Cover image for Two lives
Title:
Two lives
Author:
Seth, Vikram, 1952-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2005]

©2005
Physical Description:
503 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Summary:
Shanti Behari Seth, brought up in India, was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin--though he could not speak a word of German--to study medicine and dentistry. 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 Germany 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 story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple's lives of their great-nephew from India--the teenage Vikram. The result is a tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.--From publisher description.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780060599669
Format :
Book

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PR9499.3.S38 Z476 2005 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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PR9499.3.S38 Z476 2005 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
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Summary

Summary

A heartrending new book -- the story of a marriageand the story of two lives -- from the author of theinternational bestselling novel A Suitable Boy

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 Raj 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, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.

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 our greatest living writers.


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Seth is the author of the hugely popular novel A Suitable Boy 0 (1993), and with the same attention to atmospheric detail and nuance of character he brought to that book, he now offers a deeply engaging dual biography of his great-uncle and great-aunt. At age 17, Seth journeyed from his native Calcutta to London to prepare for study at Oxford, and while in the British capital, he became acquainted with his two relatives--his uncle, an Indian like himself and a dentist, and his aunt, a German-born Jew--both of whom lived in London, though they had found their way there through much different paths. After writing A Suitable Boy0 , Seth decided to approach Two Lives 0 not so much as a personal remembrance as a researched life history of the couple. So, as if one of their stories weren't rich enough, we get two--three, really, since the process of Seth's learning about his uncle's and aunt's lives and revivifying them as a dual narrative adds up to a third storyline. These two individuals, from widely divergent religious and cultural backgrounds, bring together on a larger plane two important national stories of the twentieth century: India during the years of division between and discord among Hindus and Muslims, and Germany under the anti-Semitic Nazi regime. As well as offering an insightful exploration of those broad themes, this beautiful book delivers a passionate answer to a more personal but timeless question of human relations: How do two people ever manage to end up together? --Brad Hooper Copyright 2005 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1969, Seth, 17, came from Calcutta to London to continue his education and to stay with his Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny. Their relationship became warm, and it is their stories (as well as his own) that Seth (A Suitable Boy) tells in this wide-ranging, unpredictable and moving account. Shanti was Seth's grandfather's brother, a dentist who studied in Berlin, lodging with Frau Caro, whose daughter, Henny, was in love with someone else. He left for Britain in 1936 because he couldn't practice in Germany, but in 1940, as war broke out, he enlisted, served throughout and lost his right arm in combat, a calamity for a dentist. Meanwhile, Henny, a German Jew, arrived in Britain weeks before war was declared, leaving her beloved mother and sister behind to death camp murder. "Vicky" interviewed his great-uncle at length, and part two of his narrative focuses on Shanti. Part three, Henny's story, even more unusual, is based on a trove of remarkable letters she received and wrote (she often kept carbons), many to friends in Germany during the war. Part four examines their marriage (they didn't marry until seven years after the war), and part five details a family mystery about Shanti's will and Seth's complex but beautifully lucid summation of his research into these lives. This lovely book, "memoir as well as biography," examines great and fearful events seen through extraordinary lives. In clear and elegant writing, Seth explores the macrocosm through the microcosm, resulting in a most unusual, worthwhile book. 3 8-page b&w photo inserts. Agent, Irene Skolnick. (On sale Nov. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Seth (From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet) has written a beautiful and extraordinary biographical and historical memoir that chronicles the lives of his Indian-born uncle, Shanti Behari Seth (Shanti), and German-born aunt, Helga Gerda Caro (Henny). He deftly takes readers on a whirlwind journey from 1970s-90s England to 19th- and 20th-century India to World War II Germany and back to present-day England. In the course of this journey, Seth, at first a near stranger to his childless uncle and aunt, develops a rich and loving relationship with them. Yet despite their closeness, the author senses a reluctance in his aunt and uncle to speak of their past. Seth relies on his own research, interviews he conducted with Shanti, and various pieces of correspondence to unearth the virtually hidden past of his beloved Uncle Shanti and Aunty Henny, bringing their unassuming and complex relationship to light. His writing is engaging and his characters fully developed and quickly familiar. