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Love among the ruins

Two Lives A Memoir Vikram Seth HarperCollins: 504 pp., $27.95

November 06, 2005|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a regular contributor to Book Review and other publications.

VIKRAM SETH -- whose surname, when properly pronounced, rhymes with the title of his glorious 1986 novel in verse, "The Golden Gate" -- is a phenomenally protean, some might even say restless, author. He has tackled a different culture or genre in every book he's written. "Two Lives," a dual biography of beloved relatives, goes a long way toward explaining how he comes by his cosmopolitanism.

When Seth was 17, he left his native Calcutta for England to prepare for his Oxford University entrance exams. He stayed with his Indian-born great-uncle and his German-Jewish-born great-aunt in their North London home. Shanti Behari Seth was then a diminutive 60-year-old, one-armed dentist. His wife, Henny, also 60, was "[l]ean, tall, sharp-featured and attractive.... She greeted me with enthusiasm rather than warmth."

At first the "fearfully shy" Seth was daunted, but he came to love this odd couple dearly. When, nearly 25 years later, he was at loose ends after finishing "A Suitable Boy," his 1,400-page novel about 1950s India, his mother suggested he write about them.

"Two Lives" is an intricate study of the way lives and worlds can intertwine. "Shanti Uncle" and "Aunty Henny" met in Berlin in the early 1930s and married nearly 20 years later in England. Shanti had been sent by his older brother Raj -- the author's grandfather -- to study dentistry in Germany because it was less expensive than England and there was already a doctor in the family. Shanti met Henny Caro when he boarded with her family. She had advised her mother, "Don't take the black man." Seth comments wryly, "This was the beginning of a relationship that was to last five and a half decades."

Seth's book is not merely a portrait of two determined people who formed a bond that was more pragmatic than passionate, but more enduring than many a romance. It also tells the story of the Holocaust from a new angle, refracted through an Anglo-Indian prism. Seth comments toward the end of his book, "My lens has zoomed for the most part on my two subjects. But occasionally it has become a wide-angle and touched upon the history of the century they inhabited."

Seth chronicles their lives through a series of interviews with Shanti conducted five years before his death in 1998, and through a trove of Henny's letters to and from friends in the 1940s and 1950s, which were unearthed after her death in 1989.

The heart of "Two Lives" -- and its most resonant material -- concerns World War II and the upheavals it wreaked on Shanti and Henny and everyone they knew. Shanti left Germany for England and lost his right arm while posted in Monte Cassino, Italy, with the British Army Dental Corps -- a casualty Seth recounts in vivid detail. Once back in England, he refused to be "relegated to unemployment" and painstakingly retrained himself to perform his trade with his left hand. Henny fled Nazi persecution in 1939 by also moving to England, reluctantly leaving her mother and sister behind.

In telling her story, Seth paints a lively portrait of Henny and Shanti's circle of friends in early 1930s Berlin, many of whom were not Jewish. Henny at that time was engaged to Hans Mahnert, the half-Jewish son of her employer. Hans shared her taste for elegant dress and outdoor fun. It wasn't until after the war that she learned that by 1942 he had married a Polish Christian woman, perhaps out of self-preservation. Seth expresses more disgust with Hans' faithlessness than Henny ever did: Henny, he explains, was "a realist, an accepter of fate as something lived through and done with."

Henny's most pressing postwar concern was learning what happened to her mother and sister. In a heartbreaking series of letters, friends inform her that they were deported from Berlin in 1943 to concentration camps and did not survive. Quoting liberally from her correspondence, Seth charts her struggle to untangle which of their many Christian friends remained true to the Caros. He also notes Henny's generosity in sending numerous care packages to friends struggling to survive in postwar Germany -- despite the scarcities in London too.

Amidst this goodwill, a brutally frank letter stands out starkly. Henny disassociates herself from an old friend whom she saw as an apologist for the Nazis. She writes to her: "Those people in Germany with whom I remain in contact belong to the category of those who I am 100% convinced worked against the Nazi system, and not those, like you, who only made 'EXCEPTIONS' of those of our circle."

Seth employs a past conditional tense to describe Henny's sister's fate, not stinting on chilling details: "Lola would have been crammed in with the others, up to two thousand or more. The oak doors would have been closed and secured, and the lights dimmed or turned off," he writes of her probable death in the Birkenau gas chambers.

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