Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Ordinary Wonders
South China Morning Post, October 9, 2005
Vikram Seth describes his latest book

“Don’t take the black man.” With this inauspicious start, began a relationship that endured over 50 years, though battered by war and persecution, disability and death. Vikram Seth’s new family memoir “Two Lives” tells the compelling story of his great-uncle Shanti Behari Seth and his great-aunt Henny Caro, a German Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Seth stayed with them when he was a student in England, and his memoir reconstructs their remarkable lives from letters, memories and interviews with his uncle.

Two Lives” is indeed “history writ little,” as Seth writes. Shanti and Henny ‘s lives intersected with many of the great events of the century: the Raj, the rise of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, the Second World War, post-war Germany, and post-war Britain. Shanti was one of the first Indian dentists to train in Berlin, despite not speaking a word of German. Henny’s mother was his landlady, and it was then that Henny told her mother not to take “the black man”–Shanti—in. Her mother ignored her advice and Shanti became a family friend, though he was not to marry Henny until many years later. Despite losing an arm at the battle of Monte Cassino in the war, Shanti practiced one-armed as a dentist in London, after being barred from practicing in Berlin by the Nazis. Henny fled Germany in 1939 for London, but her mother Gabriele and sister Lola died in the concentration camps.

Henny never spoke of the deaths, not even to her husband or Seth. “It’s no use going into the graveyard,” she once told her husband. But the chance discovery of a treasure trove of Henny’s old letters in the attic of their Hendon home gave him the impetus to write this memoir, though he had been mulling over it for years. Still, it was no easy decision for Seth, who agonised over whether to read Henny’s intimate letters, especially those from her former fiancée and Shanti himself. “I think we owe a different sort of allegiance to the dead,” says Seth, talking to the Post about his memoir, “They are dead, and they are past caring. If you want them remembered properly, you can’t write a hagiography where nothing complex enters.” Henny’s gossipy, yet warm correspondence with her friends conjures up an intimate picture of life in wartime Germany, with all its complicated allegiances and difficult choices. She makes desperate inquires about the fate of her sister and mother, and then accepts their deaths with stoic resignation. She sends loving wishes and parcels of food to Christian friends suffering in post-war Germany, but refuses to have anything further to do with a friend who aided the Nazis.

In many ways, “Two Lives” is Seth’s personal eulogy to Henny and Shanti. “Their lives were cardinal points for me, and I want to mark them true,” says Seth. His deep affection— indeed reverence—for them propels the book, carrying it over the necessarily mundane bits of family history. Long-time fans looking for the sparkle and wit of “The Golden Gate”, or the engrossing twists and turns of “A Suitable Boy” will be disappointed. Still, it is a book that grows on you, and the patient reader will find himself inspired by the very ordinariness of Shanti and Henny, ordinary people with extraordinary courage, dignity, and resilience. The only time that Henny ever cried, said Shanti, was when she was once given Marmite to eat for breakfast.

Will readers share his obsession? Seth believes they will, because there is much to learn from Shanti and Henny’s lives. “It is a labour of love, but it’s also a book about their times,” says Seth, “ I am not in the business of moralising, but there are a great many questions of ethics involved in the book, especially of morality under pressure. Unless people realise that they could, by pure chance, be born as each other, I don’t know if there’s much hope for the world. Until you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are in your own little bubble, and think of yourself as having all the right answers.”

In his last years, Shanti began to suffer from dementia, and relations between him and Seth worsened, eventually culminating in a startling denouement. Seth says his first draft of the book was “raw and bitter”. “It was a very difficult book to write, because I felt that Uncle’s mental decline shouldn’t be glossed over,” he admits. “Yet writing it was cathartic, though I didn’t intend it to be.”

