The new novel of Vikram Seth can be simply described as a biopic account of love story of two ordinary individuals in extraordinary historic times, that stretch from pre-independence India- to Third Reich enforced Holocaust and world war- to post war Britain. The book chronicles the lives of Shanti Bihari Seth, a dentist who also was author’s granduncle, and Henny, a German Jew and tells how they found peace in a marriage based on “mutual confidence rather than confidences”. It also has little bits of life of the narrator -Vikram thrown in. This well constructed piece of personal history opens in 1969 when Vikram goes to stay with uncle Shanti and aunt Henny in London aged 17. After persuasion from his mother Vikram decides to write about them and than the story unfolds. It takes the reader to Berlin of 1931 where Shanti arrives to study dentistry from the small town of Biswan, India. He develops a bond with his Jewish landlady Gabriele Caro, her two daughters-Lola & Henny and son Heinz. Just before World War –II starts Shanti escapes to England. Henny loses her sister and mother to concentration camps and her suitor Hans marries a non-Jew to escape ‘Final Solution’. Henny manages to reach London and Shanti is the only person she knows in England. Disillusioned Shanti enlists in British Army Medical Corps in 1940 and loses his right arm in battle of Monte Carlo. Admist the destruction of war begins their enigmatic love story, mostly over letters, and culminates into marriage in 1951 when both are aged 43.They are two very different individuals, from different continents with dissimilar cultures, and their marriage doesn’t fall apart for 38 years.
The charm is broken only with passing away of Henny in 1989 and for next nine years grief stricken Shanti finds it extremely difficult to live alone, with no Henny to take care of, as they never had children.
By all accounts, Two Lives is till date the best work of Vikram Seth. Despite being non –European he has treated Jewish tragedy with utmost care and sympathy in a gentle tone and has succeeded in bringing to life the trauma of Holocaust horrors. After reading all this one applauds his grand aunt Henny’s efforts to restart life and respects her when she wants to ‘make Shanti (her husband) happy even if she at the risk of being not 100% happy’.
Author has triumphed in blending personal space with historical space in a well crafted narrative that has been put together after conducting interviews with principal characters and those who knew the two, leafing over their letters written to each other and friends, using personal memories of days spend with them and doing painstaking research on holocaust that included tracing final days of Lola and Gabriele Caro from German snapshots of concentration camps.
It makes you feels life is worth living and every day must be lived to the fullest just in case there is no tomorrow.