International Journal of
English and Literature

  • Abbreviation: Int. J. English Lit.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2141-2626
  • DOI: 10.5897/IJEL
  • Start Year: 2010
  • Published Articles: 261


Can Henny Speak? The inadequacy of epistolary narrative in Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

Shweta Saxena
Amity Institute of English Studies and Research, Amity University, Noida, India.
Email: [email protected]

  •  Accepted: 04 July 2013
  •  Published: 31 August 2013


The dialectic of ‘self’ and ‘other’ contains within it the rhetoric of expression. ‘Self’ is given ascendency over the ‘other’ because ‘self’ is able to speak while the ‘other’ is either considered unfit for speaking or forcefully muted or silenced. In the attempt to reclaim these lost voices of the ‘other’, a handful of intelligentsia ‘represents’ them before the world. But is it the true ‘representation’ of the lost voice or merely an artificial ‘re-presentation’? The discourse upon the ‘representation’ of unrecorded voices can be taken outside the realm of postcolonial critique and applied on the cosmopolitan narrative of Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, a biography on the life of his great uncle Shanti Behari Seth and his German wife Henny. For a spirited reader the interest of the book lies not only in the awe-inspiring tale of cross-cultural relationship of Shanti and Henny, but also in the epistolatory narrative technique conscientiously chosen by the writer. Vikram Seth, as the self-reflexive narrator of the story, explains the gestation of the book in the summers of 1994, when Aunty Henny was already dead and Shanti Uncle was a frail old man of eighty five. In the course of writing his book Seth interviewed Shanti many times to capture his side of story, but for recording Henny’s voice there was no other way except her secret correspondence found by chance in a ‘cob-web covered trunk’ kept hidden at the attic of her room. Henny’s letters, thus, form the basis of her side of story in Two Lives. But then, can these letters truly represent her actual persona? Are they worthy enough of being explored for the purposes of biography? Is it ethical to make personal letters of a private person publicly visible in the form of a biography? And lastly, but most importantly, can Henny really speak through them?

Key words: Vikram Seth, two lives, representation, epistolary narrative.