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.
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:
When he was in Berlin in the thirties, she and her family had had too much pride to talk at length about any sense of injury they felt about being excluded, gradually or suddenly, from the world they had grown up in and the country they had believed was theirs.
When she died, Shanti, in his grief, destroyed everything that reminded him of her—photos and letters included. “Remembering Aunty Henny’s own brusque attitude towards superfluous objects and papers, I did not doubt that he was right.”
So where Aunty Henny’s past was concerned, there would have been a silence in Seth’s memoir had it not been for the discovery, made by Seth’s father while tidying the attic in 18 Queens Road, of “a small cobweb-covered, tan-coloured cabin trunk with wooden ribs and dull brass studs.” Filled with Henny’s official documents, photographs, tax returns, and letters, some with adoring and extremely bad poetry addressed to her by an earlier suitor, it had eluded destruction by lying in “a far recess” under a sloping ceiling.
Among the letters were two postcards written in 1943 by Henny’s mother and sister—one from Theresienstadt and one from Auschwitz—consisting of only the permitted twenty-five words, and giving no information at all. In 1945 letters came from Henny’s aunt Malchen, who had escaped with her husband to Sweden, confirming that her mother had “unfortunately died in Th[eresienstadt]” and that her sister Lola had not been heard from. Malchen’s husband added, out of kindness,
Your mother died in a hospital that was excellently run and was situated in the middle of a park, so that even in her last days she was able to sit in the garden. She did not suffer any want; at the time, the standard of care was still basically satisfactory.
It was an entire year before Henny’s friends in Germany could resume contact with her and she learned who had been deported and murdered, who had committed suicide, who had gone “underground” and survived, who had saved themselves by marriage to Christians, and who had escaped to the United States, South America, or even China.
We cannot tell how Henny reacted to the news about her family, since she never spoke to anyone about it. When Shanti mentioned it once to her, she cut him short, saying, “Shanti, it’s no good going into the graveyard.” He told Vikram Seth, “When Henny found out they had died, I only wish she had dropped a tear. She never cried. She would never talk about it, not even to me. She never mentioned their names again.”
Perhaps she was not even aware of the ghastly details that Vikram Seth himself tells us he learned when he read such factual accounts as The Death Factory by Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka, two former inmates of Auschwitz, and published in English only in 1966, or Ghetto Theresienstadt by Zdenek Lederer, translated from Czech and published in 1953. While attending a writers’ conference in Israel, Vikram Seth also visited the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and spent much time reading documents at the archives there. He felt, for the first time, an almost physical hatred of what he had once loved: “Even Heine I could no longer read.” Nor could he bear to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Schubert’s lieder. He writes of “the stench of the language…the very verbs stank.” Eventually he reconciled himself with the German language when he forced himself to read the letters Aunty Henny and her friends had exchanged: “My blind distaste was stilled; and in time even my old love, now both deeper and more troubled, revived.”
Unfortunately, the reader of this book is unlikely to feel the same about these letters, which make up an entire section of the book. Tragedy does not automatically inspire good prose, and no one in Henny’s circle had the least spark of literary ability. Mostly the letters describe the dreadful privations people suffered from not only during but also after the war. A wife begs for “dignity-preserving” shoelaces for her husband; he asks for stockings and underwear for his wife—“used of course.” In addition to vital necessities like food, medicines, heat, and shelter, all that had once been taken for granted as a part of a comfortable bourgeois life was gone. Henny’s friend Ilse writes:
A basket with all my bed-linen, that I had rescued by pram and rucksack under Russian bombardment at the risk of being killed during our flight, all my towels, kitchen towels, table-cloths, embroidered bedcovers, my vests, my knickers, my petticoats, in brief, everything that is necessary for a housewife has so completely disappeared that I couldn’t even change the beds for Christmas….
A little of this goes a long way. Painful as such information is, another torment lies in the pettiness and meanness of human nature revealed under such circumstances. When a friend, for instance, arranged for food coupons to be conveyed to the starving Lola, she discovered later that Lili, to whom she had entrusted them, kept the white bread coupons for herself and gave Lola only the black bread coupons. On and on they go, these Greuelmärchen (horror stories), and they do not end with the war. The German Jews who were not killed find that they are looked at askance because of their survival. “I am certain,” one writes, “that if I go out in my new coat, people will say: ‘Yes, well, the victims of Fascism, they’ve got something now, while we just have to go around looking like this.'”
