Book review: Two lives by Vikram Seth

November 11, 2008

Title: Two lives
Author: Vikram Seth
Pages: 499

Two lives is a biography of the author’s grand-uncle Shanti and his German wife Henny. Vikram stayed with them for a few years in England when he went to school there. Shanti was a dentist who had his clinic in his house itself.

Shanti had met Henny while he was studying dentistry in Germany. He first set foot in Germany without knowing a single word of German. He decided to stay with a family who spoke only in German so that he would be forced to learn the language. So he moved in with Ella Caro and her two daughters – Henny and Lola. Despite a slightly rocky start (‘Mummy, don’t let the black man move in’) he integrated very well with the family and was soon a part of their friend’s circle. 

Shanti earned a doctorate in dentistry but was informed that he would not be allowed to practice in Germany. He had no choice but to return to England. His degrees were not recognized and he had to answer his qualifying exams all over again. Henny had fled Nazi Germany (she was Jewish) and migrated to England. Shanti was perhaps the only person she knew when she first came to England. Naturally, their friendship grew stronger and, in Shanti’s case, blossomed into love.

Shanti decided to enlist in the army (as a dentist) and was sent of to Africa where his right arm was blown off. Henny encouraged Shanti to start practicing dentistry again even though he was right-handed. Shanti managed to run a successful practice and finally proposed to Henny. Although Henny did not feel a great passion for Shanti (i.e. there was no spark) she consented. 

Vikram moved in with them when he came to study in England during his early teens. They were already in their 60’s by then.

I was shocked at how Vikram Seth has shamelessly published private letters, which at many times contained specific requests to keep the letters secret. But all secrets lose their importance as time goes on and in the interest of history I guess Vikram’s indiscretion is acceptable.

Overall the book was quite good even though it contains unnecessary descriptions of everyone in Vikram’s huge family.

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