Seth also found researching the deaths of Gabriele and Lola Caro immensely harrowing. While visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Seth saw the documents referring to their transport to the concentration camps, and the transfer of their property to the Reich. He writes, “Something happened that has never happened to me before or since. My right knee began trembling rapidly and violently.” Elsewhere, he writes of how he lost his love of the German language for a while, though it eventually returned. The letter from Henny’s friend that tells her of Lola’s death is chilling in its understatement. “Because she didn’t pass through the hospital barracks,” surmises her friend, “there remains only the other way.” The other way, of course, referred to the death camps. “These things are best not commented on,” says Seth. “For any intelligent reader, it will be far more overwhelming if I don’t comment. People think I am being self-effacing, but I am actually letting the book speak for itself. “

Seth’s novels, from “The Golden Gate” and “An Equal Music” to his best-seller “A Suitable Boy”, have revolved around families and the finding, loving and losing of soulmates. Shanti and Henny though, were “hardly soul mates”, and kept much from one another. Henny refused to talk about the fate of her family with Shanti, though she wrote about it to her friends. Shanti gave up much of his Indian identity for Henny, who for reasons of her own never visited India. Yet, Seth describes their marriage in characteristically philosophical terms, “What is perfect? In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good,” he writes. He remains endlessly fascinated by people who find happiness despite the odds. “I think Tolstoy was wrong in saying that happy families are all alike. I don’t think they are. I think there are many different types of happy families, and that they are as interesting as unhappy families,” says Seth. “Many people denigrate a marriage that’s not built on confidences, but I think theirs was a marriage that was built on confidence. They trusted each other, and found a refuge in each other.”

Seth is known for his versatility, having written a travelogue, poetry, novels, a libretto, and now this memoir. “I haven’t switched genres consciously; I simply write about what can hold my interest,” he says.” The problem is that publishers can’t put me in a particular niche, and it causes ‘brand disintegration’. I hope that some people can follow me from genre to genre, but many people won’t.” His genre hopping doesn’t seem to have affected his ability to drive a good deal, with his being offered a reported £ 1.5 million advance for “Two Lives”. Seth refuses to comment on the size of the advance, but says it’s vastly exaggerated. He also sold the book without letting his publishers Little, Brown read his manuscript. “My publishers were amazed by the fact that I had brought a first draft and Shanti’s memorabilia with me, but wouldn’t let them see it. It was an earnest of good intentions, but it may have seemed a bit perverse to them. My wonderful agent (the late) Giles Gordon then showed them a synopsis so intriguing that I felt that I had to read this book, and then I realised I had to write it,” laughs Seth impishly.

His spare, understated style— so unlike the ‘magic realism’ and elaborate prose favoured by many other Indian writers in English— has had its critics, though general readers lap it up. When “A Suitable Boy” did not make the Booker Prize shortlist, the British public wrote letters of protest, but some critics argued that Seth’s work lacked introspection and darkness. Seth himself seems bemused by such carping, and impatient with over-analysis of his work. “For my own sake, I tend to enjoy clear writing. I don’t think one should write in a simplistic way, but I think it can be simple without being simplistic. I think people often confuse spareness of style and lightness of touch with lightness of feeling. I don’t plan to thicken my prose with dark adverbs and adjectives to please the publisher, readers, critics or even myself, unless it suits the purpose of the book. I am interested in book sales at one level, but it’s not going to change the way I write.”

He is similarly puzzled when I bring up the subject of his Indian identity, which he has always refused to trumpet. Except for “A Suitable Boy”, his other novels have no Indian characters in them, and he is often criticised, especially in his home country, for not being “Indian enough.” He admits that his publishers have often asked him to insert Indian characters in his books, which he has resisted. “I do consider myself an Indian writer, but I think there’s a double standard in expecting an Indian writer to only write about India. One of the advantages of being Indian is that Islamic culture, Judeo-Christian culture and many others have all had their influence upon us. We stand at a point where we can write about practically anything, and we should. In the long run, whether the book is about the poorest peasant or the richest landlord, what will endure is whether it describes the human condition.”

A constant theme with Seth is “keeping myself interested.” I get the distinct impression that Seth— a linguist and a man of many interests ranging from Indian classical music to Chinese calligraphy and German poetry­­— is easily bored. In the past he has admitted to being bored by many modern novels, which he has termed “thesis fodder”, and seems politely uninterested in who might be the next Rushdie, Naipaul or indeed Vikram Seth to emerge from the sub-continent. He hasn’t thought about his next book yet, but is tempted by the idea of writing “a sequel or even a prequel” to “A Suitable Boy”. “Ultimately, being a writer is unimportant to me,” he says with utter conviction, “What is important is to write a particular book, the one I am interested in at the time. The fame, the aura of being a writer, the romantic difficulties of being a writer, I couldn’t care less about them.”