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-At 17, the Indian-born author left his homeland to study at Oxford. He lived with his aunt and uncle, a middle-class English couple in every way except one-his Uncle Shanti was Indian and his Aunt Henny was a German Jew. Through interviews with his uncle and a trunk of correspondence from his aunt, he is able to tell their story. Readers learn that Shanti, a dentist, lost an arm, and that Henny lost all of her family during World War II. They learn the details of these losses and about the couple's romance. Shanti's story is told first and is in some ways very similar to the narrator's. Henny's story takes up the majority of the book and consists largely of correspondence from before the war until several years after. Hers is mostly a Holocaust story that tells as much about the culture of the time as the woman herself. Finally, they marry, more out of convenience than love, but they stay contentedly together for more than 30 years. The final chapter, a discussion of their estate, seems somewhat rushed and tacked on after the slowly paced narrative that came before. Photographs are scattered throughout. The book is lengthy, but each fact shared is an important building block in telling the tale of this couple in the context of their era. A richly rewarding story.-Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Two Lives Chapter One When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England. He was Indian by origin, she German. They were both sixty. I hardly knew them at the time. It was August 1969 -- the monsoon season in Calcutta. A few days before I left, Mama had taken me to a temple to be blessed, which was most unlike her. She and Papa came to see me off at Dumdum Airport. I arrived at Heathrow in the afternoon. My great-uncle and great-aunt were still away on their annual holiday in Switzerland and, as I recall, I was met at the terminal by someone in the firm for which my father worked. My first impression was of the width of the road that led (under grey skies) to London. I was housed for a night in a drab hotel somewhere near Green Park. That evening Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny returned from Switzerland, and the following day I and my luggage arrived at their door. I looked at the house that was to be my home for the next few years. There was a red pillar-box not far from the gate of 18 Queens Road, Hendon; this was to be my beacon whenever I trudged up from the tube station. In front of the house was a small, low-walled, immaculately maintained garden with a few rosebushes in full bloom. A path led to the door. To the right of the path, slanted on a stand, was a burnished brass plaque that read: S. B. Seth L.D.S., R.C.S. (Edin.), B.Sc., D.M.D. (Berlin) Dental Surgeon I set down my luggage on the front step. The thought of meeting people whom I had not seen for years and did not really know, and whose home I would be sharing, made me nervous. I was, in any case, fearfully shy. After a minute I rang the bell. Aunty Henny appeared. Lean, tall, sharp-featured and attractive, she didn't look sixty. She greeted me with enthusiasm rather than warmth, and led me down the linoleum-floored hallway where three or four people were seated, browsing through old magazines. 'Shanti's patients,' she explained. She poked her head into the surgery to exclaim in her high voice, 'Shanti, Vicky is here,' before opening the door to the drawing-room. 'No, leave the luggage in the corridor, by the stairs,' said Aunty Henny. 'Now sit down and I shall make some tea.' Since I had been told by Mama not to give any trouble and to be helpful at all times, I offered to help. Aunty Henny would have none of it. I sat down and surveyed the room. Everything seemed inordinately tidy, down to the nested set of varnished side-tables and a polished cabinet for the television. Aunty Henny brought tea with three cups, and soon afterwards Shanti Uncle took a break from his work. He was still dressed in his white dental jacket. As soon as he came in, he hugged me, then stood back and said, 'Now let me look at my little Vicky. It has been so many years since I saw you. Now you must tell me how your parents are, and what your journey was like. Have you got all your kit for school? Have you eaten? Henny, the boy's starving, you can tell. We must feed him up. Let's open a tin of peanuts. Have you shown him his room?' Aunty Henny looked on impatiently. Suddenly Uncle glanced at his watch, gulped his tea down and rushed back to the surgery. In those days I was very sensitive about my height and cringed whenever anyone called me little. Shanti Uncle, however, was even shorter than I was, and Aunty Henny towered over him. Nor did I like being called Vicky, even though in India it would not be taken for a feminine diminutive. But my overwhelming sense was that of relief. Uncle's talk filled in, indeed flooded, all my awkward silences. And his hug had made me feel welcome, though it was made with only one arm. His right arm, being artificial, was withheld from the embrace. I had been to England twice before. When I was two and a half years old, I travelled by sea with an uncle and aunt who happened to be going there. I was to join my parents, who had left a year or so earlier: the Bata Shoe Company, for which my father worked, had transferred him to head office in London. My widowed grandmother - my mother's mother (whom I called Amma) - had been left in charge of me at home, and I grew very attached to her. When I began to speak, Amma insisted that it be in Hindi and only in Hindi. She herself was perfectly bilingual, but had decided that I would get more than enough English in England. As a result, when I was delivered to my parents in London, they found that I couldn't speak or understand a word of the local language. Shortly after my arrival, I was taken to see Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny. During the time my mother had been in England, she had become very fond of Shanti Uncle, and he of her. Both Aunty Henny and he were keen on children, and were looking forward eagerly to my arrival. I don't know whether it was Shanti Uncle's effusiveness or Aunty Henny's European colour and features, but I quickly became uncomfortable. 'I don't like it here, I want to go home,' I stated firmly in Hindi. Shanti Uncle looked startled. When Aunty Henny asked him what I'd said, he told her that I was enjoying myself and would come again, but that I was tired and needed to go home and rest. The foreign Aunty Henny, whatever she represented to me, did pose a puzzle to the whole of Shanti Uncle's extended family in India. Uncle had married late, in his forties, and had not brought her to . . . Two Lives . Copyright © by Vikram Seth. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Two Lives by Vikram Seth All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.