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How Vikram Seth's uncle lost his arm

October 22, 2005 23:46 IST

Vikram Seth is journeying through metropolitan India with his latest work, Two Lives. While we have been following him around, here are exclusive extracts from the book, which is being described as a masterly fusion of memoir, biography, and history.

Born June 20, 1952, Seth is best known for his novels -- The Golden Gate (1986), A Suitable Boy (1993) and his last published work, An Equal Music (1999).

In the following extract from Two Lives, Seth's uncle Shanti, a dentist, describes his life as an Indian in the British Army during World War II. Seth switches between his own narrative and his uncle's words (italicised). In the second extract, also reproduced here, he talks about how his uncle's arm was blown off during the war.

Shanti had little time for bullies, regardless of rank. One evening an Irish officer, the second-in-command of the hospital, who was losing at poker, wanted to continue to play after closing hours in the mess in order to salvage his loses. He ordered a subaltern to tell the wine waiter to tell the engineer to keep the lights on for another half-hour. When the waiter hesitated, he let out a stream of abuse. Shanti, who was sitting at a nearby table, went up to him and told him that he was the secretary of the mess and that any problem should be referred to him. The major promptly turned the torrent of abuse on to him. Shanti told him that he had informed him earlier that the electricity would be switched off at 10 p.m. The major insisted that he hadn't.

He kept saying, you bloody this, you bloody that, you never bloody well said any bloody thing. I said, 'Are you calling an officer a liar? One more bloody from you, and I'll throw you out.' That didn't stop him, and I promptly threw him out.

Oh, my God, I thought. What have I done? I'm for the big jump. The thing is, between a lieutenant and a captain there isn't much of a gap, but between a captain and a major there's a huge difference. I was sitting in my tent when a letter came from the major: 'Captain Seth, report to me at 8 a.m. I will be charging you with insubordination.' I couldn't sleep, I was so worried. At 1 a.m. I was awake, at 2 am. At 2.30, my friend, Major Sammy Shone, who was a medical officer in the Indian Medical Service, an officer of many years' standing who could speak better Hindi than you or me, came into the tent.

'What's the matter?' he asked. 'You look like you've been walking on hot coals.'

I told him everything. 'Show me the letter,' he said.

He read it through, then said, 'Take this letter, tear it into twenty pieces, and throw it into the waste-paper basket.' When I stared at him, he went on: 'Either you arrest someone or you don't. But you can't threaten arrest. King's Regulations.'

So I did nothing. I didn't report at eight o'clock the next morning. At nine o'clock I went to see the colonel and explained what had happened in the mess. He said, 'Seth, my boy, should I get rid of him?' 'No, Sir,' I replied.

But the major was ostracized by everyone. No one would talk to him or play poker with him or share a drink with him. It must have been a horrible feeling and a shock. After two days he came up to me without any malice and offered me a drink, and of course I accepted.

Vikram Seth's Whistlestop tour of India

Getting to know the regulations was something that Shanti had little time for. He found it hard to cope with army bureaucracy, which dealt with a dental unit consisting of six people just as it dealt with other units. He had to fill in forms that demanded, among other things, how many anti-aircraft guns his unit possessed. Even a 'nil return' had to be submitted in six copies. Others, however, watched out for him.

I lost some equipment -- uh, I can't remember the name, see what happens when you get old -- a filling instrument with two heads, both ends look exactly the same, a few inches long, it would have cost about a pound. My male nurse told me that if I informed the dental depot that I had lost it, there would have to be a court of inquiry. So in front of me he broke a similar instrument in two, and when I stared at him, he told me that now we had two unserviceable instruments, and that I could sign a form stating as much. I did so and the replacements promptly arrived.

***

He described how his arm was blown off:

There were no trenches near my dental tent. It was a hilly and rocky area. I was sitting behind my panniers -- the boxes in which I kept my dental gear -- and my hand was outside. All of a sudden, there was a big bang, and my hand was off and hanging by my skin. There was terrific pain and a lot of blood. I waited for twenty minutes. The shelling went on. Then I thought, nobody would know I was here. More bleeding. Best to run through the shelling to the tent where the medical officers were attending to the wounded patients. There were quite few there; I knew all the officers by their Christian names, and they insisted they would do it themselves for me. But even after an injection of morphine, the pain was unbearable. I got another but then I don't remember anything.

The doctors staunched the bleeding and amputated his forearm while the shelling was still going on. He was quickly sent away from the front to the casualty clearing station. The road was bumpy, and the jolting of the ambulance caused him a lot more pain. When he reached the clearing-station, he was given painkillers and sleeping tablets, but to little effect. Early the next morning he was moved to a general hospital in Caserta, not far from Naples.

He had no appetite at all, but the staff insisted he eat something. As they knew he liked whisky, they gave him some. They also gave him sulpha drugs -- penicillin was not available at that time -- but he said that these, besides causing him sleeplessness and diarrhoea, did a lot of long-term damage to his liver.

Aamir is Seth's Suitable Boy

His friends and fellow officers came to see him. General Alexander, when he visited the hospital, happened as a result to see him as well, and assured him, 'Everyone will look after you.'

'What will I do? What will I do?' -- the thought came to me again and again.

Mount Vesuvius, I believe, erupted at that time, and they showed it to me. I was not interested in a volcano or anything, but they tried to take my mind off my problems, and they were really good to me. They gave me whisky, they gave me eggs, and what more could they do? That morning I'd operated on a few patients. Now I was useless for anything.

I still can't work out why the Germans shelled us. True, they were above us, they had the advantage. But there was a sort of understanding that neither side would shell the medical people on the other side. I very much doubt they wanted to shell us, because when our ambulance travelled at night, they didn't shell it. They could easily have killed us. Maybe they shelled us that afternoon because there was artillery nearby - or maybe the mules that were used for transport. Who knows?

From the Caserta hospital the first letter I wrote was to Henny. I wrote in capital letters, like a child writes, and it took me four hours just to write six lines or so. I was also very ill from liver and drugs -- more even than because of my hand. It was an air-mail letter card. I have thrown all that away. I don't have anything to do with the army, all that rubbish. I can't even find my army cap or uniform. The Eritrean war, the Italian campaign… medals, they just come with the rations.

To order Two Lives online, click here.

Excerpted with the publisher's permission from Two Lives, by Vikram Seth, Penguin Books India, Rs 695.

Vikram Seth