Was some of this hatred directed at Henny, safely in England? She was one of the enviable few who had escaped, who lived among friends who supported her and had a comparatively comfortable life in London. Throughout the war she and Shanti tirelessly packed and sent care packages of food to her German friends; they sent much else that might be needed—darning wool, cigarettes, combs, shoes, bouillon cubes, all received with rapturous gratitude. But there are troubling lacunae in this otherwise exhaustively detailed account: Did Henny ever make attempts to bring her mother and sister to England? This might have been possible until 1941, when the borders were sealed, but there is no written or spoken evidence that she did so. We do know that she continued to correspond, however briefly, with her brother Heinz, who had taken the money sent by relatives to procure affidavits for their mother and sister and bought himself a passage to South America, where he lived till his death.
We can imagine a novelist or a playwright turning this story into a biting satire or a bitter farce, but Vikram Seth, an unfailingly respectful memoirist, appears to have been loath to sacrifice any item of his research to the cause of literary shape. He even adopts the different tones of his subjects’ prose, by turns factual and detailed or philosophical and moralizing. He ends with a lengthy, and some would say unnecessary, digression on “the part that Germany and the German-speaking people had played in the culture and history of the twentieth century,” and plods through German contributions to science and to arts and letters—“both theoretical and applied”—as well as psychology and philosophy. Since there is nothing here that has not been said before, it might well have been cut; but he explains that “as grandnephew and recounter of Shanti and Henny’s story, I felt compelled to try to work out my own thoughts about the country that had been so central to both their lives.” Such reflections beg an obvious question: What of India, Shanti Uncle’s country and its story, also stirring and momentous in precisely the same decades? Seth has nothing to say about the struggle for freedom in India or the partition of India and Pakistan—events that touched the lives of every Indian of that generation.
Seth believes that just as Henny gave up her country, Shanti Uncle gave up his; they belonged neither to Germany nor to India. Of course they were foreigners in Britain but they never seem to have considered living in India. Vikram Seth’s younger brother Shantum thought that Henny “had a big fear of India—the noise, the crowds, the germs…. [Shanti Uncle] had very strong memories, but he had a fear too, and he certainly didn’t want to expose her to India.” Vikram Seth gives a loftier interpretation: “Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home.”
Henny herself was not given to high emotion or drama. Vikram Seth says of her: “She was a realist, an acceptor of fate as something lived through and done with.” Henny and Shanti got engaged in 1949 after some nudging by mutual friends, and, after some more nudging, married in 1951. They went on to have a long and untroubled marriage and Vikram Seth’s parents—the pair we got to know in A Suitable Boy —probably were right about their marriage (even if Henny comes across as something of a caricature of a German woman) when they talk about her in a conversation that makes one wish Seth had written a novel instead of a memoir:
Papa: She was a real German and very particular about everything…. She was not a very warm person, but she warmed up. Uncle and she were complete contrasts….
Mama: …They looked so incongruous: he short and compact, she tall and thin in her high heels, towering over him.
Papa: I think it was more a mutual support system than any great love.
Mama: But you could see there was a caring relationship.
Papa: I think Uncle was quite a lad.
Mama: Certainly not.
Papa: Wasn’t there a problem once?
Mama: That’s absolute nonsense…. I know Shanti Uncle’s nature.
Vikram Seth’s younger brother, Shantum, who also spent much time at 18 Queens Road as a student, never took to the couple with the same enthusiasm: their “clockwork lifestyle” with its “bath drill” and “washing up drill” put him off and helped impel him toward political radicalism.
When Shanti was nearly ninety years old and somewhat infirm in mind and body (his physical decline is described in relentless detail: heart attacks, blood clots, stomach upsets, prostate, and piles), he altered his will, cutting out his beloved niece and nephews save for one who lived in Canada and who hardly figures in this memoir, and leaving money to a man in London who had been something of a nurse to him in his old age. Vikram Seth had not wanted or expected to be a beneficiary but was stunned nevertheless and could not fathom the insult to his mother and her brothers who had been so devoted to Shanti Uncle. “I found it impossible to be philosophical about someone who had greatly affected the way I felt and thought,” he confesses, and found it hard to continue the work he had begun on the memoir. But once he took it up again, he found that, as with the German language earlier, all his old feelings about his uncle and aunt revived. As he says of their marriage: “In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.” The book ends when Seth visits 18 Queens Road many years later and finds it shabby and lifeless. Reading this account, one can imagine the final scene in a BBC television serial with an actor pronouncing, in a measured baritone, the valediction that Vikram Seth delivers about the “strange journeys we undertake on our earthly pilgrimage”:
These two people whom I loved and who loved me may not, in differing degrees, have wanted every stroke—sometimes distorted, sometimes overexplicit—of this portrait. But they are dead and past caring; and I want them complexly remembered…. Their lives were cardinal points for me, and guide me still; I want to mark them true.
April 6, 2006