‘Two Lives’ by Vikram Seth

Upon my recent visit to the local library, I borrowed for the first time here, when I surprisingly had the mood to read one, a novel of a famous contemporary Indian writer, Vikram Seth. Vikram is better known for his novel, ‘A Suitable Boy’, which I am yet to read. I did not have a preconceived notion of how his books would be. Certainly, I had some reservations about reading contemporary Indian authors, what with the experience of having gone through the negativity and swearing of ‘White Tiger’. But I found this memoir/biography by Vikram very much engaging, sensible, sensitive and filled with those little details of real-life people which make them who they are. I felt most connected with Vikram’s ideas and interpretations of various events and people, throughout the book, which brought to light, again and again, the grey shades that exist, in each one of us. The two lives connoted by the title are those of Vikram’s grand-uncle, Shanti Behari Seth and his wife, Henny Seth Caro.

The story flows beautifully, starting with a short account of Vikram’s own early life, a part of which he spent with the two main characters in London at their home. In the last few pages of the book, Vikram adds some details about the thought process that went into the structuring of the book and the starting point for the final version of the book seems the most natural one. Vikram’s description of his Shanti Uncle and Henny Aunty take us into their lives. I can very well imagine how a typical day of Shanti and Henny would be: Shanti, a dentist, working in his surgery during the day, Henny doing the household chores with such perfection and efficiency and punctuality, and their evenings well-spent entertaining friends with bridge parties or simply having a quiet dinner together. Vikram, welcomed into this home, soon becomes one of their ‘chosen relations’ and continues to be so until their deaths.

Once Vikram decides to write this book after Henny’s demise, we are led into Shanti’s life starting from his childhood till the time before his marriage to Henny, through a series of interviews of Shanti by Vikram. Having done a couple of years back what Shanti does at about the same age in his life, i.e. travelling to an European country from India to study, I could relate very much to what Shanti goes through in his first few days in Germany. Shanti seemed to have accepted and comfortably settled into the German way of life. Living in a German Jewish house (that of Henny), amalgamating into their circle of friends and learning to speak and write German (he manages to write his doctoral dissertation, with the help of Henny, in German), Shanti, somewhere along the way seems to lose his Indian identity. Infact, Shanti, who was in some sense, looking for independence (this sense of being ‘independent’ that people talk about has always eluded me, given the fact that we are social animals and living in this world, we can’t but help being dependent on other people in some way or the other), embraced everything that he was exposed to, in his few years in Germany. This was the time indeed, that was going to mould the way he would think and live for the rest of his life.

Henny’s early life is mostly revealed only through correspondence between her and her friends, later in life, when she has lost her mother and sister and her home, to war. Henny seems to have been a sincere worker, who does like to have fun when she is out with friends and was deeply loved (or so it seems) by her fiance Hans.

The second world war, the events leading to the war and its aftermath form the most important parts of the book, which truly bring out the way Henny thinks and idealises (through her letters), how she comes to terms with the fate of her mother and sister and how Shanti too is affected (directly) by the war and ends up losing his arm. The narration goes deeper than the two lives in concern and paints a picture of different shades of terror, helplessness, pity, suffering, guilt, loyalty and power that Germany and its current and former citizens collectively go through. That one man’s wills can be exercised so strongly, supported by so many people, however unreasonable, insane and murderous those wills may be, shows in fact that the ‘grey’ shades in us, when brought together in unison could become black and ugly and ultimately make us utterly inhuman. I remember reading an article sometime ago about an experiment a teacher conducted at school about human behavioural patterns and how, in a way, everybody who aided Hitler in realising his vision could indeed be blind to the sufferings of others. Some aspects of the formation of Israel and the unrest in the Middle East and the link with the second world war is also brought about by Vikram. These sections of the book impacted me the most. When Vikram starts describing the plight of Henny’s mother and sister in the concentration camps, I wikied about these places a little more and it was really heart-wrenching. When I think of concentration camps, I always get reminded of the picture in my 8th standard History book of a couple of survivors from the concentration camp, who appear to be nothing more than skeletons. When I started reading more and more about Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, I felt totally repulsive about the Nazis. The author, on a visit to Jerusalem, uncovers some important documents (which somehow survived the war) which lists details of Henny’s sister and mother and where they spent their final days (hours?). The author goes through a phase of feeling extreme hatred towards everything German, which is but natural when one starts digging deeper into the Nazi attrocities.

Once Henny and Shanti’s lives are restored to some normalcy (which here would refer to not having to worry about what is going to happen to them and their kin in Germany and elsewhere and carrying on with the remaining pieces of their lives after having ‘lived’ through the war), they continue to be friends for a long time before they get engaged and again, it is a couple of years before they get married. It is never apparent whether Henny really likes Shanti as anything more than a friend. The fact that they come together and get married not as a result of very passionate love but by mutual understanding, concern and support and do lead a fulfilling married life is explored by the author beautifully from various aspects. Both of them were well into their forties when they get married, which greatly reduced the possibilities of having children. The void in their lives created by the lack of children is partially reduced when Vikram lives with them for a while and continues to visit and correspond with them throughout the remainder of their lives.

The last days of Henny (she dies first) and Shanti continue to be a reflection of their married life till then, even though Shanti has retired (owing to his poor health) and their daily routines have changed, allowing them much more time to spend with each other. Henny spends her last few days of critical illness still with the same vigour and determination she had throughout her life, even though her body is very fragile by then. After her death, Shanti’s life becomes very miserable. Combined with his fragile heart condition and delusions of old age, his loneliness becomes very much magnified. Vikram tries to be of assistance and visits Shanti often. In the aftermath of Shanti’s death, when the contents of the will are revealed, Vikram is shocked by the fact that Shanti has left nothing to his family. This, it seems to Vikram, is totally out of line with Shanti’s character, who always holds family in great importance, or so he says. Even though Shanti corresponds with his family, he never visited India after his wedding. Shanti and Henny seemed to have been comfortable only in their own space they created for themselves. A moving account of the lives of these two people brought together by circumstances beyond their control, by grief, by friendship, by mutual concern – that is what The Two Lives is all about.

P.S. I wrote this piece sometime around July/August last year. I read this book after a long spell during which I did not read any books and from then on, I have started reading books fairly regularly. This space will hopefully see more of my thoughts on the books I have read recently.

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