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Two Lives

by Vikram Seth
504 pages,
ISBN: 1552784967


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Unfolding Two Lives
by Olga Stein

Vikram Seth's great-uncle, Kunj Behari Seth, a district and sessions judge in India, was a family archivist. In 1906, he published a family history, The Seths of Biswan. This precedent likely spurred Vikram Seth to embark on a comparable project, a biography of his great-uncle, Shanti Behari Seth, with the aim of paying tribute to a remarkable man. Vikram Seth must have realised at some point that Shanti's life couldn't be portrayed without drawing into his story the woman he had loved for five decades, Henny, his wife of nearly 40 years. Furthermore, Seth grasped that this peculiar union of a short, dark-skinned Hindu, and a tall, German Jewess could not be meaningfully described or explained without two biographical treatments.
Shanti and Henny emerged from their own unique clusters of relatives, friends, and corresponding relationships, and the cosmos of their respective countries' history and political life. Two Lives includes a penetrating study of the social stratum to which each belonged, and how these served¨within the larger context of global politics and, later, a catastrophic war¨to bring Shanti and Henny together. Besides being moving, Seth's book is edifying because its focus extends beyond Shanti and Henny to the lives of others¨of family and friends¨who add to our understanding of the charmingly odd couple at the heart of the book, and who, moreover, help illuminate a period of unparalleled devastation in modern history.
The deliberate reconstruction of lives must yield moments of profound insight. For instance, one glimpses that the totality of experience¨when it is conditioned by the joys and sorrows of a myriad relationships and events¨is beyond comprehension or description. A single life examined with dedication must make apparent, to both the biographer and his audience, that one is contemplating a world¨fashioned by circumstances and by memories, beliefs, desires, and attachments. Human life signifies nothing less. Seth, an acclaimed poet and novelist (The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse, A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music), has impressed scores of readers everywhere with the worlds he has created. In Two Lives he surely must evoke a similar response with the worlds he has so painstakingly, tenderly, and reverentially laboured to uncover by means of interviews, historical research, and the affectionate scrutiny of old letters.
The worlds of Henny and Shanti couldn't have been more different at first. Shanti was born August 8, 1908, in Biswan, in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in northern India. His father, Manorath Prasad Seth, had died of a plague months before his birth. To his great fortune, Shanti arrived into a large, close-knit family whose patriarch, Shanti's grandfather, was a landowner, a man of some means, who was determined to educate his offspring. One son became the aforementioned district and sessions judge, and the other an accountant. The grandfather's attitude toward education also governed his grandchildren's upbringing. Consequently, despite losing their father, two of Shanti's three older brothers, Raj (Vikram Seth's grandfather) and Achal, were encouraged and received the necessary support to attain excellent professions: Raj became an engineer, and Achal a doctor. This helps explains why Shanti was likewise bent on a respectable degree. He graduated from Benares Hindu University, where he studied physics and chemistry. Afterwards, hoping to emulate Raj, he tried twice to enter the Engineering program at Roorkee College, but was turned down both times because he failed to demonstrate an aptitude for drawing. When Raj advised him to study dentistry instead, Shanti felt duty-bound to do so. He left for Europe in the summer of 1931, arriving in Berlin in July.
Doted on by a grandfather and a widowed older sister, Hirabehn, and guided judiciously by his older brother Raj, Shanti was the product of a familial milieu that had admirably fostered hard-working, academically-oriented, principled men and women. This milieu and its characteristically high expectations, undoubtedly played a role in Shanti's dogged scholarship. He passed the state examination in Medical Dentistry in April, 1936, and earned a doctorate from the Dental Institute of the Friedrich-Wilhelm University six months later, despite arriving in Berlin without a word of German. That same combination of familial traits and inbred fortitude must also explain Shanti's resolve to persevere in his profession despite the debilitating injury he suffered in March, 1943, as a Captain in the Dental Corps of the British army's during WWII. The injury, which resulted in the loss of his lower right arm, did not prevent Shanti from becoming a first-rate dentist, with a reputation for working without causing pain to his patients even as he performed complicated dental surgery.
It was in Berlin that Shanti met Henny. He had had gone to look about a room for rent on Mommsenstrasse, the central part of Charlottenburg, "a fashionable part of Berlin." Mrs. Gabriele Caro, Ella, had lost her husband, Isaac, a year earlier, and though she and her two daughters, Lola and Henny, and son, Heinz, lived in a spacious, beautifully appointed apartment, she needed the extra income. Seth describes Henny's initial reaction to the man who came to inquire about the room.

Shanti discovered more than a year later that when Mrs. Caro phoned her younger daughter Henny with the news that they had a lodger, her first reaction had been: 'Nimm den schwarzen nicht' [Don't take the black man].

