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.”
6 Responses
  1. Pradeep Nair Says:

    Read rave reviews about the book. Must read. It's been described as one of the magnificient books written.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Good review, Usha. Seth is an absolute genius. I've reread Golden Gate cpla times. David Davidar, then of Penguin India, sent his bid for publishing rights to that novel in verse to Seth; and has been his publisher ever since. Seth replied in a sonnet!

  3. the Monk Says:

    hey, nice review....should get round to reading it; I liked a suitable boy...

  4. If I can belive my friend Ahmednijad, holacaust never happened, to begin with!

  5. Hmmm...sounds like a great book. Really want to read it.

  6. Usha Says:

    Ya , Vikram Seth is a must read , not this book or that!