Vikram Seth is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all of his novels, even the one written in verse (and am looking forward to A Suitable Girl, coming out in 2016, ya-hey!) I’ve read his biography of his great-aunt and -uncle, Two Lives, and I’ve read some (not enough) of his poetry, including his translation of Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, Three Chinese Poets. From Heaven Lake is still a different genre, and one of my favorites: a travelogue. In 1981, Seth was a 29-year-old student at Nanjing University. China was just on the cusp of relaxing some of its rules towards foreign visitors, but at that point Seth still needed police permission for travel even to major cities, let alone his real and more sensitive goal: Lhasa, in Tibet.
Seth is originally traveling with a conducted tour of students like himself, but he tires of it quickly. “I do not think that I will be able to tolerate the limitations of group travel much longer,” he says. “I have already committed myself at Turfan, but at Urumqi I will simply refuse to be shown the sights. Seeing fewer monuments will not distress me.”
Instead, Seth makes an effort to get the coveted Tibet exit stamp in his travel visa, so he can make a circuitous route through China, Tibet, and Nepal and back to his home in India overland. The way he succeeds in getting that exit stamp (singing Hindi movie songs in the public square, to the total delight of the people of Turfan) is as unique, as charming, as interesting, and as adventurous as the rest of this book.
Once Seth leaves his group, his impatience disappears. He finds everything interesting, from the (literally) breathtaking landscape in the high mountains, to the people who help him, to the customs surrounding hitchhiking, to the folk songs and nursery rhymes he’s never heard in other languages. (At this point, he relates a long dream he had, about a 26-week intensive program of study for beginners in Chinese, where each week would represent a year in a Chinese person’s life. So the first week, students would be wheeled around in prams, babbling and gurgling, and eventually be taught to use chopsticks and recite to Party dignitaries. I howled.)
When the truck he’s riding with is repeatedly stuck owing to flooding, Seth doesn’t complain, even though he’s wet and freezing and suffering from altitude sickness. Instead, he talks with the good-natured driver, Sui, and looks for more information about his surroundings. He eats everything he’s offered; he gives and accepts small gifts like cigarettes and bread; he remarks over and over again on the basic kindness he sees everywhere.
Eventually, Seth reaches his destination, Lhasa, and from there back to his home in New Delhi. Along the way, Chinese officials examine his paperwork (an Indian national… who is a Stanford exchange student… from Nanjing University…?) Some are officious, and some are so kind that they bring tears to Seth’s eyes. In this travelogue, we hear his thoughts on economics, politics, and religion — but most of all, we hear about the poetry of the world: beauty, history, food, the wealth of being a human being. The legacy of policy is people.
This memoir is thirty years old, but it feels as fresh as the day it was written. I couldn’t recommend it more highly, and if you’ve never read anything by Vikram Seth, this is a lovely place to start. He is a person delighted with the work of being a person.