Category Archives: Indian authors
Neel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others is an ambitious blend of family saga and political turbulence set in India during the second half of the 1960s.
The narrative is broad ranging, oscillating between the quotidien of the Ghosh family in their sprawling Calcutta home and the villages and rice fields of western Bengal where Communist guerrillas hide in the jungle plotting insurrection. These two elements appear disconnected initially but Mukherjee juxtaposes them to show how a crisis in the institution of the family echoes and parallels the fractures and cracks appearing in Indian society itself.
At the centre of the novel is the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who have seen their fortunes grow through investments in paper mills stretching across the sub continent. Three generations of this family live together in strictly hierarchical allocations of rooms and space within the home. The ageing patriarchal figure of Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor. As befitting her status on the lowest rung of the family tree, Purba, the widow of their youngest son, is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. There she and her two children subsist on a diet of dal and rice and whatever leftovers are despatched from above.
Beneath the calm, tensions begin appearing within this family. Jealousy over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery escalate from acts of pettiness into acts of malice; one son has to be married off quickly to avoid scandal when he gets a local girl pregnant and a grandson secretly experiments with drugs and eventually becomes an addict. Charubala frets about the impossibility of getting her daughter Chhayha married, most suitors being turned off by her too-dark skin and turned eye. Then union unrest at the mills threatens to bring the business down.
All of these problems are nothing however compared to the sudden disappearance of one of the elder grandsons. The family fear Supratik has joined the Naxalites, a guerrilla wing of the outlawed communist party that is responsible for acts of insurgency against the government. All they have is a note he left behind:
Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own. Forgive me.’
Supratik finds his privileged life style and early escapades as a student activist have little prepared him for life amidst the farmers and villagers on whose behalf he is fighting. It’s when he sees their struggle to scratch out a living from the land, getting deeper and deeper into debt at the hands of moneylenders and landowners, that his eyes are opened to the reality of life. It’s not easy to get these poor people interested in land reform and communist principles when they can have to put every ounce of energy into keeping alive.
…now I knew yet another reason why everyone in the heart of rural Bengal went to sleep so early. When you worked in the fields from six in the morning to four in the afternoon, the tiredness resulting from it stunned you into silence. You went from being a human, animated by a mind and spirit and consciousness at the beginning of the day to a machine without a soul at the end of those ten hours, moving your arms and legs and mouth because you felt some switch hadn’t been turned off. There it was, and the machine was dead, or just a stopped machine.
Mukherjee provides Supratik with numerous other flashes of insight as a counter to his overall naivety and real lack of understanding of how powerless he and his intellectual bourgeois ‘comrades’ are against the forces of officialdom. Just as as his grandparents don’t see what goes on under their noses within their house, he doesn’t comprehend what is really happening in society.
This is an ambitious book which nicely blends domestic drama and political turmoil, and humour with pathos. Rose Tremain summed it up perfectly for me:
Neel Mukherjee has written an outstanding novel: compelling, compassionate and complex, vivid, musical and fierce.
This is surely a contender for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
The Lives of Others was ublished in UK by Chatto & Windus on May 22. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.
There are some books that begin with a definite punch even if they are not always of the Hitchcock idea of a brick-through-the-window start to films. In White Tiger by Aravind Adiga the punch isn’t delivered by an event but through a narrator’s voice that is so direct and immediate, that it demands attention.
We don’t know who this narrator is yet other than he calls himself ‘the White Tiger’ and classes himself as one of India’s successful entreprenneurs. But he clearly thinks he’s important enough to write letters to the Premier of China advising him what to expect when he pays a State visit to Bangalore. His letters are filled with scornful comments about the reality of life in India – a side to the country he believes the Premier will never see. For this narrator not only considers himself a great man just as much as the premier is, but the only person the Premier can trust to tell the truth. India’s most sacred river, the Ganges, is one of the myths he smashes.
One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing. Now you have heard the Ganga called the river of emancipation ……our prime minister will no doubt describe it to you that way and urge yuo to take a dip in it.
No! – Mr Jiaboa, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion and seven different kinds of industrial acids.
