Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Indian Dentist and the Holocaust Survivor: Vikram Seth's "Two Lives"

A biography creates a record of a life, but it must also attempt to assemble many divergent strands and seemingly incoherent fragments of that life into a semblance of a story for a reader. It's hard to do even half-comprehensively with any one life -- it requires, for one thing, intimate access to the person him or herself, as well as a pretty good paper trail. Vikram Seth, in Two Lives, had such access to not one but two people, who were extraordinary individually but even more so as a couple. It's the story of Shanti Behari Seth, the author's great uncle, and Hennerle Caro (Henny), a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis.

The two of them met during the early 1930s, when Shanti was in Berlin to do a doctorate in dentistry, and he rented a room in the Caros' house. In 1937 and 1939, respectively, they left Germany and settled in London. When the war broke out, Shanti enlisted, and served as a dentist for the troops in the African campaign, and later in Italy (where he lost an arm at Monte Cassino). Henny, for her part, lost her nuclear family at Auschwitz: unlike her, they were unable to get out in time. Henny and Shanti became a couple, and eventually married. When Vikram Seth went to England initially in 1969, he knew very little about his great uncle and his foreign wife. But as he stayed with them and then continued to visit over the course of more than twenty years, he became became quite close to them. They even helped him learn German, initially to pass the entry requirements for Oxford, but the knowledge of the language would become indispensible for the project that became Two Lives.

Two Lives is more a book of details than of ideas, though because the sense of the story is so strong it always avoids the trap of familial self-indulgence or nostalgia. Seth did a series of very long interviews with Shanti in the mid-1990s, after Henny died. He also had access to hundreds of letters, including letters exchanged between Shanti and Henny, Shanti and the Seth family back in India, as well as between Henny and her family and friends in Germany. There are, of course, some exceptional synthetic passages, as well as some interesting comments by Seth on his method, both in this book and in earlier books like A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music. One such passage gives a sort of blueprint for Seth's earlier books, but also in a sense the current one. While taking a year off from his graduate studies in California to work on his Big Indian Novel (written in Delhi), Vikram Seth realized he was opening a very big can of worms:

However I soon realized that the novel -- which had opened with a grand wedding -- now had so many characters whom I was interested in that I needed to take off at least a year simply to understand the varied worlds of law, politics, administration, medicine, farming, manufacture, commerce, education, music, religion, and so on, that these characters came from or worked in. What exactly did one do if one visited a courtesan in 1951, and how would I find someone to tell me? How did the credit market for small shoemakers in Agra work, and what might be the effect of a credit squeeze on people who had little to fall back on? What was it like to be a brown sahib in a white managing agency in Calcutta in the fifties? Were there girls at St Stephen's College in the late forties?

Instead of being constrained by this research, I found that it inspired me with new ideas. It also gave me the confidence to imagine myself into the insubstantial beings I had begun with, to give them shape and personality and vividness -- at least enough to make me wish to follow their lives. I wanted, of course, to tell a good story, but I also wanted to get things right. No matter how well a novel is received by readers or critics in general, if it does not ring true with those people who know from the inside the world it describes, it is in the final analysis an artistic failure.

This is a self-reflective comment on the writing of A Suitable Boy, but I think it is also a persuasive statement on the value of embracing complexity and detail over fixed ideology or given narrative formulas. Seth's openness to explore all these different paths and channels in his fictional (and nonfictional) characters' lives allows him to be true to the subject -- as true as it is possible to be in a novel. It also enables the writer to break out of predictable postcolonial narrative conventions. The novel becomes a space for research, discovery, and documentation (indeed, rather like a biography), rather than simply a collection of commonplace observations and fancy verbal effects.

I wish we had better archives and more non-ideological archival research. For many South Asians involved in the tumult of the twentieth century, such paper trails are hard to come by. Of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who served in the Second World War, how many left behind letters documenting their experiences, their everyday thoughts, or their thoughts about their loved ones? Not many, unfortunately. From the Partition of 1947, too, the best non-official documentary evidence has tended to come from personal interviews conducted by people like Urvashi Butalia (The Other Side of Silence). Compared to the amount of documentation associated with individual experiences of the Holocaust in Europe, the Partition archive, as far as I know, is quite small.

Another issue that comes out of Two Lives is a fresh and surprising view of an early bicultural/biracial relationship. A few points of tension between Shanti Seth and Henny Caro on cultural matters are recorded in Two Lives (she didn't have much interest in visiting India, for instance), but they actually weren't especially significant in the relationship. Henny and Shanti were bound by stronger forces than ethnicity -- their shared memory of a pre-war social milieu in Germany that was utterly and irreparably destroyed, as well as a deep need for support and understanding that helped them cope with the damage the war did to them both: Henny, with the loss of her family under unthinkable circumstances, and Shanti, with the loss of his right arm, which might have been catastrophic for a right-handed practicing dentist (he managed, almost miraculously, to overcome it). The clichés about white women and English-educated Indian men simply don't apply in any way whatsoever to the life these two individuals shared.

I wanted to share one more memorable quote before closing. Here, Seth is defining the relationship between Henny and Shanti as an attempt at reconstituting "home":

Shaken about the globe, we live out our fractured lives. Enticed or fleeing we re-form ourselves, taking on partially the coloration of our new backgrounds. Even our tongues are alienated and rejoined -- a multiplicity that creates richness and confusion. Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home.

In Shanti's case, the exile was of his making; not so with Henny, though it could in some strict sense be said that she chose not to return when, once again, it became safe to do so. Increasingly from adolescence onwards she would have sensed that she was set apart from her Christian friends -- that her position was precarious, even in the city in which she had been born, in the only streets she had known.

