The New York Times
Two Lives: A Memoirby Vikram Seth
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Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest living writers, Vikram Seth—author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boymdash;tells the heartrending true story of a friendship, a marriage, and a century. Weaving together the strands of two extraordinary lives—Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German Jewish woman he befriended and later married—Two Lives is both a history of a violent era seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a complex, abiding love.
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Two LivesA Memoir
By Vikram Seth
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Vikram Seth
All right reserved.
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 thedoor. To the right of the path, slanted on a stand, was a burnished brass plaque that read:
L.D.S., R.C.S. (Edin.), B.Sc., D.M.D. (Berlin)
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 . . .
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Meet the Author
Vikram Seth has written acclaimed books in several genres: verse novel, The Golden Gate; travel book, From Heaven Lake; animal fables, Beastly Tales; epic fiction, A Suitable Boy. His most recent novel, An Equal Music, was published in 1999. He lives in England and India.
- Delhi, India; and Salisbury, England
- Date of Birth:
- June 20, 1952
- Place of Birth:
- Calcutta, West Bengal, India
- B.A., Oxford University, 1975; M.A., Stanford University, MA 1978; Nanjing University Diploma, 1982
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