Two Lives: A Memoir
(2005) by international bestselling author Vikram Seth tells the story of Seth’s aunt and uncle and their letters to each other, and how their relationship survived WWII. The book has been generally well received, particularly by critics. It was nominated for both the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography/Memoir, and the 2006 Crossword Book Award for Nonfiction. Seth wrote Two Lives
after his mother suggested it would make a good story.Two Lives
focuses on the love story between Seth’s uncle, Shanti Behari Seth, and his German-Jewish great aunt, Hennerle Gerda Caro. They’re better known to Seth as Uncle Shanti and Aunty Henny. The book is divided into five separate parts, each part following a different period in the family’s history. Included are personal anecdotes from family interviews, letters between the couple, and photographs to better illustrate where events take place.
Seth began piecing this book together after Henny’s death. Shanti is eighty-five years old, but he wants something to occupy his mind. He’s happy to work with Seth on this project, offering many interviews and insights. To Shanti, Seth is the son he never had, and he wants him to know all about Shanti’s earlier life.
Shanti first leaves India as a young man. He wants to study in Europe to widen his opportunities. His family insists he studies medicine or dentistry. He plans to study dentistry and settles on studying in 1930s Germany—although he must also learn Latin to become a certified dentist there. He’s accepted into a dental school based in Berlin, but first, he needs to find somewhere to stay. After trying a few lodgings, Henny’s mother takes him in.
Henny, initially, doesn’t want him staying with them because he’s not German. However, she’s soon charmed by his warm and friendly manner, his kindness, and his humor. Henny is engaged to Hans, a young German, and so she’s not looking for a relationship. Still, she enjoys Shanti’s company. Even if she had wanted Shanti for a partner, the rise of Hitler puts an end to any hopes of romance.
Shanti recalls how much he loves Germany. However, he’s prohibited from practicing or studying dentistry in the Third Reich. He must move to the UK in 1937, even though he’d rather stay in Germany. Meanwhile, Henny’s Jewish family is also struggling under Hitler’s rising power. Henny loses her job and her non-Jewish friends because they’re afraid to associate with Jews.
She manages to find someone to stay with in London, leaving Germany just before war breaks out. Unfortunately, the rest of her family is later killed by Germans. Shanti tells Seth about the struggles she goes through to get back their belongings, and how poorly Jews are treated at the time. However, she does rekindle some friendships with German Christians, and they help her correspond with the authorities. There’s a sense that everyone wants to find some common ground in the midst of this devastation.
Shanti and Henny both endure many trials before they meet again. Shanti serves as a dental and medical surgeon in the British Army, and he loses an arm after an explosion. He doesn’t see how he can work again, but, inspired by others to keep going, he eventually learns how to perform dentistry with one hand. Henny learns that Hans pretended to be a diligent Nazi, and she’s unsure how to separate fact from fiction. She also discovers that her best friend’s husband is a member of the Nazi SA.
Unsure where to turn for support, she tries to contact Shanti because he’s the only person she knows in Britain. They find solace in each other and sharing memories. It’s not clear whether they’re ever in love, or if they marry because of a friendship which runs deeper than romantic love. Near the end of Two Lives
, Seth shares some of the letters exchanged between the couple during their courtship, and we can see the feelings change between them.
Shanti doesn’t dwell much on WWII itself. Instead, he focuses on the personal stories of his friends and colleagues who, like him, are trying to keep their lives together when everything descends into chaos. He also doesn’t look for pity after what happened to his arm—conversely, he is stoic and encourages us to take some time to reflect on our own circumstances.
Shanti doesn’t tell Seth anything about the Third Reich or WWII that he doesn’t already know. However, that’s not the point of the stories he shares. The point is to elaborate on how people from such different backgrounds can have something in common—humanity—and that relationships can triumph in adversity.