Author: Vikram Seth
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: 2006
Cost: Rs. 495 (Hardcover), Rs. 535 (Paperback)
Two Lives is the story of a century and of a love affair across an ethnic divide. As the name suggests, it is a story of two extraordinary lives, that of his great uncle, Shanti Behari Seth, and of his German Jewish great aunt, Hennerle Gerda Caro.
Two Lives is divided into five parts, beginning with the teenage author going to live with his uncle and aunt in England for higher studies at the Tonbridge School. His first year is followed by intense travel in Europe. After completing his A-levels, Seth moves on to continue his education at Oxford and Stanford, all the while remaining in contact with his guardian uncle and aunt.
The story delves intricately into the ups and downs of the lives of his uncle and aunt. The text is frequently interspersed with photographs, letters, anecdotes based on Shanti’s interviews with the author, and other sources.
Two Lives is the story of a marriage and the story of two: namely- Shanti Behari Seth and Helga Gerda Caro.
Shanti Behari Seth was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth year of the twentieth century; he died two years before its close. He was brought up in India in the apparently vigorous but dying political atmosphere and was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin, though he could not speak a word of German to study medicine and dentistry. It was here, before he migrated to Britain, that Shanti's path first crossed that of his future wife.
Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as "Henny" was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family- cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny's first reaction was, "Don't take the black man!" But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Hitler's Germany for England just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti.
Vikram Seth has woven together their astonishing story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple's lives of their great-nephew from India- the teenage student Vikram Seth. The result is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain.
Personally, what interested Vikram Seth to write this book, on this, he says:
“…in the case of Two Lives, I was taken by the narrative after the discovery of a set of letters that my great-aunt had written that gave the story a kind of depth, a perspective, an intimacy, and a kind of psychological and moral connection, in terms of decision-making in times of great stress, apart from its human interest, which was considerable.”
The language emits reminiscence. The subject matter is absorbing. One, reading the book will either remember what has happened or will gain knowledge of the same. The book also suggests how one should tackle the world and why there is no point in fighting the bullies and no sense in responding to the negativity around us.
Two Lives is both a history of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage, and abiding yet complex love. Part biography, part memoir, part meditation on our times, this is the true tale of two remarkable lives- a masterful telling from one of the greatest living writers.
Milestones of the Book:
The Book won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2006.
About the Author:
Born in 1952 in Calcutta, India, Vikram Seth was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Stanford University and Nanjing University.
He has travelled widely and lived in Britain, California, India and China. His first novel, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986), describes the experiences of a group of friends living in California. His acclaimed epic of Indian life, A Suitable Boy (1993), won the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book). An Equal Music (1999) is the story of a violinist haunted by the memory of a former lover. Vikram Seth is also the author of a travel book, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an account of a journey through Tibet, China and Nepal that won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and a libretto, Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto (1994), which was performed at the English National Opera in June 1994, with music by Alec Roth. His poetry includes Mappings (1980), The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia), and All You Who Sleep Tonight: Poems (1990). His children's book, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992), consists of ten stories about animals told in verse.
Vikram Seth's latest works include Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt, and Summer Requiem (2015), a book of poems.