Now, at the age of seventeen, I was once again in Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny's home, reacquainting myself with them and with my surroundings.
18 Queens Road was a large semidetached house about five minutes walk from the Hendon Central underground station on the Northern Line, a couple of stations after it emerged from its tunnel into the daylight. Apart from two small attics, the house was spread over two floors. Each floor had four main rooms.
Downstairs, the sunniest room, with a large south-facing window, was Uncle's surgery. He spent more than eight hours there each day, and needed the light. The surgery faced the front garden with its roses and gleaming professional plaque, and, beyond the busy road, the green expanse of Hendon Park and the hills of Hampstead to the south.
Across the corridor, which acted as a sort of waiting-room for the patients, was the drawing-room. This was divided from the small dining-room by a sliding glass door, which was left open whenever there was a party. The dining-room led to the large linoleum-floored kitchen, Aunty Henny's sacred space; and that gave on to the long, narrow back garden where a couple of gnarled apple trees produced malformed but deliciously tart fruit.
A flight of stairs led up from the L-shaped corridor. Upstairs, above the kitchen was the so-called X-ray room, still used occasionally for developing X-rays, but now mainly a storage space for everything from dental gold to yellowing newspapers to dozens of bottles of Schweppes tonic water. Shanti Uncle was something of a pack-rat. There was also an upstairs drawing-room directly above the surgery which, though filled with sunlight, was, for some reason, almost never used. Its main ornament was a huge, colourful porcelain cockatoo. The other two rooms were Uncle and Aunty's bedroom and a guest bedroom. Everywhere there was a profusion of net curtains. The only toilet and the only bathroom in the house were on this upstairs floor.
Up a flight of narrow stairs, directly under the slanted roof, were the two attics, each with a small window. One of these attics was to be renovated for me, so that I could have a room of my own and privacy for study. It was, however, directly above Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny's bedroom, and occasionally at night I would hear them talking or quarrelling in German.
My room had not yet been done up, so I stayed in the guest bedroom. I was there for only a few days in the first instance, because term at Tonbridge School was about to begin.
I had won a scholarship to study for my A-levels at Tonbridge on the basis of my final exams at Doon, my boarding-school in India. But my mother was not at all keen that I go to England on my own: sex, drugs and general dissipation were what she feared. My father, however, prevailed; he told her that if she prevented me from going, I would hold it against her all my life. Perhaps it was to preserve me from the temptations of English ways that Mama took me to the temple. The other preservative would be Shanti Uncle. He would keep a watchful eye on me, report back to them, and act, in general, in loco parentis. Had he not been in England, I doubt Mama would have let me go; and Papa was right I doubt I would have forgiven her.
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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