By the time Shanti learned of this, he was practically part of the Caro family. The Caros obviously recognised that they had taken in an exceptional lodger, for Shanti quickly became part of their every social activity, a friend to their friends, included in their soirees, and outings¨camping by the Sakrower See lake in warm weather, and during winters, skiing in the Riesengebirge near the Czech border. Lola, who was a little older than Henny, was fond of Shanti (many years later, after Lola's death, Henny heard from a friend that she had been in love with him), but it was Henny¨statuesque, pretty, always elegantly attired (as numerous photos in Two Lives testify), lively and popular¨whom Shanti loved.
From this point on, Seth weaves into Shanti's and Henny's stories a considerable amount of historical information and analyses. The Wannsee Conference of January, 20, 1942, at which Nazi bureaucrats worked out the logistics for the Final Solution (Endl¸sung), the aim of which was to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe, was preceded by a series of 'arianisation' laws. The passing of these laws began in April, 1933. Their cumulative effect radically altered living conditions for Germany's Jewish community, leaving it poverty-stricken, isolated, and fearful. One of these, the Law against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities, was initially meant to compel German Jews to emigrate, but it was also directed against foreigners. It prevented Shanti from "sit[ting] further examinations or [receiving] a certificate enabling him to practice as a dentist in the territory of the German Reich." Other laws, that effectively institutionalised the theft of Jewish businessesses, that ousted Jews from the Civil Service, from Hospitals, law practices, and all companies not owned by Jews, led to Henny's departure for England.
Henny was unofficially engaged to Hans Mahnert, the son of Franz Mahnert, for whom she had worked as a personal secretary. Franz was fond of her, and likely viewed her as a future daughter-in-law. Her safety was consequently a concern for him, and he arranged a position for Henny as a domestic with a relatives in Britain. Henny left Germany one month before WWII began.
This explains how Henny and Shanti both ended up in England before the start of the war. Nevertheless, it fails to account for their marriage to one another. That both were alone in England without family was a predicament that shouldn't be assigned too much significance, given that Shanti had always been encouraged by his family to return to India and marry there, and Henny¨as Seth shows by following various epistolary trails¨could have found a fellow Jewish exile after the war or moved to the US, where she had friends and admirers. There is no simple explanation for this racially-mixed union even after every last available letter has been dissected and every friend and family member has shared their recollections of the couple. Shanti had been passionate about Henny. He had written many emotional letters while away from her at war. This excerpt from one is not unlike the others in expressing his feelings for her:

Darling Kuckuck I have been undergoing a terrible mental and bodily torture. I wish you were here to give me hope, and comfort and courage. For days I had no hope to live but some how I lingered on. My Colonenl and other officers have been coming to visit me now and then. They have been all very kind. I however miss you . . . My hand is hurting badly but I must not stop. I must tell you how much I love you. I had planned to make you happy. But where is the sense. I hardly know what more misfortunes are in sore for me. That very hard struggle lies in front of me, of that I have no illusion. I am very glad that God protected you. You are my Only hope, I am missing you as I never missed you. Is it love or is it passion? The other day I dreamt that I am with you alone on the top of a cliff, which is high up in the clouds. There was no one to disturb our happiness ¨ our ecstasy. Alas! It was only a dream. One kiss and a loving embrace from you would heal my wounds more than all the treatment I am receiving here. . .
Yours in pain but in love,
Shanti

And yet Shanti waited until 1949 to propose to Henny. It may be that the nearly insurmountable difficulties he faced after the loss of his working arm made him uncertain about his ability to provide for a wife. Another possibility, according to Seth, is that Shanti may not have been confident that Henny felt the same way he did. Letters written to friends leave no doubt that Henny was a loyal type and that she valued Shanti's commitment to her. She wanted to make him happy. Seth speculates that she herself may not have been inclined by nature to feelings of ardour, though he concedes that such things are impossible to know about other people.
If Henny was capable of a burning passion, then Shanti would not have been the one to light that fire (nor, does it seem, from the remaining correspondence between Henny and her close friends, that Hans Mahnert, who almost became her fiance, ever managed it). Two Lives includes profusely demonstrative letters written to Henny from a female friend who had moved to the US, but material of this sort is often ambiguous; the letters to Henny are never explicit enough to count as conclusive evidence of a romantic liason.
In the end, it really doesn't matter whether Henny and Shanti's marriage was founded on a 'grand' passion or an abiding sense of trust and attachment that grew out of shared experiences, and the shared bereavement caused by tragedy in both of their lives. The accounts heard by Seth indicate that they were happy as a married couple. What matters, then, is that a man and a woman, of different race and religion, came together and stayed together for more than 40 years. Their union, therefore, stands in stark, grievous contrast to the Nazis' treatment of their own citizens¨their doctors, judges, professors, entrepreneurs, war veterans, and other ordinary patriotic, law-abiding Germans¨simply because they were Jewish.
Vikram Seth devotes several chapters to describing in detail the fate of Germany's Jews before and after the start of WWII. But the 17 pages in which he deals specifically with the deportations of Ella and Lola, and their deaths in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau respectively, are the most intense and heart-rending in a book full of passages that disturb and sadden. Here is the culminating portion:

