(Published in Speaking Volumes, The Business Standard, September 13, 2005)
Some words of yours to me suggested
How, through the fog of peace and war,
A pulse beat on, that, strained and tested,
No loss could mute, nor sorrow mar…
The initial letter of each line in the dedicatory verse to Two Lives (Viking, Rs 695) spells out ‘Shanti and Henny’. It’s an old Vikram Seth trick; it makes you smile.
In 1994, Seth finally decided to write about the life of the much-loved uncle he had stayed with as a student in England. Shanti Uncle’s wife, Henny Caro, a German Jew who had survived World War II, had died five years previously; he was 85, frail, still encumbered with grief.
Seth was in between books. His precocious travelogue, From Heaven Lake, his poems, his salute to Pushkin, Golden Gate–all these were behind him. His “Indian novel”, the one he thought might run to 200-300 pages and take two years to write, took almost seven years; A Suitable Boy ran to 1,300 pages. An Equal Music lay ahead.
Shanti was one of the early wave of Indian students abroad; his generation experienced poverty, homesickness, alienation and racism with a unique intensity. Shanti was training to be a dentist in Berlin, a calling that at first seemed prosaic to him, but that he grew to love.
As World War II drew closer, Shanti was a passive spectator—like other Berliners, uneasy about the new Chancellor but unable to guess what would follow. Shanti and Henny had already met. Mrs Caro was his landlady, and when she told her younger daughter about the lodger, Henny said: “Nimm den Schwarzen nicht’ [(Don’t take the black man.] As Seth records, “This was the beginning of a relationship that was to last five-and-a-half decades.”
Shanti joined the army; in 1944, near Cassino in Italy, he lost his right forearm to a shell. He recovered, married Henny, taught himself how to operate one-armed; the two built a life together in London. When Vikram stayed with them, he knew that Aunt Henny’s family had died in the war, but Henny never spoke of it.
Seth taped Shanti’s unremarkable but touching story in a series of interviews. Henny was dead, he could no longer ask her the questions a biographer must ask. It was only when he found Henny’s letters and papers in “a small cobweb-covered tan-coloured cabin trunk with wooden ribs and dull brass studs” in the attic that Seth knew he had the other part of Two Lives.
Two Lives is quiet, almost mundane. Except for the war that shaped them, Shanti and Henny are ordinary; he was a sharp dresser, she was attractive, he could be particular, she could be pernickety. But as their stories unfold, the initial disappointment with the lack of drama, with the necessarily muted voices of the dead, gives way to a quiet and deep involvement with the book.
It’s not the passage where Seth writes with savage anger of the death of Henny’s sister at Auschwitz that necessarily stands out, though that packs a punch. It’s the quiet spaces, the way in which he captures the immense damage that evil can inflict on people just like us, the enormous grief and resilience of the survivors. It’s the deep affection that Henny and Shanti clung to, when both had lost so much; the reticence that allowed them to live with the memories; the tragedy of Shanti’s last years, where all the love and trust shared between uncle and nephew is tested in the bitterness that only families can create.
Indians fought in both of the Great Wars, but that experience has rarely been captured in our literature. As I read about Shanti’s experiences in the war, it was like listening to family stories. So many Indian families have these stories tucked away; dusty medals in a drawer; a grandfather who was a jawan and whose son will go from his village to be a jawan, too; waterstained books from Cairo, marked with the regimental library’s seal. But those stories have, with rare exceptions, remained in the realm of the private, like so many of our narratives.
With Henny, Seth records not just the horror of the death of her relatives in the camps, but follows her story as she comes to terms with the changing lives and loyalties of her friends back in the scoured terrain of post-war Germany. By giving Shanti a voice, Seth opens a window into the brown man’s war. Two Lives can be frustrating because Seth’s own voice is so muffled. But this book grows on the reader, because of the care with which Seth has tended his memories; and in the end, it’s the very ordinariness of Henny and Shanti’s lives that touches a responsive chord in us.