The Indian Dentist and the Holocaust Survivor: Vikram Seth's "Two Lives"

A biography creates a record of a life, but it must also attempt to assemble many divergent strands and seemingly incoherent fragments of that life into a semblance of a story for a reader. It's hard to do even half-comprehensively with any one life -- it requires, for one thing, intimate access to the person him or herself, as well as a pretty good paper trail. Vikram Seth, in Two Lives, had such access to not one but two people, who were extraordinary individually but even more so as a couple. It's the story of Shanti Behari Seth, the author's great uncle, and Hennerle Caro (Henny), a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis.

The two of them met during the early 1930s, when Shanti was in Berlin to do a doctorate in dentistry, and he rented a room in the Caros' house. In 1937 and 1939, respectively, they left Germany and settled in London. When the war broke out, Shanti enlisted, and served as a dentist for the troops in the African campaign, and later in Italy (where he lost an arm at Monte Cassino). Henny, for her part, lost her nuclear family at Auschwitz: unlike her, they were unable to get out in time. Henny and Shanti became a couple, and eventually married. When Vikram Seth went to England initially in 1969, he knew very little about his great uncle and his foreign wife. But as he stayed with them and then continued to visit over the course of more than twenty years, he became became quite close to them. They even helped him learn German, initially to pass the entry requirements for Oxford, but the knowledge of the language would become indispensible for the project that became Two Lives.

Two Lives is more a book of details than of ideas, though because the sense of the story is so strong it always avoids the trap of familial self-indulgence or nostalgia. Seth did a series of very long interviews with Shanti in the mid-1990s, after Henny died. He also had access to hundreds of letters, including letters exchanged between Shanti and Henny, Shanti and the Seth family back in India, as well as between Henny and her family and friends in Germany. There are, of course, some exceptional synthetic passages, as well as some interesting comments by Seth on his method, both in this book and in earlier books like A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music. One such passage gives a sort of blueprint for Seth's earlier books, but also in a sense the current one. While taking a year off from his graduate studies in California to work on his Big Indian Novel (written in Delhi), Vikram Seth realized he was opening a very big can of worms:

However I soon realized that the novel -- which had opened with a grand wedding -- now had so many characters whom I was interested in that I needed to take off at least a year simply to understand the varied worlds of law, politics, administration, medicine, farming, manufacture, commerce, education, music, religion, and so on, that these characters came from or worked in. What exactly did one do if one visited a courtesan in 1951, and how would I find someone to tell me? How did the credit market for small shoemakers in Agra work, and what might be the effect of a credit squeeze on people who had little to fall back on? What was it like to be a brown sahib in a white managing agency in Calcutta in the fifties? Were there girls at St Stephen's College in the late forties?

Instead of being constrained by this research, I found that it inspired me with new ideas. It also gave me the confidence to imagine myself into the insubstantial beings I had begun with, to give them shape and personality and vividness -- at least enough to make me wish to follow their lives. I wanted, of course, to tell a good story, but I also wanted to get things right. No matter how well a novel is received by readers or critics in general, if it does not ring true with those people who know from the inside the world it describes, it is in the final analysis an artistic failure.

This is a self-reflective comment on the writing of A Suitable Boy, but I think it is also a persuasive statement on the value of embracing complexity and detail over fixed ideology or given narrative formulas. Seth's openness to explore all these different paths and channels in his fictional (and nonfictional) characters' lives allows him to be true to the subject -- as true as it is possible to be in a novel. It also enables the writer to break out of predictable postcolonial narrative conventions. The novel becomes a space for research, discovery, and documentation (indeed, rather like a biography), rather than simply a collection of commonplace observations and fancy verbal effects.

I wish we had better archives and more non-ideological archival research. For many South Asians involved in the tumult of the twentieth century, such paper trails are hard to come by. Of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who served in the Second World War, how many left behind letters documenting their experiences, their everyday thoughts, or their thoughts about their loved ones? Not many, unfortunately. From the Partition of 1947, too, the best non-official documentary evidence has tended to come from personal interviews conducted by people like Urvashi Butalia (The Other Side of Silence). Compared to the amount of documentation associated with individual experiences of the Holocaust in Europe, the Partition archive, as far as I know, is quite small.

Another issue that comes out of Two Lives is a fresh and surprising view of an early bicultural/biracial relationship. A few points of tension between Shanti Seth and Henny Caro on cultural matters are recorded in Two Lives (she didn't have much interest in visiting India, for instance), but they actually weren't especially significant in the relationship. Henny and Shanti were bound by stronger forces than ethnicity -- their shared memory of a pre-war social milieu in Germany that was utterly and irreparably destroyed, as well as a deep need for support and understanding that helped them cope with the damage the war did to them both: Henny, with the loss of her family under unthinkable circumstances, and Shanti, with the loss of his right arm, which might have been catastrophic for a right-handed practicing dentist (he managed, almost miraculously, to overcome it). The clichés about white women and English-educated Indian men simply don't apply in any way whatsoever to the life these two individuals shared.

I wanted to share one more memorable quote before closing. Here, Seth is defining the relationship between Henny and Shanti as an attempt at reconstituting "home":

Shaken about the globe, we live out our fractured lives. Enticed or fleeing we re-form ourselves, taking on partially the coloration of our new backgrounds. Even our tongues are alienated and rejoined -- a multiplicity that creates richness and confusion. Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home.

In Shanti's case, the exile was of his making; not so with Henny, though it could in some strict sense be said that she chose not to return when, once again, it became safe to do so. Increasingly from adolescence onwards she would have sensed that she was set apart from her Christian friends -- that her position was precarious, even in the city in which she had been born, in the only streets she had known.

The idea of exile and the struggle to define a sense of home will be familiar to readers of Salman Rushdie and others. It applies remarkably well to Shanti Seth and Henny Caro -- and perhaps in some sense to Vikram Seth as well, whose personal experience closely lines the tight margins of this book.

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Two Lives may disappoint some fans of A Suitable Boy who were hoping for another page-turner from Vikram Seth. My suggestion might be to give over an hour or so to the book in a bookstore or library. Read the first section (fifty pages). If you're drawn in -- and I think most readers will be -- take the book home.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]