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The Rediff Special/Nayana in Chennai
History pours out of the closet
October 16, 2005
Like the perfect bridegroom, the little man sat on an ornate chair, telling a tale of epic proportion to a 200-strong crowd, wooed with lemonade, sitting in polite silence in a ballroom.
The setting couldn't be more sombre for the Penguin India launch of author Vikram Seth's latest, Two Lives.
Chennai's glitterati gathered on an overcast evening to listen to Seth reading out portions from his second non-fiction title, and possibly, after a deluge of 150 mm, the rain of questions directed towards the author was limited to just four.
On Thursday, Seth began a five-city promotional tour, taking readers to the Germany of the 'Hitler years' and to an adopted England where even a German housewife served tea on English occasions. Danseuse Anita Ratnam, thespian Prabhu, the late Sivaji Ganesan's son and entrepreneur-lawyer Karti Chidambaram mingled shoulders with resort owners and culture vultures in a crowd where Chennai's literary circle felt lost. Penguin also forgot to invite Tamil authors, most of whom are bilingual.
"This is the book launch of the year," said Thomas Abraham of Penguin, introducing the author who needed no introduction. Penguin has published all his books. Seth has 'redefined biography in an epic sweep', the publishers added, recalling that the greatest commercial success from Seth for Penguin was A Suitable Boy.
In his selection, Seth covered time from the 1930s to the 1970s in the lives of an Indian dental surgeon in London Shanti Behari Seth (Vikram's great uncle) and his German wife Henny Gerda Caro, and said, "Yes, it was a personal book." However, the book is more than just the unfolding story of 18, Queen's Road. The Shanti and Henny story is part biography, but there's more.
'It was not just a family archive, but the world history, the history of Germany and England' that, delving through Aunty Henny's letters, was uncovered for Seth and, now, his readers. Shanti, Seth told his audience, was a hero of the epic battle of Monte Cassino and had lost an arm in action in Africa and Italy, during World War II.
For a surgeon, losing his right arm could not only be professionally damaging, it meant a complete re-orientation in life. Luckily, he had an anchor, Henny, who had 'fled Hitler's Germany for England just one month before the war broke out'. She was met at Victoria station 'by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti', an expat Indian whom she had first called a 'black man'!
'The result is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World war, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain', where a 17-year-old is sent to get an education, typically.
'Part biography, part memoir, part meditation on our times, this is the true tale of two remarkable lives', the publisher added. Seth himself referred to Shanti and Henny's lives as examples of 'great courage' and 'a story of grit', interspersed with anecdotes of how the two would fall back on German when they wanted to speak privately.
From 1908 to 1998, Shanti's life was long and eventful, but there was a period in the evening of his life without Henny, who had been taken by her maker. Recalling that time, Seth said that the loss was so great that Shanti had destroyed all her letters, put away all her personal things so as not to leave any trace of her around him. 'But a bunch of letters were found', that let the author into the secret world of Henny, which he has shared.
Henny Gerda Caro, also born in 1908 to a Jewish family, was 'cultured, patriotic and intensely German'. Her path crossed Shanti's in the 1930s, when he arrived in Berlin as a student lodger in her house. When she fled Berlin, her mother and sister were left behind, eventually deported to concentrations camps. After the war ended in Europe, it was Shanti who helped Henny look for her family and friends.
Penguin also presented a preview of Seth's collection of poetry in a new format, including All You Who Sleep Tonight, The Golden Gate, Three Chinese Poets, Mapping and Beastly Tales from Here and There, all now available in the Indian market.
As for Two Lives, the book is being billed an 'extraordinary story about two perfectly ordinary people'. It is certainly more than just that. Seth admitted this story was a long way from A Suitable Boy and his audience did not say more, only that he had made a genre switch. "There is no particular credit to be attached in moving from one genre to another," he told the tame audience devoid of students of literature, literary critics and the Tamil world of letters, conceding, "it would be difficult to continue in the same genre as A Suitable Boy."