Just finished reading “Two lives” by Vikram Seth. As with all books that deal with that pain filled period in recent history – the Nazi regime and the holocaust- it has taken me two days to pull myself together and talk. No,the book is not all about the holocaust – well of course, with all the press publicity, even those who haven’t read it know what the book is about. It is part memoir and part biography dealing with the lives of Seth’s grand uncle Shanthi and his wife Henny, a German Jew who escaped to England but whose sister and mother died in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt .

Writing a biography limits a writer from using all the skills in a writer's repertoire but Seth emplys his skills in this book in piecing together the biographic material in an interesting and gripping fashion, except for the last part when it gets a bit tiresome. But that cannot be helped as he has to report that phase truly for us to know the man about whom he writes. Considering that he has had to recreate his aunt’s side of the story entirely from her correspondence with her circle of friends who remained in Post war Germany, there could have been many tedious repetitions and chaotic movements forward and backward. But Seth is a master story teller and the story unfolds without rough rides or tangles. It is almost like the story was waiting to be written – otherwise how can you account for his aunt keeping carbon copies of her letters to her friends during this entire period?

The book is about two people most unlikely to be united in a relationship. An Indian student whose fate took him at the age of 17 to Berlin to study dentistry and a German Jew who was apprehensive of him and told her mom not to take him in as a boarder - "Nimm den Schwarzen nicht [(Don't take the black man].' But as Fate would have it, he would be her companion for the rest of her life. Theirs was a not a “passionate romance but it was a deep and abiding concern.” A man who lost his right hand while serving in the medical corps in the war but with sheer persistence built up a successful dental practice. And a woman who had lost all her relations during the war. “Both Shanthi and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home.” “Beset by life, isolated in the world, in each other they found a strong and sheltering harbour”. And in the rest of the book, Seth masterfully unfolds how they lived out their “fractured lives” for five decades together in absolute compatibility in spite of all the differences and inner scars. There is no need for a relationship to be perfect for people to be happy. “What is perfect? In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference it is a cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.”

Occasionally Seth treats us to his prose like this when he reflects on the historical facts or throws in an extra perspective on the course of events. Otherwise he stays in the background as the invisible third braid letting the events speak for themselves. Particularly poignant is his narration of what Henny’s sister Lola would have been through at the Auschwitz on the day of being gassed. He just states the information derived from sources recorded elsewhere by survivors without excessively dramatising any of it but the final effect of it all leaves you speechless and with tremendous pain at the extent of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Reading them in the history of the period touches you lesser than when you read about the actual details of the incidents happening to ordinary people.The horror gets multiplied manifold. But you also see how shared suffering unites people and brings out the best in human nature in the way some of the non Jewish friends try to help Henny’s sister during the Nazi reign of terror ; in the way Shanthi and Henny send gifts of food and other basic clothing items to their German friends suffering from complete scarcity of these in post- war Germany, even though they themselves were not very wealthy and things were rationed in England too. Perhaps it is all this goodness and kindness of the ordinary people that has kept the world going in spite of the many tragedies perpetrated by politicians and militia. Every person who has lived through these periods in history deserves to be looked upon as a hero, their ordinary lives as an epic saga.

Being a memoir, it allows one a glimpse of Seth's real personality - his attachment to his family, the values he looks up to in people etc. Particularly touching is the moment when he talks about his anger against anything German, including the language, after his research into the details of the holocaust. You feel closer to the author after the book.

“Two Lives” is not one of those books that comes to an end at the last page. It stays with you for a while as a feeling and leaves you with a lot of thoughts that need pondering. Two days after closing the book, his last few words are still ringing in my ears:
“ the context of an evil century past and a still more dangerous one to come. May we not be as foolish as we are almost bound to be. If we cannot eschew hatred, at least we can eschew group hatred. May we see that we could have been born as each other. May we, in short, believe in human logic and perhaps, in due course, in love.”
He stood near the bed and took the frail hand in his. She opened her eyes and on seeing him there was a glimmer of light in those dull eyes and her lips lengthened into a smile. She asked him to sit by her side and gently pressed his fingers while asking him if he was happy in the new job.

