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Pilgrim’s Progress

Two Lives

by Vikram Seth
HarperCollins, 503 pp., $27.95

1.

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 in southeast England, and 18 Queens Road was to be his home during the school holidays and continued to be his base in England from that day in August 1969 until his great-uncle’s death in 1998. His memory of the place remains as burnished as a piece of cherished family silver—the red pillar box at the street corner, the polished brass plaque on the door bearing his uncle’s name, the rose bushes in the front garden, the apple trees at the back—as the inhabitants proceed from old age to death.

In that time he came to know them better than anyone else in the family, for although Shanti Uncle visited India occasionally, he never took Henny with him or lived there again. The young Vikram came to be practically a son to the childless couple: they kept a watchful eye on his studies, health, dress, appearance, and friends, and took an almost parental pride in his considerable achievements as a poet, travel writer, and novelist. It was Aunty Henny who wrote him letters when he was away—affectionate, bantering, encouraging, and full of her “optimismus.”

Of course they all spoke English—Shanti and Henny had chosen to do so in their years in England during the war—and of course uncle and nephew shared a knowledge of Hindi, although in Shanti’s case it had dwindled through disuse and was almost lost, but it was the German language that knit the three together so intimately. The young Vikram had not realized that the Oxford entrance exam he intended to take would require that he know a European language; he did not possess one. When he told his great-uncle and aunt, Henny replied that the only thing to do was to learn one as quickly as possible, and offered her services. In fact, she started on it forthwith. “Was ist das, Vicky?” she asked, pointing at an object and demanding an answer—in German. The exercise was continued at the dinner table and, while washing the dishes, she sang to him a well-known German poem by Heine—in a voice that was “penetrating, even strident”—“Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot” (“Rose, rose, rose red”). This planted a lifelong love of German lieder in Vikram Seth. He also found that he could now follow the quarrels between his uncle and aunt. Living in this closed and private world he could enter into the dark heart of the story, Aunty Henny’s past, which gives this otherwise commonplace narrative its historical interest.

Shanti Uncle’s part of the story was naturally the more accessible, since he was still alive when his great-nephew undertook his biography. Vikram Seth was able to have several long talks with Shanti Uncle that catch the tone of his voice and reminiscences—lively, strewn with non sequiturs, and rather dotty.

Born in 1908 in a village in north India, shortly after the death of his father in an epidemic of plague, Shanti Seth was the youngest of eight children and did not lack for care. (After all, the Indian extended family makes a relative even of “my mother’s brother’s wife’s brother’s wife’s father,” as Vikram Seth jokes at one point.) Originally a family of landowners and estate agents, they had seen in the nineteenth century that the way to success lay in their entering the professions: engineering, accountancy, and medicine. Shanti Uncle’s eldest brother, Raj, sent the boy to boarding schools in Lucknow and Varanasi, then to Europe to acquire the necessary skills to be a dentist. His time in Berlin during the Thirties appears to have been idyllic, spent in the bosom of the Caro family and its circle, both Jewish and Christian.

Shanti managed at first to ignore the grim consequences of Naziism; he attended the Hitler Olympics and went on a tour of the Krupp steelworks where he was highly impressed by the fact that “everything was free there—the best of food, the best of wine—in those very hard times.” But eventually he came up against xenophobia: his professor offered him a job at the dental institute where he had done his doctoral research and then withdrew it at the insistence of the Nazi Ministry of Education, which rebuked the professor for offering a job to a foreigner.

Accepting the inevitable, Shanti traveled to Britain only to find that his German degree was not recognized there. He got a new one in Edinburgh, but still the only job he could find was as an assistant to a Parsi dentist in London. He seems not to have considered returning to India, something his family clearly expected him to do. Instead, he enlisted in the army, was commissioned in the medical corps as a lieutenant, and sent to the front in Africa, then to Syria and Italy. After all, “Soldiers, who might have to fight on the front or be dropped behind enemy lines, had to be dentally fit for at least a year.” (It is characteristic of Vikram Seth’s books that he makes the reader aware of experiences one might not otherwise encounter. Who has ever before pondered the place of dentistry in war?) Shanti found himself treating soldiers, including Indians—at that time fighting for the Crown—and even a few Germans. “In an earlier dispensation these might have been Shanti’s friends,” the author rather ponderously explains, “but he, like many of his countrymen, was ranged against them by historical and personal circumstance in the service of a country that was ruling—and unwilling to relinquish—his own.” (Shanti himself was not given to such objective evaluations of history.) In fact, when he comes upon a wounded German soldier who rants, “The Führer will come and he will wipe out the whole British army,” Shanti “never went to see him again.”

Much of his wartime experience has to do with the officers’ mess, with pink gins and highballs, and chat with the other men. In his reminiscences he stands up to drunken bullies who speak to him nastily: “One more bloody [remark] from you, and I’ll throw you out.” During the battle of Monte Cassino, described in painstaking detail by his great-nephew, he had the worst misfortune of his life: his right hand was blown off by a bomb while he was trying to find shelter behind some boxes of dental gear on a rocky hillside. His forearm had to be amputated and in 1945 he was informed by the War Office that “there is now no alternative but to relegate you to unemployment.”

Shanti had maintained a steady correspondence with Henny after he left Germany; when she emigrated to England, in July 1939, he met her at Victoria Station. The letters he wrote to her from the front were unmistakably ardent—calling her his “darling Kuckuck” (cuckoo), reminding her he was her “Schwarze Punkt” (black point) and “Pünktchen” (little point), and ending with acronyms like “ILD” (“Ich liebe dich“). The letters he wrote after his accident were anguished and naturally filled with self-pity; during his rehabilitation in Nottingham, he asked her not to visit him and, strangely, she did not.

Eventually he reconciled himself to using a prosthetic hand and, with the help of several sympathetic colleagues, resumed his dental practice. After several years as a lodger in Hendon, he bought the house at 18 Queens Road, where he was to set up his dental clinic and live for the rest of his life. Henny, who had a flat of her own, joined him there after their marriage in July 1951—an occasion he described joyfully when he was nearly ninety years old. She gave up her job in a pharmaceutical firm to help him in his clinic, and since they were rarely apart, no more letters exist between them.

2.

When Vikram Seth began work on their memoir at the suggestion of his mother, Aunty Henny had been dead for five years. There was little for him to go on because “she was an outgoing but reticent person.” Even Shanti could not tell him how she felt when she heard of the fate of her mother and sister, who died in concentration camps:

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