Friday, December 26, 2008

Vikram Seth: Two Lives

I devoured Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” when I was working in East Timor in ’96 – ’97 and it was still under Indonesian military occupation and there wasn’t much to do in my spare time. “Two Lives” is also a thick book, fortunately not quite as thick, but very different. This is the story of Seth’s maternal uncle, known as Shanti Uncle, and his wife, known to Seth as Aunty Henny. Seth’s skill is first to see that there was a story to be told, then to do all the necessary detailed investigations and interviews to learn as much as he could from his uncle and from old documents and letters, and finally to set these personal histories into the broader framework of world events.

Shanti Seth was born in India in 1908 and as a young man went to Berlin in the 1930’s to study dentistry. He found lodgings in the home of the Caro family, comprising the mother, Gabriela Caro, and her three grown children, Henny, Lola, and Heinz. At that time Henny was engaged to a handsome young man and the two of them made an attractive couple that, if the war had not intervened, would doubtless have married. However, the Caro’s were Jewish and soon the restrictions against the Jews in Germany began the work of destroying their lives. Seth has done his research and provides details that I’ve never read elsewhere about (for example) specific restrictions on what people could not do and what they were forced to do, where they were allowed to shop (and when), where they had to live, the clothes they were or were not allowed to own, the personal belongings that were ‘confiscated’ (stolen) from them by the government, and so many more degrading, soul-destroying and health-destroying rules. It is easy for me to focus on this period of the book because the pre-war, during, and immediate post-war periods in Berlin are the most moving sections of the book. Visiting the Museum of Jewish History in Berlin after reading the book, I looked up and found the names of Gabriela and Lola Caro in the remembrance volumes containing the names of all the Jews murdered by the Nazis in Germany.

Seth outlines the broader context of the story:

“Many of the great currents and movements of the century are reflected through the events of their lives and those of their friends and family: the Raj, the Indian freedom movement, post-Independence India; the Third Reich; the Second World War; post-war Germany, including the division of Berlin and the blockade and airlift; the emigration of Jews from Germany in the 1930s (with some of Henny’s friends going as far afield as Shanghai, South Africa and California); the Holocaust; Israel and Palestine; British politics, economics and society.”

The details of family life in India are also fascinating and provide information about Seth’s own early life, as well as his uncle’s. A generous collection of photographs adds interest, along with copies of personal letters. Seth is honest and open in giving personal details and describing his own feelings for his subjects whom he knew well, since he often stayed with them. In his final summing up of their lives which had spanned so many of the crucial events of the 20th century, Seth makes his plea for a saner world:

“As I walk back to the tube, I consider the word in the context of an evil century past and a still more dangerous one to come. May we not be as foolish as we are almost bound to be. If we cannot eschew hatred, at least let us eschew group hatred. May we see that we could have been born as each other. May we, in short, believe in humane logic and perhaps, in due course, in love.”