Family Matters: Vikram Seth’s “Two Lives”

I bought Vikram Seth’s Two Lives at Benjamin Books yesterday. There was a single copy in stock–a perfect hardback, on sale for $7.99. I’m still immoderately thrilled with my bargain, feeling as though I’ve pulled off something clever.

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I first read Two Lives a year ago, and upon re-reading it this morning, came across a sentence I’d missed earlier. 

In Berne, I stayed with an Indian diplomat, who was my mother’s brother’s wife’s brother’s wife’s father, and therefore ‘family’ in the Indian sense.

I shut the book, nodded, and said “Kalpana’s father.” I knew the corresponding relative in my own family. 

I keep going back to Seth’s work for this thrill of recognition, and the subsequent reflection that his words often prompt. “‘Family’ in the Indian sense” makes me question just how I distinguish between acquaintances and relatives.  What, exactly, is the extent of my extended family? Where do others–my Canadian friends, for instance–draw the line?

I’ve long admired Seth as a prose stylist, believing his writing ought to be cast in bronze as a model of elegance and economy.  But many books featuring prose just as clean and subtle, with settings I’m just as intimate with, fail to move me the way Seth’s work does. I think it’s because the central preoccupation of much of Seth’s writing is family. His understanding of the conflicting emotions parents and siblings evoke, and his descriptions of how relationships simultaneously succour and burden make me warm to his work in a way, say, Pankaj Mishra’s fiction doesn’t. Mishra is a fine prose stylist, and a superb non-fiction writer, but I found The Romantics to be one of those distant bloodless novels that leave me cold. If you’re part of a “bread-and-circuses” Indian family (is there any other sort?), Seth’s work is immediately,  urgently familiar.      

In a July 2006 interview with Danuta Kean, Seth says,

“There is always either a family or a surrogate family, friend or a string quartet, as in An Equal Music, that acts as a family. I like the feeling of family. It may be something stronger still: the way that work and life is organised in India hasn’t changed so much as in the West. Here people are so mobile in terms of which city they work in and how short their holidays are – especially in America. If you are an American in a long-term relationship, either you are with your family for one week at Christmas or Thanksgiving or you are with your partner’s family. The whole thing is so fraught. When do grandparents meet their grandchildren? Let alone parents see their children once they have grown up and moved away? How can families survive under those circumstances?”

For those who haven’t read it yet: Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle Shanti and his wife Henny, a German Jew. The couple married in 1951; in 1969, seventeen-year old Vikram Seth came to stay with them in England for his studies. The book is based on Seth’s memories of the couple, interviews with Shanti before his death, and letters and papers Henny left behind. 

Two Lives is summarized on the inside front cover as “the story of the century and of a love affair across a racial divide,” but the book is much more than the blurb suggests.  It’s not a page-turner like A Suitable Boy, and doesn’t showcase Seth’s command of the language as The Golden Gate does, but the depth of feeling and introspection makes Two Lives the most rewarding of Seth’s books for me. 

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4 responses to “Family Matters: Vikram Seth’s “Two Lives”

  1. Yup. My father has five siblings, and I have more than twenty cousins, and the last time I saw any of them was three years ago — and before that, it was nearly five years. We’re scattered all over the country and never visit.

    I used to envy my classmates who had relatives living nearby and could draw large crowds for events like band performances, graduations, etc.

    (BTW, after reading Suitable Boy I wanted so much to leap into the book and offer myself to Amit. Kabir — meh, Haresh was nice, but the poet was the one *I* wanted.)

  2. Interesting. I loved The Golden Gate, liked A Suitable Boy and absolutely hated An Equal Music. So, I’ve stayed away after that. Maybe it is time to revisit…

  3. Blue: Poets exist to be leapt upon and devoured whole, esp. those as dishy as Amit…
    I’ve read that Seth based the character of Amit on himself.

    Shripriya: Do give it a shot; I’d love to know what you think. Be warned, though, that it’s over 500 pages…

  4. Yes, I know. And I’ve also read that Seth isn’t interested in my proclivities, despite his “stray? or great!” poem.

    So what’s a girl to do?