I had been to England twice before. When I was two and a half years old, I travelled by sea with an uncle and aunt who happened to be going there. I was to join my parents, who had left a year or so earlier: the Bata Shoe Company, for which my father worked, had transferred him to head office in London. My widowed grandmother my mother's mother (whom I called Amma) had been left in charge of me at home, and I grew very attached to her. When I began to speak, Amma insisted that it be in Hindi and only in Hindi. She herself was perfectly bilingual, but had decided that I would get more than enough English in England. As a result, when I was delivered to my parents in London, they found that I couldn't speak or understand a word of the local language. Shortly after my arrival, I was taken to see Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny. During the time my mother had been in England, she had become very fond of Shanti Uncle, and he of her. Both Aunty Henny and he were keen on children, and were looking forward eagerly to my arrival.
I don't know whether it was Shanti Uncle's effusiveness or Aunty Henny's European colour and features, but I quickly became uncomfortable. 'I don't like it here, I want to go home,' I stated firmly in Hindi. Shanti Uncle looked startled. When Aunty Henny asked him what I'd said, he told her that I was enjoying myself and would come again, but that I was tired and needed to go home and rest. The foreign Aunty Henny, whatever she represented to me, did pose a puzzle to the whole of Shanti Uncle's extended family in India. Uncle had married late, in his forties, and had not brought her to India to be shown around in the proper way. They had no children. She was known to be a German, tall, quite brusque, and with no time for clan commitments in the Indian style. As Aunty Henny said, years later: 'It's very difficult to be enthusiastic about all these adults, these total strangers, who turn up every so often and call themselves your nieces and nephews.' Even my mother, whom Aunty Henny liked, never graduated to being her niece. Whenever my parents called, she would open the door, survey the visitors standing on the top step and shout out, in a view-halloo sort of voice, 'Shanti, your relations are here.'
After a year and a half, I was sent back to Calcutta with my grandmother, who had suddenly and unexpectedly arrived in London on a chartered flight. My parents remained in England for another year. When they returned to Calcutta, my baby brother Shantum was with them.
My second visit to England took place when I was nine, and lasted only a month. One memory of that visit was of Jackie, the plump and pretty au pair at 18 Queens Road, who was very huggable and on whom I had a crush.
But the event of which my memory is strongest, and perhaps has grown even stronger over time, took place at one of the bridge parties that Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny used to hold from time to time on a Saturday evening. Shanti Uncle took his bridge very seriously, and my father had made a folding leather stand for him so that he could arrange his cards conveniently and play with his left hand. I was bored with watching this strange, intense game, which consisted of almost complete silence followed by incomprehensible, even acrimonious, volubility. It was late. I was leafing through a pile of magazines in another room. One of them I think it was Life contained an illustrated article about Adolf Eichmann. I cannot now remember much about it, but it must have covered his crimes, his capture and his trial. At one stage, either at a break in the game or while she was dummy, Aunty Henny stepped into the room, saw what I was reading, and said to me, 'So, Vicky, what do you think of him?' My reply was that he was an evil, horrible man. This seemed a natural enough reaction, but it had a strong effect on Aunty Henny. 'You think so? You think so?' she said, and looked at me searchingly. But instead of discussing matters further, she left the room and I went back to my reading.
Visit HarperCollins.com for more information about Two Lives by Vikram Seth. The foregoing is excerpted from Two Lives by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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