This book is the saga of Shanti Behari Seth, an Indian immigrant first to Germany and then to England, and his German-born wife, Helga Gerda Caro (or “Henny”), as lovingly told by Shanti’s great-nephew. Between books in 1994 and at a literary crossroads, Vikram Seth, the author of the transcendent Indian family saga A Suitable Boy, was cajoled by his mother to look into the possibility of writing about his enigmatic great uncle who left India as a teenager, studied dentistry in Germany in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power, fought for the Allies in World War II, married a German woman who herself escaped from the Nazis, and lived a comfortable life in London till his death in the late 1990s.
Seth was able to converse extensively with his great uncle and learn about his life. He could not do the same with his great aunt, for Henny had died by then. A chance discovery of Henny’s correspondence led him to piece together her life before marriage to Shanti. Two Lives traces the at-first disparate, then entwined lives of the two protagonists, who were bound by love for each other and shared the expatriate’s singular loneliness.
Seth adored his great uncle and aunt and cherished the time he spent with them while a student at Tonbridge School and, later, Oxford University. His writing clearly shows his affection for the subjects. While Shanti was busy in his dental practice, it was Henny who maintained a regular connection with Seth, writing to him often in her fractured English and hosting him during his visits. It was much later that Seth learned of her heart-rending separation from her family who stayed behind in Germany and bore the fatal consequences of Hitler’s purge of Jews.
Two Lives sets a steady pace in the beginning but loses its steam in the sagging middle, when Seth traces, in sometimes agonizing detail, the whereabouts of Henny’s family and friends in Germany. While using the letters that went back and forth between Henny and her friends as the primary mode of narrative helps Seth preserve the verisimilitude of those testing times, it tends to bog down the flow.
Shanti maintains a telling affection for his family in India, particularly for the author’s mother. It comes as a surprise, then, as much to Seth as to the reader, when in an about turn, Shanti turns back on his family in his last days, ostensibly over property issues. This causes Seth to rethink his relationship with his great uncle. In a poignantly written final chapter, Seth puts a satisfying closure to the life and times of his great uncle and his own place in the saga.