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Two Lives: by Vikram Seth

Two Lives: by Vikram Seth
on Aug 23, 2019
Two Lives: by Vikram Seth
Many authors have commemorated one or other of their parents; an obsessive few have commemorated both. But surely no author until now has written a whole memoir - and a long memoir at that - in commemoration of a great-aunt and great-uncle. There isn't the excuse of celebrity: Vikram Seth's Uncle Shanti and Aunty Henny spent most of their adult lives in a quiet suburban street in Hendon, where Shanti ran a dental practice. But to Seth, who first stayed with them as a 17-year-old and became, in effect, the son they never had, these two seemingly unremarkable people were an extraordinary couple. And certainly they look a striking pair in the photos - natty little Shanti with his gloved right hand, and the pale, storklike Henny towering above him. When Seth began reconstructing their story, more than 10 years ago, he did so with little sense of where it might lead. By then Henny was dead and Shanti, 85 and in poor health, needed the stimulus of some project. In the event, as he sat down, laptop at the ready, to conduct his interviews, it was Seth who was stimulated - and made to grasp how many events and intellectual currents of the 20th century intersected with the lives of Shanti and Henny. Like his great-nephew 40 years later, Shanti left India as a young man to study in Europe. Though he spoke no German, he was accepted at a dental institute in Berlin and lived in several lodgings there, the last of them a house owned by a Mrs Caro, whose elder daughter Henny was initially against the arrangement - Don't take the black man, she warned her mother. The black man soon won her round, with his humour and generosity. But Henny's engagement to a boy called Hans precluded any romance. Besides, in Hitler's Germany all possibility of inter-racial harmony was about to end. As a foreigner in the Third Reich, Shanti was prevented both from practising dentistry and from carrying out postgraduate research, and in 1937, much against his will, he moved to Britain. The world was also closing in on the Caros, who were Jewish: many of their non-Jewish friends drifted away, too afraid to visit them, and Henny lost her job with an insurance company. Thanks to Hans's father, she got out a month before the war, to stay with a family called Arberry in London. Her mother and sister Lola were less fortunate. Shanti, meanwhile, had joined the Army Dental Corps and, after spells in Egypt and Syria, wound up at Monte Cassino, where his right arm was blown off while he was sitting in a tent. Opportunities for one-armed dentists are limited, but after the war, as an adviser to the Amalgamated Dental Company, Shanti kept up his research. Inspired by an amputee dentist who had suffered a similar fate during the first world war, he began to practise again, with his left hand. The handicap made him concentrate all the harder with his patients, and he soon built up a successful practice. By the end of the 1940s, his life had fallen into a pattern: from nine to five he worked for the Amalgamated in central London, and from six to 10pm he saw patients at home in Hendon. Shanti and Henny finally married in 1951. He had written effusive letters to his dear Hennerle and little Kuckuck throughout the war. But because he was worried that he couldn't provide for her or that she might reject him, he took six years to propose. Perhaps he also worried that she was still in love with Hans. But Hans had married someone else - a Polish Christian girl, as Henny described her. Whatever bitterness Henny felt at the rejection she kept to herself, telling indignant friends who wrote from Germany that she bore Hans no resentment - though her Jewishness was the prime reason that he, a Mischling (mixed breed), had dropped her. Henny's story is one that Seth didn't expect to be able to tell in detail: not only was she reticent about her past (it's no good going into the graveyard, she liked to say), but after she died, a grieving Shanti destroyed all her photographs and mementoes. One trunk in the attic escaped his notice, however, and its contents - mostly letters - gave Seth access to a world she refused to discuss even with her husband. The journey takes him to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where her mother and sister perished. It's a horribly familiar story, but less so to Seth than to most Europeans, and he tells it with cold fury, admitting that one of the casualties of his research was his pleasure in the German language. The more interesting story, in some ways, is how Henny dealt with her old friends from Berlin after the war. Most, she knew, had been powerless to save her mother and sister, and she was grateful for whatever kindness they had shown. But she refused to reply when Hans sent her flowery poems. And a former acquaintance called Lili was firmly rebuffed for having failed to work against the Nazi system or to express a single word of abhorrence for its crimes. Henny never revisited Germany. Nor, despite her marriage to an Indian, did she visit India. Aside from annual holidays in Switzerland, Hendon remained her only real haven. As Seth's brother Shantum observes, there she could live a quiet middle-class life, without having it ripped apart by madmen. Two-thirds of the way through, the book loses narrative momentum - with a welter of letters from Henny's friends and an essayistic digression on Germany's centrality to modern history. But in the final pages, after a touching and sometimes comic account of Shanti's last years, there's one further twist, when it emerges that before he died he changed his will, much to his great-nephew's outrage. Perhaps Seth (who wasn't and didn't expect to be a beneficiary) makes too much of this - was it any more than an old man's paranoia and dementia? But it helps him to see Shanti less piously. And given the temptation to be hagiographical about his relations, that's no bad thing. More than once, Seth worries that he has betrayed them, by making their private lives public; she especially might have disapproved. But his motives are generous, and the breadth of the canvas is ample justification. Some there be, runs a passage in Ecclesiasticus, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been. Henny and Shanti had no children. But they did have an author for a great-nephew. And his Two Lives is a stay against their oblivion. · Blake Morrison's Things My Mother Never Told Me is published by Vintage

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