The idea of exile and the struggle to define a sense of home will be familiar to readers of Salman Rushdie and others. It applies remarkably well to Shanti Seth and Henny Caro -- and perhaps in some sense to Vikram Seth as well, whose personal experience closely lines the tight margins of this book.

* * *
Two Lives may disappoint some fans of A Suitable Boy who were hoping for another page-turner from Vikram Seth. My suggestion might be to give over an hour or so to the book in a bookstore or library. Read the first section (fifty pages). If you're drawn in -- and I think most readers will be -- take the book home.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


ana beynaam said...

really liked this post and the quotes you chose. looking forward to read the book sometime soon. as always, thanks! :)

10:26 AM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I second this. Lovely post. It now makes me want to read the other Vikram Seth books that I've avoided until now. You make them sound like they are like Amitava Ghosh's novelist as historian. Are they?

3:49 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Like Suvendra, the only Vikram Seth book in my possession (a gift), A Suitable Boy remains unread in all these years. I just put in an order today on Amazon after reading this review. The book sounds fascinating. Unlike Suvendra though, my interest in the other book is still not piqued.

6:20 PM  
Falstaff said...

A lovely review, though I have to say that I personally found Seth's presence in the book intrusive. I quite enjoyed the sections that focused on Shanti and Henny, but the sections at the beginning and the end where Seth rambles on about himself and his family struck me as a trifle petty and irrelevant. Certainly there are some interesting insights in there about Seth as a writer, but what has that to do with Henny and Shanti's story? And because Seth goes to such lengths to discuss his own bond with Shanti and Henny, I found myself doubting his objectivity in writing about them. Personally, I would have wished for a more impersonal 'documentary-like' book.

8:28 PM  
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9:51 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

"A biography creates a record of a life, but it must also attempt to assemble many divergent strands and seemingly incoherent fragments of that life into a semblance of a story for a reader. It’s hard to do even half-comprehensively with any one life — it requires, for one thing, intimate access to the person him or herself, as well as a pretty good paper trail."

In the light of the above statement, I wonder in what way would a biography go beyond a mere 'creation or recreation of a record of life'. Also, in what way may an attempt to write an impersonal biography differ from a biography of someone one has known intimately and has spent a decisive part of her/his life with. Furthermore, to what extent is one's present going to intervene in one's reconstruction of a past one either cherishes or wishes to disavow. The question raised by Foucault in his Technologies of the Self, namely, "what do I do when I do something," comes poignantly alive when an author approaches time through not the objective veneer of history but a lived discursivity of the self. I leave it at that for fear of being accused of having borrowed my language from a randomizer - the dismissive unease with which the west (my deepest apologies for such neat homogeneity) looks at anything slightly theoretic from the east.

12:41 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

The idea of exile as summed in a teasing metonymic formula by Hamid Naficy is:

In exile, there is a there.

Having said that one needs to diffentiate across the variants of exiles – e.g. Salman Rushdie’s being not in any way comparable to say Vikram Seth’s or, for that matter, Amitav Ghosh’s unlike that of Agha Shahid Ali (ASA’s case being rather unique and defined by both an intangible imaginary – nationality as a difficult birth – and a tangible violence of the day-to-day lived).

The idea of exile entails not only a break – which may be spatial in the sense of being separated from a given (cultural) topography and a near impossible desire to belong – but more importantly a durative gap – a sense of (cultural) separation and once again a near impossible desire to belong that deepens with the passage of time. It is in this context that I place the frequent visits by the US based NRI scholars – Amitav Ghoshs, Suvir Kauls and Ania Loombas – back home. It is not as if they do not have access to information about India. It is the linguistic fissure – the fact that language keeps developing in such unexpected ways that even Bollywood cannot hope to comprehensively deal with it – that results in the more traumatic, often unnerving and unresolved sense of exile which they wish to avoid at any cost. A writer like Salman Rushdie or Vijay Patnaik will never have to suffer this sense of loss. Their sense of exile, as such, is rooted more in recollection than in a tangible sense of cultural production with which they may feel no need whatsoever to identify.

(from my notes on the workshop I attended on Narratives and Narrations in 2005)

3:16 AM  
elizabeth said...

falstaff said:

"A lovely review, though I have to say that I personally found Seth's presence in the book intrusive."

Actually, this was one of my favorite aspects of the book--the interplay between biographer and subject, and the honesty with which Seth chose not to play the role of 'objective biographer' (an impossibility in any case, but surely moreso here given the close personal relationship with his subjects). I remember being quite struck by a passage about how his investigation of Henny's story affected his relationship with the German language (& German music and literature) for some time, which left me wanting to reread Equal Music again (since it is so besotted with the same).

in general, I like the trend towards more diverse & subjective forms of biographical writing...I recently read Hermione Lee's masterful bio of Virginia Woolf, which aside from being beautifully-written and informative, includes some thoughtful digressions on the interplay between biographer(s) and subject, in the case of Woolf bios in particular. Lee utilises the tools/sources of traditional biography to excellent effect, but also frequently unsettles the narrative by reminding her audience how much biography is dependent upon the biographer's own means of arranging and interpreting the material. It also ends with a short chapter called 'the biographer' on her own encounters with Woolf's works and legacy.

3:52 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

So how does one mark the 60th anniversary of the Indian sub-continents partition? In celebration or in dismay?

11:14 AM  
Jonathan said...

Juat had to add thet Dr. Seth was my dentist from the late 50s till about 64. We used to visit his surgery at Queens Road in Hendon with typical trepidation -although he was quite charming. I do recall his dictating to his assistant the list of my teeth and the various states they were in! He had a special way of saying "cavity"!

3:17 AM  
shruti said...

I agree with Falstaff. Along with Henny and Shanti, Vikram Seth's presence in the beginning and the end of the novel shifts the focus. He could have done away with Shanti's family problems at the end. That diluted the effect.

2:22 AM  

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