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Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

There comes a time in every writer’s career when they are plagued by the question, “what do I write about now?” Such was the dilemma Vikram Seth found himself in after the publication of his novel The Suitable Boy, the longest single volume novel ever published. The fear of never being able to write again haunted Vikram. His mother, Leila Seth, asked him to interview his great-uncle Shanti Seth, which he did. Those comprehensive interviews have resulted in Vikram Seth’s latest novel, ‘Two Lives.’

The two lives in question are Uncle Shanti and his German-Jewish wife Henny. This incident was narrated by the author himself at the Penguin India book launch of ‘Two Lives’ in Chennai on October 13. The event, the first of a five-city promotional tour, was held at the Taj Coromandel and was well attended by the usual mix of dancers, socialites and other assorted culture vultures.

The author read extracts from his book for an hour. The book covers a period of time from the 1930s to the 1970s. Shanti Uncle migrated to Germany in the 1930s and lived with Henny’s family till he was forced to relocate to England due to World War 2. Henny joined Shanti in England after she fled Germany in 1939. Their friendship blossomed into love and they got married.

Vikram Seth went to live with his uncle and aunt when he attended boarding school at Tonbridge. He could thus observe them up close and the result is an extraordinary story about two ordinary people. The book covers a wide sweep from Nazi Germany, Britain, Auschwitz and the holocaust, Israel, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain.

The author talked about how he found aunt Henny’s letters in which she had poured out her grief over the loss of her mother and sister who perished in the gas chambers. When questioned about whether ‘Two Lives’ was his most personal work he replied that although all his books had some element of the personal, reading through aunt Henny’s letters was an emotionally draining experience. According to Seth the best stories are the ones that happen around us, just waiting to be told. And because the two people he wrote about were not famous he was not constrained by the regular rules that apply to memoirs and biographical accounts. Maybe that’s what makes ‘Two Lives’ so special.

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