Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Two Lives

Behind every door on every ordinary street,in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found. The strange journeys that we undertake on our earthly pilgrimage, the joy and suffering we taste and confer, the chance events that cleave us together or apart, what a complex trace they leave: so personal as to be almost incommunicable, so fugitive as to be almost irrevocable.

These lines, taken from the last page of Seth's latest novel, are in essence all the novel is about. Had it not been written, and so wonderfully at that, the story of his uncle Shanti and his German born aunt Henny would have remain untold, like the billions of others which meet a similar fate. This book, through the journeys of two separate lives which later became one, affirms that the stories of people are not only glimpses into their private lives, but, on a much larger scale, the story of the times they lived in. It gives an insight into a somewhat strange marriage, of two people in a foreign land brought closer to each other, owing much more to circumstance than anything else. One an Indian studying to be a dentist in Germany and forced to go to England for a job owing to the conditions in pre war Germany. The other, a Jew, having to leave her homeland and relatives and friends behind in such heart rending circumstances. The story of the times they tell happens to be historically the most important time in the previous century, or for that matter any century.

The novel has a narrative tone throughout, something Seth is so good at. The book is divided into 5 very logically created chapters. One detailing the author's initial stay with his uncle and aunt at London as a school boy. Second focusing on Shanti uncle, his leaving India and going to Germany, living in a house owned by Henny's mother, studying to be a dentist in Germany, leaving Germany and going to England to look for a job, joining the Army and getting posted various places as an Army dentist, losing his arm in Italy, coming back to England and starting all over again with an artificial arm and setting up a very successful practice. In between the letters he wrote to Henny to woo her also form a very important of the story.

The third chapter and the best and most emotionally moving part of the book deals with the life of aunt Henny. As she was already dead when Seth had the idea to write the book, he had taken it for granted that the life story that he was going to portray would have to be a second hand description from his uncle and a few friends, thus failing to capture her inner emotional turmoil and feelings. Feelings that she never shared even with her husband Shanti. But a chance discovery of correspondence with her friends in form of letters stacked in a forgotten box ensured that this did not happen. The letters, spanning the course of war, describe in detail the barbaric rule that Hitler had imposed and also expose how erstwhile friends become indifferent and shun the oppressed to save their skins. The research work that accompanies this letter exchange makes the whole experience of Jewish people in pre and post war Germany come to life and is very sentimentally charged. Curiously enough Henny never discusses her great losses with her husband which make the premises of this strange marriage all the more mysterious.

The fourth chapter tracks the lives of Seth's uncle and aunt as a couple and the dynamics of their relations with friends and family. The fifth deals with the life of uncle Shanti alone after losing Henny and is based on the series of interviews that the author had with his uncle to get material to write the book. It also sheds a light on the weaknesses of old age, both physical and mental and incidences which lead to the final ambivalent approach of the author towards the very subject of his book.

In my personal opinion, though it is unfair to compare a biography with fiction, A Suitable Boy has been the best Seth creation. I have already discussed my disappointment with An Equal Music and Golden Gate though brilliant in its composition and concept is not something you would read again and again for pleasure. I still read parts of A Suitable Boy and laugh, smile, get angry or shrug in disbelief; whatever the situation demands.

Judging by the volume of books he writes, it will be a long time since another Seth novel will be available, but I'll be waiting eagerly for the moment. And, for a change, will buy the book to read it :)

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