Vikram Seth's Two Lives is a biography, a memoir, a novel and a collection of letters rolled into one. The landscape it covers includes India, Germany, England and America, and the timespan includes most of the twentieth century. An Indian Hindu, Shanti comes to Berlin, Germany in the beginning of 1930s to study Dentistry, forms friendships with both Christians and Jews and Henny (who is of same age, and his landlady's daughter) becomes his particular friend. After finishing his studies, Shanti returns to England, where his degrees are not recognized, and he takes exams again. He enlists and fights in second world war. Loses his right arm, and yet battles on with his left hand to become an able dentist again.
Henny must part from her family and make her escape to London. Throughout 1940s she bears the news of one killing after the other, as under Hitler, Germans seek out the Jews and exterminate them. Henny corresponds with Shanti who is fighting in the War, and corresponds with friends left in Germany. The stash of letters that Vikram Seth uses and copies in this memoir is a telling tale of what millions of Jews suffered through in the 1940s and thereafter. Henny meanwhile works her daytime job, and in beginning of 1950s marries her lifetime friend and companion Shanti.
Henny and Shanti are two lives in focus here. The lives are inspirational, while their times full of war, misery, deaths, separations, and treachery. Through their life stories one comes face to face some of the greatest horrors from previous century. The World War II and action against Jews feature as the backdrop in which the valor of the protagonists and the depth and sincerity of friendships they had with people is tested. Historical perspective provided by Vikram is well researched. The story puts you face to face with not only the pre-1950 horrors, but also raises some important questions about present day world, say Israel-Palenstine conflict and US-Middle East divide.
In some places, the book is almost auto-biographical. In the beginning of the story, a teenager, great-nephew Vikram Seth arrives at the house of Shanti and Henny. He sets up his personal association with the two lives in his characteristic witty, simple but effective writing. Vikram Seth is one of my favorite living poets and writers. Having read all his novels, and nearly all his poems, I loved the beginning for it describes the writers own struggles and coming of age as well as how and when his various works were written. While the main story is of Shanti and Henny, Vikram's own story is an interesting third element that makes this memoir worth picking.
Yet maybe because the theme is so complex, maybe becuase it is a memoir, maybe becuase it speaks of such turbulent times and for Heeny's life progresses through her own correspondences, Vikram Seth's Two Lives is not as easy and straightforward reading as his previous novels. The story of Henny during 1940s has too many characters, and these come in and go rather quickly. Perhaps the idea there was to emphasize the events, rather than personalities (quite unlike in Suitable boy), and the letters, the narrative weaves a heart-wrenching description of Berlin through racial hatred, through bombing, and through division after the war.
Vikram Seth strives to provide a lifelike potrait of both Henny and Shanti. Hence, he strives to outline aspects from their daily routine that he witnesses himself, his other family members perceive by themselves and what he gathers from his conversations with Shanti and from letters of Henny. He is telling the tale of real people, related to him. Only an author of his calibre can create such a rich, likable, must read memoir using these tid-bits of information and working with and against his own personal relationships. Vikram doesn't make Shanti or Henny into just heroic survivors of various tragedies and catastropies. Neither does he magnify their life sagas or characteristics. He provides snapshots of their successes and failings, of their quirks and habits, of the complexity of relationship and marriage, and of their painful approach to death.
Two Lives is overall a great memoir that one ought to read to feel inspired by the protagonists, to become aware of horrors that our grandfathers faced, to understand our present world and to appreciate how well a writer like Vikram Seth can weave a saga from such varied elements. People like me who have read other books by Vikram Seth might be surprised by presence of some obscure parts in the book, but the story itself requires a degree of uncertainity, of vagueness, of incompleteness. If it were fiction, one could have reproached Seth for spending too much time on deaths of protagonists and on their life after 1960s. Especially some of the family disputes could have been pruned. Here in the biography, he needs to pull all elements of their life together, and like he must, he describes events in 1930s and 1940s in greatest detail.
The narration of events in Germany from 1930s and 1940s, the copies of Henny's correspondence during that time and Shanti's personal reminisces about the second world war and dentistry with left hand are transformed into a must read biography by one of the greatest living writers of our times. Go, read it.