to the complex orchestrations of A Suitable Boy. It's basically a first-person narrative about a Bayswater violin-player, Michael Holmes, who is having an early mid-life crisis, precipitated by a girlfriend whom he abandoned in the past and who has mysteriously reappeared.

Seth hadn't been bothered by the fact that Salman Rushdie has a "rival" novel out in the same week until journalists kept needling him about it. Now he's fretting over comparisons. Not since the glory days of the Blur/Oasis stand-off have there been such facings-down, such vociferous camps, such lines in the sand. U2's Bono, always oddly vulnerable to the schmoozing of authors, has ensured that the rock'n'roll dimension has legs by setting a song lyric from Rushdie's novel for the latest U2 album. While Rushdie goes "Achtung Balti" and gets jiggy, Bollywood-style, Vikram Seth by contrast maintains a shocked and dignified silence.

"One article says we're both polite about each other, and that's a dead giveaway," says Seth.

Now we're in a hotel room, just before that 94 bus ride. He's positioned himself on an armchair, with his legs tucked up beneath him, after casting about for additional cushions with the distracted, raised-chin air of an Ottoman pasha. "It's ridiculous," he continues, genuinely pained by what he calls "lazy editors" stoking up an imaginary feud. "We're characterised as Tweedledee this and Tweedledum that, when he's Tweedledum and I'm the Monstrous Crow." He says this with a tinkling, musical laugh. "We don't resemble each other at all."

However, there's nothing remotely monstrous about 47-year-old Seth. People always mention how small he is, and what nice brown eyes he has, and the way everything about his manner seems rather refined. You could never imagine him capable of an ugly word; you would feel disgusting even to mention an ugly thing in his presence. It would be the action of a cad and a bounder to press him on the question of his private life (not that there's a hint of ugliness there - on the contrary, he lives with his doting parents in Delhi), which anyway he refuses to talk about.

He tends to work in bed on a lap-top "with the duvet a plain colour so as not to distract me," he observes with further, pasha-like particularity. Writing A Suitable Boy in longhand resulted in his hand seizing up in a claw shape. He panicked and doctors were called; he now uses a keyboard rather than a fountain pen. Perhaps his claw was also exacerbated by his alarming habit of tearing books to pieces so that he can read them on the move; Shakespeare is shredded so he can read the Bard "like a newspaper".

I can't help noticing that he has something scrawled on the palm of his hand, and I ask what it is. It's not that Madonna Hindi thing, is it? Those Sanskrit signs Madge has taken to drawing on her hands? Are we back on Salman Rushdie again? Seth peers owlishly at his smudged palm. "No, no," he announces at last. "Verdi, I think, but why Verdi? Oh, it's Vicks, because I have a blocked nose".

Verdi is no doubt too florid for his musical tastes, which tend towards the simple expression of deep emotion. He once trained to play the Indian flute, but "I'm not even a medium-level amateur," he tells me. While trying to "distract" himself from writing, he learnt to sing Schubert lieder, but does not think to let me hear his voice until, by complete chance, I mention the vivacious 1963 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy's light-as-a-feather confection (with Catherine Deneuve in her first major role, as a singing shop girl). With its amazing splashes of colour and its slightly kitschy operetta style, the film would, you might have thought, be a million miles away from the sensibility that doggedly fashioned A Suitable Boy.

But Seth is electrified by the merest mention of the film. It's absolutely his movie du jour. He immediately and spontaneously starts singing snatches of it with a kind of helpless pleasure. "Maman est morte en automne," he trills in a fine baritone, throwing out his hands in ecstasy. It turns out that he recently learnt French, in Kensington, at the French Institute, and used Tintin and Les Parapluies to train himself. Having taped the film off late-night TV, Seth sat down "with my hand on the pause button and a handkerchief" and allowed himself to weep his way through a weepy classic. Of course, there is that scene where the two lovers, many years on, meet briefly and by accident. It's a bit like the one in his new novel.

Another exertion he's fond of, and which pops up in the novel, is swimming in the Serpentine. In the winter. Hang on, isn't that a bit cold? "Yes, I'm part of the club allowed to swim there." They have to sign health waivers with the local council before dipping a toe in those goose-turded waters. "I tend to go on a Saturday and we do handicap races and swim around the buoy," he tells me. He pronounces buoy "boo-wee", like an American. Why does he do that? He flushes a little. "After Suitable Boy, it's difficult to say the word," he says, a little mysteriously.

He's used to the fame now, but even with the money ("I made a pot of money"), years of penny-pinching has left its mark. He finds it difficult to encompass the extravagance of - say - taking a taxi anywhere. And so this is how it is when the interview is over, and we end up on the 94 bus together on the top deck, and a magical mystery tour of An Equal Music begins. We glimpse the Round Pond between the trees, the bear fountain, and we are nearly at the doors of Selfridges and the "lapis-robed statue" that looks down as our hero, Michael, sees a fugitive face, a great lost love from 10 years earlier in another 94 bus.

But we pass the angel of Selfridges in silence, and at length Seth gets off the bus at Bond Street.

"What is your favourite Tintin book?" he has been badgering me. "When I was 10 I read The Secret of the Unicorn," he confesses. "But it ended before the treasure was found, and I spent all year in a state of tension. Then I read the conclusion of the story in Red Rackham's Treasure when I was 11, and I will never forget that feeling, that long, terrible period of unknowing, followed by resolution."

Like all Seth's slightly fey anecdotes, it has an undertow of hardbitten worldliness. Don't be deceived. As I see him dart through the complacent crowds of Oxford Street, I come to the inescapable conclusion that he is no fop, no fool, and no tame exotic either. No mere sprite of the literary world could have managed the sheer heft of A Suitable Boy, however many musicals make him cry. And that will still be true long after the Rushdie stand-off has been forgotten, and the fickle rock'n'roll circus has moved on.

Deborah Ross will be back next week