Sunday, November 06, 2005

Two Lives

With Two Lives, Vikram Seth takes on yet another genre of writing, this time, the biography. It does look as if the man is not going to leave any genre undone, with poetry, novel, novel-in-verse, travelogue and now biography all his repertoire.

While the book traces the lives of his grand-uncle Shanti and grand-aunt Henny, he doesn’t really start the book with an account of them. Rather, the beginning is with himself – the stage of his life when he goes to England and lands at their doorstep, the start of a life-long relationship, built on deep affection. It is probably good that Seth decided to begin with this part, because when I started reading part two, my heart sank. He delves into the history of the Seth family starting from two generations before Shanti a little too enthusiastically. While they do provide some context as to the early days and influences of Shanti’s life, I didn’t find it really interesting to learn how many of the family members underwent operations for piles. Beyond the extra-detailing though, the account of Shanti’s childhood and his relationship with various family members is readable enough.

Where the book really picks up steam though is once Shanti goes to Germany. Here onwards, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens to him, and to Henny whom he meets there, as his landlady’s daughter. I liked the way he traces the evolution of their relationship from friendship to solidarity and then love and marriage. The story is more interesting for the times it moves through, the terror of Nazi Germany and the world war which casts such a huge shadow over their lives. What is especially interesting is that the material for the book was all collected post Aunt Henny’s death. Nor had she ever really discussed the devastation caused by the war on her Jewish family, with Shanti, the subject probably being unbearably painful. With very little direct material on what Henny and her family went through, and her feelings over her terrible loss, Seth draws out a vivid picture of Henny from other sources – letters written to and received from old friends after the war, accounts of Auschwitz, snippets of history that recreate the atmosphere of the times.

His own deep affection for them shines through the book, though that doesn’t prevent him from casting light on less than complimentary aspects. Shanti is always Shanti Uncle in true Indian style, while Henny is the more formal Aunt Henny, a little wary of the large Indian family, but in the end, true to the bonds she builds with a few of them, as to her other friends. These bonds don’t prevent him from chronicling his own reservations about certain actions of Uncle Shanti’s or analysing those misgivings candidly. I guess that’s what makes it a good biography, not a hagiography!

As he says at the end, “These two people whom I loved and who loved me, may not, in differing degrees, have wanted every stroke – sometimes distorted, sometimes overexplicit – of this portrait. But they are dead and past caring; and I want them completely remembered – in sickness as in health, in weakness as in strength, in secrecy as in openness. Their lives were cardinal points for me, and guide me still; I want to mark them true.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent, love it! »