Two Lives, by Vikram Seth, is a beautifully written and poignant memoir and one that you will remember long after you have finished the last word, on the last page. It is one of those memoirs that stay in your heart, in your mind, for years to come.
“When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England. He was an Indian by origin, she German. They were both sixty. I hardly knew them at the time.”
And, with these opening lines begins the journey through the lives of Shanti Behari Seth (Indian), Helga Gerda Karo (German Jew), and, the author, which culminates in an emotional ending. Seth, chronicles the lives of his great-uncle and great-aunt, with exacting details, which some might find over-reacting, or over-zealous in his endeavors. But, we must remember that this is a memoir, a factual story of lives. This is not a novel, or fictionalized account, but, rather an actual documentation of their lives, relayed in over 500 pages. And, relayed it is, through the most minute of details.
All the details of the interplays and dynamics need to be depicted and interwoven into the family fabric and tapestry of their lifespans. Seth does so with magnificent prose, always mindful of those he writes of. His admiration and respect for his great-uncle and great-aunt is clear, and the reader knows it is honest and comes from Seth’s heart and soul. If Shanti and Helga had not met, there would be no story. If they had not met, Seth would not have experienced the love and devotion showered on him.
We watch the friendship and love grow between Shanti, who was born in India, and studied dentistry and medicine in Berlin; and Helga, a German Jew. Two very different cultures, and two lives, lives which receded and ebbed within The Holocaust, Auschwitz and Israel, in an ocean of torment, hate, persecution, and, love. From 1908 India, to 1908 Germany, and the years that follow, in a Germany ruled by Hitler, we follow the journey of Shanti and Helga, to England, and also the journey of the author, Vikram Seth, into the lives of this childless couple.
These two lives couldn’t have been more different, yet more alike, than either of them could have imagined…overcoming racial and ethnic hatred, and genocide, their lives become fulfilled and realized, with the inclusion of Vikram Seth into their family. This is a memoir weaved from cultural threads, threads of understanding and love, woven into a quilt of unconditional love, compassion and the overcoming of adversity.
Seth connects the reader through his almost gentle-like prose and his compassion for the circumstances. His kind demeanor is present within each page, and he is never quick to demonstrate anger or hatred. That, for me, was extremely apparent throughout the memoir.
Two Lives is a must read for everyone who is interested in World War II, The Holocaust, India, England, and a love story that crosses all the cultural boundaries. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down.
Seth is masterful in his word-paintings with fluidity and through details that fill the senses. His prose is almost poetic. Two Lives is as much of a tribute to his great-uncle and great-aunt, as it is an inspirational story that touches on the horrors of war and the fight for survival within an extremely adverse framework. The human spirit and determination to survive and move forward is depicted magnificently in Two Lives. It is a tribute to Vikram Seth and the foundation his relatives laid out for him. It is a tribute to life.
June 1, 2012 – 10 Sivan, 5772
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