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TWO LIVES by Vikram Seth. Harper Collins. Hardcover, 512 pages. $27.95.
Vikram Seth is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist, non-fiction writer. His novel in verse, The Golden Gate, won high praise from Gore Vidal. The Suitable Boy, describing intricate, extended familial relationships in India, a monumental work of 1,474 pages, had critics comparing Seth to Leo Tolstoy. His last novel, An Equal Music, explored relationships delicately, lyrically.
Seth’s current work, Two Lives, traces the lives of his great uncle and great aunt, Shanti Behari Seth and Helga “Henny” Gerda Caro. Both eventually immigrated to London, where Vikram Seth first met them. Vikram Seth was sent to live with them as a 17-year-old by his parents. He “had won a scholarship” to study for his A-levels at Tonbridge School near London, and his uncle Shanti “would keep a watchful eye” on him, and report back to his parents. Vikram Seth creates a biography through interviews with his great uncle Shanti, through letters left behind by Henny, and through his own thorough research about their life and times.
We realize that Shanti Seth and Henny Caro left their countries of origin under very different circumstances. Shanti was born in Biswan, in northern India in 1908, and left for Paris, and eventually Germany to study dentistry, with his family’s blessing, in 1931. “… he went from Banaras to Karachi by train, then to Basra by boat, to Baghdad by train, across the desert to Rutba Wells and Haifa in a car escorted by British soldiers to prevent Bedouin attack …” Clearly, travel required a lot of endurance in the 1930s!
Shanti Seth eventually moved to Berlin to study dentistry, and suffered considerably. He tells Seth, “For a year or so I had a hell of a struggle, I used to eat for only twopence or threepence, and there was no possibility of getting any odd jobs, because of the terrible unemployment.” In 1933, he rented a room as a medical student in Mrs. Caro’s house, where he met Henny Caro, her daughter.
Henny Caro, who was Jewish, left Berlin after Hitler became chancellor, and the persecution of Jews was getting widespread. “In late July 1939, Henny traveled by train from Berlin to Hamburg, then by boat to Southampton and by train to London. … She came with a trunk containing a few clothes, a few books and a few mementoes of the three decades of her life in Germany.”
Shanti and Henny got married in 1951, and started a life together at No. 18, Queens Road, in London. It was there that Shanti set up practice as a dentist with one good arm, as he had lost his right arm during the Second World War. The ways in which these two immigrants created a life in London, even when Henny learned that she had lost her mother and sister in the Holocaust, is a tribute to their ability to choose courage over victimhood. We learn that Henny did not share her experiences about the Holocaust in any depth with Shanti; she was silent, as if her sorrow was too great to be expressed.
Vikram Seth defines the context that surrounded Henny during her Berlin years. “Berlin shaped the first half of the twentieth century, and epitomised the second,” writes Seth. “The imperial and National Socialist governments whose capital it was were the prime generators of the two world wars that marked the years till the end of the 1940s.” He goes on to explain the crucial role that Germany and its surrounding nations played in the theoretical and applied sciences (particularly Einstein and Heisenberg), the quasi-science of human behavior (particularly the “… Austrian Freud, the German Adler or the Swiss Jung.”) Vikram Seth argues that this great age of discovery led to nationalism and arrogance: “Many Germans believed that they, by virtue of what they perceived as their superior racial and cultural characteristics, had been chosen by the hand of history or fate or God.”
Passages of sociopolitical analyses such as this give us pause, and take away from Vikram Seth’s more lyrical recollections of Shanti and Henny. If Henny’s friends had been interviewed, perhaps, to reflect on German thinking during the 20th century, their words could have been folded into the music that Vikram Seth creates in the earlier part of the book through interviews and letters.
And while there are occasional pauses such as these where we do not hear the symphony quite as clearly, the tempo picks up soon enough. A third life emerges through the examination of these two lives and their eventual deaths: Vikram Seth’s own process of coping with life and death is revealed in his unique way: “I keep up a conversation of sorts with some of my dead friends. But often there is no response, and the result is an empty sorrow. I keep at it, though, so that they should not be forgotten, and—more importantly—that I should not be left completely without them.” The muse is back with him, in the process of creating yet another genre: biography, history, and personal reflection.
Towards the end of this unusual memoir, we realize how deeply our author connects with humanity as a whole: “May we see that we could have been born as each other. May we, in short, believe in humane logic and perhaps, in due course, in love.” The meditative voice of recollection is picked up again, and we smile as Vikram Seth’s shlokas pour out without restraint.
Jyotsna Sanzgiri grew up in Bombay, and now lives and works in San Francisco. Her book reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle andIndia Currents.