Within between five and twenty-five minutes [Lola] and everyone else would have been dead. . . In due course, the oak doors would been reopened and the lights turned full on. What would have greeted the eyes of the special group of prisoners¨the Sonderkommando¨detailed for the next stage of the process would not have been corpses scattered evenly across the floor, but a huge pile or piles of corpses. Since the effect of the gas would have been most apparent close tot he floor at first, then higher up, everyone would have been struggling in desperation for air, clawing at, trampling down and climbing upon the bodies of their fellows in order to gain a few extra moments of breath and life. Babies and children, like the weakest and oldest, would have been crushed at the bottom of the pile."

It is difficult to criticise any part of a book that makes a case, from two lives, for tolerance and respect between all peoples, and which does so with prose that stays inconspicuous, and yet, elegant and clear. When Seth attempts to place Shanti's and Henny's stories, as he puts it, in "a historical context," his overarching objective¨to encourage us to remain ever mindful of what history can teach us¨is admirable. He writes:

"Finally, it may be the case that the terrible tragedies both caused by and inflicted on Germany in the previous century may help us to some extent to avoid them in the present one. In particular, the intensely analysed history of Hitler's rise to power, of the Second World War and of the Holocaust has lessons for the descendants of the perpetrators, of the bystanders and of the victims, and of those who had nothing to do with it at all. It is not only the lessons of history writ large and the avoidance of gross political errors that can be absorbed . . . It is also the lessons writ little that may be taken to heart¨the sense that the acts and decisions of ordinary individuals . . . may lead . . . towards making the world a humane and reasonably secure home for all its denizens or a riven and uncertain lace of grief and injustice, fear, hunger pain."

While one may not wish to object to this, one can object, vigourously, to a number of intervening arguments. Two arguments in particular strike me as terribly inept. The first of these, essentially blames all of the past century's ills on Germany. Germany, Seth explains, was for the most part responsible for WWI, and consequently, for the Russian Revolution (naturally, Germans Marx and Engels were instrumental too), and the Chinese Revolution that followed it. Also, according to Seth, there's a causal link between some "aspects of the German character"¨"respect for education and culture, science and scholarship; a tendency towards theorising and the pursuit of theoretical ideas to the point of extremism; . . . industry, fortitude, discipline, and obedience to authority; a sense of mission"¨and Germany's scientific advances in physics and atomic energy. Escaping German-Jewish scientists imported this know-how to the US, which led to the building of the Atomic bomb, and the subsequent nuclear arms race.
For a far more insightful analysis of the causes of WWI one can turn to Catrine Clay's recently published King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War (the title says it all). Like many other books written on the subject, it shows the ferocious competition that existed between five imperial European nations, all of which were willing, and able, to go to war either to preserve or upset the balance of power for some perceived advantage. Similarly, to ascribe a passive role to Russian and Chinese revolutionaries, and to the US administration during wartime, is naive to say the least.
The second of Seth's highly debatable arguments is even more troublesome because he is partially right, and because what he overlooks allows him to question the moral validity for the establishment of the state of Israel. It is true, as Seth states, that "the pseudo-science of racial superiority and inferiority was cultivated most assiduously and to greatest effect in Germany and Austria by the National Socialists and their supporters as well as precursors." In Germany and Austria, there was more "state-organised" anti-Semitism than elsewhere in the world. But in his rush to condemn Germany, Seth misses the age-old murderous hatred of Jews that existed, perhaps with greater ferocity, in other countries: chiefly, among Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Rumanians. In her book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born professor of history at Princeton University informs us:

". . . Polish Jews, having escaped the fate of 90 percent of their community¨three million people¨returned to their homeland to be vilified, terrorized and, in some 1,500 instances, murdered, sometimes in ways as bestial as anything the Nazis had devised."

Practically all of Europe had, with heartless finality, closed its doors on the Jews. This decimated, traumatised group of survivors had no place to go other than the small pre-state territory in Palestine allotted to Jews by the British under internationally-sanctioned, mandatory powers. Surprisingly, for such an intellectually gifted writer, Seth misses the point that anti-Semitism was a European¨not merely German¨phenomenon, and because of it he fails to grasp the unassailable imperative for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Despite this, the great regard Seth demonstrates throughout his book toward Henny, Ella, Lola, and the many members of their "circle", renders "this half-filial endeavour" a gift of more than enough "shards" to "touch the soul." ˛
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