Two Lives by Vikram Seth - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

Fated For Each Other

Two Lives


Little, Brown 512pp £14.99

‘Their lives passed unnoticed’. These words were printed across the cover of the proof-copy of this book. I was arrested and charmed by this poignant epitaph, which I took to be part of the title. On the finished copy, however, it has disappeared, and the prosaic Two Lives stands alone. In fact, this apparently over-restrained label, for a work that is part biography and part personal memoir, is exact: the lovingly examined central figures are the author’s Indian great-uncle and his German-Jewish wife, and two separate though joined lives were what this unlikely pair actually led during their half-century together. ‘I think it was more a mutual support system than any great love,’ their nephew remarked to his son Vikram. Yes, perhaps. But by the book’s end one is no longer quite sure of this (among many other things), for if it wasn’t a persistent, exclusive love, of a kind, then what was it? Coming from completely different cultures, with little in common initially, not even language, diminutive Shanti Seth and tall Henny Caro nevertheless seemed fated for each other. As their great-nephew says: ‘Shaken about the globe, we live out our fractured lives. Enticed or fleeing, we re-form ourselves, taking on partially the coloration of our new backgrounds … Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home.’

He – known as ‘Shanti Uncle’ – was from a sprawling but united family of high-caste Hindus, most of whom made their way in the twentieth century out of their ancestral village and into educated circles in Delhi, Calcutta or Bombay. (We have already met some of them in fictional

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