In high school and college, I took some history classes, but I always did horribly in them. I could barely stay attentive in class, and I hardly ever did the reading, or memorized all the dates and names we were being tested on as we went from war to war throughout “world” history. Looking back, I think I was unconsciously frustrated at the fact that “world” history consisted entirely of the US and Europe, with a few side notes on China and the “exotic” Silk Road…
I’m only halfway through Two Lives by Vikram Seth. When I started reading it, I didn’t know too much about what the book was about. I had tripped over a copy of it, and it was sitting on my ‘books to read’ list for a while, and it had finally come up. The book turns out to be a memoir about his grandfather’s brother, Shanti Uncle and Auntie Henny, and starts when Seth leaves Calcutta to go to school in England, and spends much of his time in school with Shanti Uncle and Auntie Henny, developing a strong parent/child-type relationship with them that he holds dear for the rest of his life. After introducing his Uncle and Auntie, he goes on to talk about each of their histories, the ‘Two Lives’ that this book is about.
Shanti Uncle moved to Germany from India in the early 1930s to go to dental school, during which time he lived in the spare room in the home of a Jewish family, the daughter of whom was Henny, the woman who he would later marry. After going to dental school he moves to England to start practicing dentistry at around the same time World War II breaks out. After practicing in London for sometime, he decides to enlist in the British Army to be part of the dental corpse in the war, and this is where the book really got interesting for me. Since I didn’t have too great a of a knowledge about WWII, I knew what happened, what countries were involved, why it was atrocious, but I hardly knew any details. So following the progression of the war through the eyes of an Indian man was interesting. Plus, I had never known that there were Indians in World War II. But thinking back, in the 1940s India was a colony of Great Britain. So when the British sent troops to war, they sent troops from their own country as well as their colonies. So it’s no surprise that the Indians had a fairly decent presence in the war via Great Britain.
Henny, a German Jew, had befriended Shanti Uncle throughout his stay in Germany, as well as after he left for London and throughout the war. The section I’m on right now talks about how Henny and her family and friends were effected by the war, going into some detail on how some of her loved ones were not as lucky as her to have left Germany before the Nazi’s started “exterminating Jews”, and how her relationships she chooses to keep, and the new ones she chooses to create became really, really political. If she got any inkling that someone was or once was in support of the Nazi party, she cut off her relationship with them. It was interesting to see how Henny changed, but much of this section of the book was filled with letters between Henny and a pretty decent handful of people back home in Germany, some who moved to the US. For me, there were far too many people and far too many details to keep up with. Although it was interesting, it was hard to keep track of who she had stayed friends with and who she had stopped talking to as the same names came up in letters with other people.
So that’s only HALF OF THE BOOK. I can’t wait to see what happens next.