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In pursuit of Vikram Seth

By N Shyamali in Bangalore
October 17, 2005 19:34 IST
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Second Stop: Bangalore

Have your read First Stop: Chennai?

It began like so many other book-reading sessions, with the author -- Vikram Seth, clad in a cream shirt and sleeveless khadi overcoat -- sauntering in 15 minutes behind schedule. But nothing that followed went according to the script.

Those assembled for Seth's reading of Two Lives in Bangalore on Saturday were asked to switch off their mobile phones. Press photographers were asked not to take pictures while the reading was on.

A little after the first line rolled out... "When I was 17, I went to live with Uncle Shanti…" the first cell phone rang.

Seth stopped, looked up at the gathering and said, "If any of you even think you might have a mobile phone, check now!"

That was enough to send all Nokias, Motorolas and Ericssons in the room into pindrop silence.

Seth resumed.

Now, photographers have multiple assignments. And are impatient folk. Most find no need to hang around a book reading for more than the first five syllables, especially when there are a string of other events waiting to be covered on any given evening.

And so, a few minutes later, the first flash popped. It was followed by a few more blinding flashes, in quick succession.

Seth stopped, rose with arms folded, and asked the photographers to stop till he finished reading.

With the interruptions behind him, he went on to read a few passages from the book, interspersing them with anecdotes. On how the book came to be, Seth said: "After A Suitable Boy, I didn't know what to do. It was my mother's idea that I speak to Uncle Shanti."

Seth did, realising then that it wasn't just about archiving a family story. The structure was part biography, part memoir and part history. He found out about Aunt Henny's travails during the war -- how she tried tracing her sister and mother, both of whom were killed. The book has some original documents, Seth said.

He also narrated how he spent six months learning German (as a European language was mandatory for his O-levels), how his argument that Hindi was as good as any language didn't work, and how he later realised he needn't have learnt the language as there were ways of getting around that clause completely. He added that it was lucky he did learn German though, as it helped him read Aunt Henny's letters and understand her better.

Two Lives traces the true story of his uncle Shanti Seth and wife Henny Caro, living during a difficult period of the Second World War and its aftermath. It is both a history of a violent country seen through the eyes of two survivors, as well as an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage and abiding yet complex love.

Seth also put his life in the book in context when he said that, if he were to find a suitable word for dhai in English, he would call is Dhai Jeevan, or Two and a Half Lives. "More like Two and One-Fourth Lives," he added, "the one-fourth being me." He summed it up thus: "It is not about my life, it is the part that Aunt Henny and Uncle Shanti respond to. The reader comes into the story where I came into the lives of the two."

Interspersing his reading with interesting anecdotes about his forced treatment by his one-armed dentist uncle, and his initial introduction to the couple's world, Seth said the book had changed his perception of his German aunt. It also gave him a deeper insight into the struggle of ordinary people trying to live through complex moments.

The evening ended with Seth reading the book's last paragraph. Interestingly, present in the audience were novelists Shashi Deshpande and Anita Nair, along with theatre man Mahesh Dattani, and former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee. They were all in queue, waiting for Seth's autograph.

Also read
Rediff chat with Vikram Seth

Two Lives, remembered

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N Shyamali in Bangalore