Should doctors ever diagnose a form of literary attention-deficit disorder, Vikram Seth would be their most famous and accomplished patient. In some 25 years, the Indian writer has ranged from poetry (Mappings) and travel literature (From Heaven Lake) to epic storytelling (A Suitable Boy) and novels in verse (The Golden Gate). His latest mania? Memoir, in the form of Two Lives.
"I don't think one should write books that are uninspired," says Seth (pronounced "Sayt"), speaking by phone from London. (He also resides in India.) "Nor is there any advantage in repeating oneself in a particular genre. When I'm trying something out, if it suggests itself in a new genre, I do it."
Not for a moment did he consider writing his hefty new memoir as fiction: "If I were to write the story of Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny as a novel, readers might say, 'Is this true?' It would seem even more artificial to try and turn that into fiction."
As it stands, their story hardly needs embellishing. Seth came to know his great-aunt and great-uncle in 1969 when, at the age of 17, he moved to London from Calcutta to continue his schooling. Shanti ran a busy, if ramshackle, dentistry practice out of their home. His German-born Jewish wife, Henny, an escapee of the Holocaust, worked as his assistant. An astute observer even as a teenager, Seth found their isolation from each other and from their families very odd. "I feel family is the heart of my life," he says expansively, "which is why it keeps showing up in my work. I think we stave off our loneliness through the comfort of others."
Seth later discovered letters from Shanti during World War II in which he lost an arm to the woman he met while studying dentistry in Berlin in the '30s.
"When I read his letters to her," says Seth, "I found this was a very different uncle from the one that I knew."
Seth was even more shocked when, several years after her death, he turned up a trove of letters written by his aunt to friends still in Germany. Seth explains, "I never realized … that after the war, rather than just … say, 'Damn this country, I don't want anything to do with it; let them starve, let them freeze, I don't care,' she sent to a friend a gentile food, clothing, even things like shoelaces to help preserve their dignity."
Ultimately, however, Seth is not eager to speculate on whether or not Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny were truly happy together: "Happy families are all very different," he says diplomatically, no matter what Tolstoy to whom Seth has been compared has to say on that subject.
By Vikram Seth
(HarperCollins, 512 pages)