Gradually, we learn that this outspoken critique of his mother country is Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw wallah born in The Darkness, the poorest and most deprived part of India. Halwai gets an escape route into the other India, the India of Lightness, when he manages to get a job as a driver for Mr Ashok, the son of a wealthy landlord.
Through this outspoken, murderous protagonist, Aravind Adiga shows us the underbelly of India and the reality of its powerhouse economy of the early 21st century. Pouting models from the west may adorn the facades of new gleaming glass shopping malls but around the corner, are the slums where people live under meagre tarpaulin roofs. Through Balram’s eyes we learn of the servant class of Delhi who live in rotting basements below the glass apartment blocks that are home to their employers. He tells how Ashok’s family bribe government ministers, and how national elections are rigged.
Balram realises that people like him are trapped by the situation of their birth and the chains of family, unable to break out of the ‘Rooster Coop’ even when they know they will die if they don’t:
On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.”
Balram realises he has to take destiny in his own hands. His employer is liberal and freely expresses his guilt at his driver’s treatment but when his fine words never come to anything, Balram decides to kill him, steal his money and then go on the run.
The murder isn’t a surprise however because within 12 pages of the book, Balram has told us he is a wanted man so the momentum for the plot doesn’t turn on that surprise or even whether he will be tracked down by police and punished. The momentum really comes from the force with which Adiga’s protagonist tells his story and pricks the bubble of India’s status as a world power. Hardly surprising that this debut novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, was not well received in India. The Hindu, one of the country’s leading English language newspapers, said it was a ‘ curiously inauthentic’ portrait of the country written by an outsider for outsiders – an “India for Dummies.”
Maybe no-one likes the country of their birth and the country they are proud of, to be held up for scrutiny in this way so those reactions are understandable. More of an issue for me was that the book seemed to lose its way in the final stages, about the time when Balram commits the murder – we already know it’s coming so it had the sense of inevitability. Having told us how the killing is executed Adiga seemed to be in a great hurry to get to the last page as if he’d had enough of this character. So it felt a rushed and somewhat predictable ending which was such a shame for a book I’d thoroughly enjoyed up until then.
My enjoyment of novels set in India has continued with Saraswati Park, the debut novel by Anjali Joseph.
Set in Bombay it features Mohan who in an age of electronic communication, sits under a tree near the post office and writes letters for the illiterate. His children have left home, his marriage to Lakshmi has become dull, and he seeks respite in collecting books and dreaming of a day when he can write his own book based on the stories that come to him in his sleep. He derives small pleasure by visiting the street vendors who sell 2nd hand books at Fountain area and ccollecting 2nd hand books (especially those with wide margins so he can make notes). It’s a habit which irritates his wife.
But she too is a collector, covering the surface of their kitchen table with bottles and jars of food. Her outlet from the endless round of domestic chores lies in the TV soap operas she increasingly fills her day watching. In a telling moment about the narrow circle of her life she reflects that
…her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct than any other interaction”.
Into the humdrum lives of this couple, comes their 19 year old nephew Ashish. He’s a young man adrift in the world, unable to focus on his final year studies in literature, who allows himself to be seduced by a more wealthy student. But as quickly as that relationship starts, Ashish finds himself abruptly rejected and subjected to the sniggers of other students. He similarly sleep walks into his next relationship, this time with the more experienced, world wise professor who is meant to be tutoring him for the upcoming exams.
Ashish is the catalyst for the narrative development. He is the instigator of Mohan’s first efforts to become a writer and the outlet for his aunt’s affection and it’s his presence that sustains Mohan through the troubled months when he fears Lakshmi has left him.
Saraswati Park is an endearing portrait of these three very ordinary people; intimate and at times wry in its observations as they discover themselves and learn what matters most to them.
But there is a fourth – equally important – character in this novel: the city of Bombay itself. Vibrant, chaotic, full of sound and movement and yet capable of delivering moments of unexpected tranquility. It’s the product of Anjali Joseph’s personal knowledge of the city – born in Bombay her years of study at Cambridge and then East Anglia have given her the ability of objective distancing.
A deserved winner of the Betty Trask Award, Joseph is tipped by many critics to be an author to watch in the future.
Well worth reading.