Dear Vikram Seth

Following the advice of a mentor, I stopped feeling guilty about all the books I wasn't reading.

vikram seth 88 (photo credit: Little Brown)
vikram seth 88
(photo credit: Little Brown)
Years ago, following the advice of a mentor, I stopped feeling guilty about all the books I wasn't reading. "Life is short," he told me. "At best you can read a book every two weeks - 26 books a year, maybe. And that's it - for your entire life, so you have to make tough choices." Since I can't even manage one book every two weeks, I've had to make some extremely harsh choices. Of course, once you've read the complete works of demised authors Fletcher Knebel and Ben Hecht, for instance, you don't have to worry about keeping up. As for those writers still living, I make sure to read anything new by favorites such as Tom Wolfe, Robert D. Kaplan, John LeCarre, Robert Littell and Caleb Carr. Over the years, however, I've discovered that some of my favorites have fatal flaws. Most upsetting is when a much-loved writer turns out to be an anti-Semite, anti-Zionist or self-hating Jew. You, dear Vikram Seth, are none of those. I got immense pleasure from reading your latest, most personal and pensive book, Two Lives, which I bought in London over Rosh Hashana. I've now read three of your works: Two Lives, A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music. You are the least predictable or formulaic of my favorites. Much of the little that I know about India - as well as my eagerness to visit there - comes from A Suitable Boy. I so raved about An Equal Music that a friend bought me the soundtrack (to the book!) for my birthday. And I am giving Two Lives to my father-in-law for his 81st birthday. Telling this touching, extraordinary story - of your great uncle Shanti Seth and your great aunt, the love of his life, the assimilated German Jewess Henny Caro - affords you the occasion to ruminate about the Big Issues of the 20th century: the Holocaust, Nazism, communism, and Zionism/the creation of the State of Israel. Disappointingly, Two Lives adheres to the faddish views that are all the rage on the Euro-Left. You don't seem to question your British, upper-crust Indian, cosmopolitan upbringing - one which offers no frame of reference for, and therefore misunderstands, Jewish civilization. Writing from the vantage point of a non-practicing, Hindu-born, British-educated, German-speaking Renaissance man, you are naturally influenced by the post-modernist, relativist ambiance of your background. You have much to teach me about India, and even about pre-WWII German Jewish life, as well as postwar Britain and Germany. Your portrayal of Henny and Shanti's relationship is engrossing, and I was greatly impressed by their courage as individuals - and by yours in portraying them as fully rounded, complex personalities. However, I respectfully suggest that you still have much to learn about the complexity of Jewish civilization. YOU WRITE: "Partly as a result of writing this book, so much of which deals with the question of Jewishness, I have tried to work out my own views on that most salient manifestation of postwar history, the Jewish state." Like many a Guardian or Independent reader, you are uneasy about the Jews having carved out their state at Palestinian-Arab expense. "The eviction over the decades since 1948 of yet more Palestinians from their land, the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank… the massacres in the refugee camps under Israeli military control during the Lebanon operations of 1982, the construction of the boundary fence and wall incorporating still more Palestinian land, the assassination of Palestinian leaders, the repeated siege of cities, the razing of entire streets and colonies of houses and the regular humiliation of Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops paint a picture of terror, injustice and arbitrariness either sanctioned or not greatly opposed by the state." That's some Bill of Particulars. It reflects so deep, so profound a misreading of existential Jewish reality, so all-embracing an acceptance of the Arab narrative, that its annihilationist conclusions are implicit: We subjugated Jews became Zionists because of European oppression. We then usurped Arab land; oppressed Palestinian-Arabs to retain it, ergo we must go. YOUR SANCTIMONIOUS analysis reminds me of Richard Grenier's angry and infinitely memorable movie review of the Ben Kingsley film Gandhi in the March 1983 Commentary. "…I feel all Jews sitting emotionally at the movie Gandhi should be apprised of the advice that the Mahatma offered their coreligionists when faced with the Nazi peril: they should commit collective suicide… Gandhi was convinced… their moral triumph would be remembered for 'ages to come.'" Just as the movie was no place to learn about the real Ghandi, so too Two Lives offers a painfully distorted view of the Arab-Israel conflict. Like you, Gandhi sympathizes with the Jews but stands with the Muslims. In a letter entitled "The Jews in Palestine 1938," he expresses understanding for the Jews but, in doing so, exposes his total inability to grasp the very essence of Jewish civilization when he concludes: "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French." He goes on to argue: "The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. ... Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?" IN RESPONSE to that, and to your own tunnel-vision perceptions about Israel and Jewish civilization, let me quote Two Lives back at you: "Once, at the dining-table when Uncle, Aunty and I were together and they had a heated argument about something or other, I even heard Uncle say, astonishingly, 'Hitler had the right idea,' in order to irk her. And that is what it did: it irked, rather than infuriated her, and her reaction had been to click her tongue and say dismissively, 'Ach, Shanti, don't talk nonsense.'" Ach, Vikram Seth, don't write nonsense about Israel. What good is your sympathy for our Holocaust dead if you have so little empathy for those of us struggling not to join them?
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