Dear old Nani, always concerned about the happiness of others. His eyes brimmed with tears as he told her not to exert herself. The nurse came in to check the IV fluid.
He sank into a chair near the bed and his thoughts went back to the times when Nani was young and strong.
Nani who was his refuge whenever his parents punished him for his childhood pranks.
Nani who would kiss his bruises and make the pain go away.
Nani who told him stories from mythology.
Nani who undertook a severe fast when he was admitted to the hospital with a severe viral attack.
Nani who would save up on her pension to buy him books for his birthday.
Nani who wrote to him every week when he was in the hostel and homesick.
Nani who only knew how to give and to love and to help.

He heard footsteps and looked up. It was his uncle and aunt who held a cup of coffee for him.
“It costs us about 10,000 every month, the two nurses and the medications,” the uncle said..
This sounded bizarre to him. “It is your mother,dammit.” he wanted to scream.
His wife went one step further and said how she could not go to stay with her daughter as she was saddled with Nani.

He wanted to take them out so Nani would be spared of hearing these but it was too late. He could see the tears in her eyes. She had heard it all. She knew she was only a burden for them. But what could she do?
He wished he could take her to his house and take care of her as she had done to him in his childhood. But he worked 2000 km away and Nani could not be transported. He knew she had a very little of life left in her. He only wished people would be patient and be kind to her in her last days.
“It won’t be for long”, he told his mami.
“Even Dr Sharma said the same thing 6 months ago.” There was frustration in mami’s voice. And he hoped for a word of reproach from his uncle but there was only a passive nod in agreement..

He wondered if there was anything sacred for human beings anymore in this age of materialism. Even relationships are valued only as long as they are convenient and useful? In his profession he had seen poor mothers beg him to save the life of their children. He had been taught that if he could prolong the life of a person by a day it was still worth all the effort needed. But here he was not able to sit and take this anymore.

He told them to leave the room to allow her to rest. He sat next to her on the bed and stroked her hands and her cheeks and wiped her tears. He kissed her on the forehead and whispered into her ears, “I love you Nanima. You were the best part of my life.” She asked him to bend and kissed his forehead and feebly whispered ,”And you are of mine beta. I am proud of you.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks as he sat holding her hand and stroking her head as she fell asleep.

Then Dr. Amit Kumar got up, opened his emergency kit, found what he needed and added it in the IV fluid. He touched her feet and told her “Nanima, I wish I could kiss you and make the pain go away but this is all I can do to ease your pain.”
He came out and quickly took leave of his uncle and aunt, went down and sat sobbing in his car.

He knew they would call for him soon.
There is a beautiful poem from the sangam period in Tamil literature ( about 1 to 3rd century a.d) translated by A.K Ramanujam which goes like this:

"What she said:
dont they really have
in the land where he has gone
such things
as house sparrows

dense feathered, the colour of fading lilies,
pecking at grain drying on yards
playing with the scatter of the fine dust
of the street's manure
and living with their nestlings
in the angles of the penthouse

and miserable evenings,
and loneliness?"

The image is of a young girl perhaps in her late teens whose husband has left for distant shores to earn wealth looking at the house sparrows symbolising home and togetherness and yearning for companionship. "miserable evenings - and loneliness?"
Why is loneliness most miserable in the evenings?

Solitude is peacefulness.It is a means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings -it is satisfying and rejuvenating as you can even draw sustenance from it. It replenishes you after having devoted so much of energy for looking after the needs of others. Now is the time to set aside the cooking, cleaning etc and put one's feet up with a nice book, or whatever other hobby.
But as the afternoon grows into evening, and you watch school children bursting out like butterfiles from the giant yellow cocoons, and a little later adults returning from work - dragging their weary feet but smiling at the thought or sight of home.Birds suddenly become active in their hitherto lazy perches on trees, quickly take in one last breastful of air, flap their wings as a warm up and then they rise together like school children aroused by a whistle and quickly hop into empty slots on their flight patterns for their journey home;Cows and sheep cast a final glance about for any crisp grass for a quick evening snack and then amble back home with a contented look. Even the Sun is ready to go home.
It is then that the solitude grows heavier into one of loneliness. Evening is a time when you want the house to be filled again with family members and friends - doors are left open so people may walk in,kitchen warms up with the heat of fire and the smell of fresh food. A time for incessant chatter about the happenings of the day, laughter and play, happy meals together.It is the time that fills one's heart with gratitude for yet another day of joy and togetherness, sharing and caring.

Loneliness is a cruel thing to endure in the evening of the day; and also in the evening of one's life.