by Vikram Seth
HarperCollins, 503 pp., $27.95
In July 1931, a young Indian student named Shanti Seth arrived in Berlin to study dentistry. His eldest brother, Raj, who was a father figure to him, had said, “In our family we have an engineer, an accountant, a judge and a doctor, but no dentist. Why don’t you train to do that?” and although Shanti “wasn’t at all keen on the profession,…out of desperation about his uncertain future, he agreed.” He was advised at his pension in Berlin to look out for a sign that said Zimmer zu vermieten (“room for rent”) so he did, and found one on Mommsenstrasse in the elegant quarter of Charlottenburg, quite close to the dentistry institute. The door was opened to him by Gabriele Caro, a recently widowed Jewish woman in straitened circumstances who had two daughters and a son, and a large room to let. She took him in as a lodger and telephoned to tell her daughter Henny, who responded, “Nimm den Schwarzen nicht“—”Do not take the black man.” But she did, and Henny and Shanti began a relationship that lasted for five and a half decades and a marriage that lasted for three.
Vikram Seth, who is a great-nephew of Shanti Uncle (as he is known in the Indian way), found the story sufficiently intriguing to write a five-hundred-page book about Shanti and Henny that is full of affection and tenderness. He certainly earned the name they used for him—”Söhnchen,” little son—as well as the evaluation of himself as “a sort of family archivist.”
His book also helps to fill an absence, remarked on in a recent article in the Guardian by William Dalrymple, of biography and literary nonfiction in the English-language literature of India. Dalrymple does not mention Nirad Chaudhuri’s two-volume magnum opus—The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and Thy Hand, Great Anarch!—or his brilliant biographies of Robert Clive and the Sanskrit scholar Max Müller, so one might assume they are forgotten. Closer to our own time, and closer in form to Seth’s new book, are the many volumes of family history by Ved Mehta, such as Daddyji and Mamaji, which originally appeared in The New Yorker. But when Seth decided to tell the story of how his mother, as a young girl, came to choose “a suitable boy,” his father, he wrote it as a novel, one that pleased readers in many countries. He has now written about two other members of the Seth family in a memoir that also takes in the political and historical background of their lives.
He begins their story by telling us how he came upon it. Rather like his great-uncle forty years earlier, he found himself, as a boy of seventeen, on their doorstep in the drearily respectable London suburb of Hendon, and was welcomed by a couple then in their sixties. They had offered to act as his guardians when he won a scholarship to study at Tonbridge, a boarding school …