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The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Lives of Others

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.

Bengaliweddingjewellery

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.

Sunday Salon: A snapshot of May

My monthly snapshot of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month.

sundaysalonMay is here at last, the roses are in bud, everything in the garden is growing like crazy and it’s time to put away the thick sweaters and skirts of winter.

 

Reading
I’m reading two books at the moment that could not be further apart in setting, theme or style.

On my e-reader is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee which is due to be published by Random House in the UK on May 22. It’s set in 1960s Calcutta and is the story of a large Bengali family that is falling apart under the strain of poisonous sibling rivalries, adolescent drug addition and instability in the family business. The fractures in the family mirror the cracks that are appearing in the society around them with the rise of political activism in rural areas. Mukherjee has created some wonderful characters, especially the matriarch of the family and her only daughter, a girl whose venomous nature has ripened over the years of rejection by successive marriage suitors turned off by her swarthy complexion and turned eye.

MrsPalfreyBy my bedside is Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. This is only the second work by Taylor that I’ve read. My first experience of her novels was A Wreath of Roses which I didn’t care for very much asI explained in this post. But so many other bloggers whose opinion I trust rate her highly so I thought she was worth a second chance and I am so glad I picked this up when I spotted it in the library.  The collection of characters she assembles at the Claremont Hotel are beautifully crafted and Taylor does a wonderfully job of  delicately balancing the humour of their various foibles with the note of sadness at the recognition that these residents are people who are approaching the twilight of their years. Forced by circumstances to live in a second class hotel instead of with family members, and with their resources dwindling, they are still determined to keep up appearances.  The novel started lightly but it didn’t take long for more deeper ideas to come through, in particular the theme of loneliness in old age to develop. If this is a truer example of Taylor’s writing prowess than A Wreath of Roses, then I’ll be looking forward to reading more by her.

Watching

The BookerTalk household has been working its way through the entire series of Foyles War, staring Michael Kitchen who is an actor so accomplished I don’t understand why we don’t see more of him. In this series he is a Detective Chief Superintendent based in Hastings, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, during World War 2.  He gives a masterfully understated performance as the policeman with high moral standards and a very shrewd understanding of human nature but with many a twinkle in his eye.  No doubt there are people who have spotted anachronistic items of clothing, household goods or army equipment) but the period setting seems pretty convincing to me. We’re almost at the end – just two more episodes left unfortunately.

Listening
I’m a little behind with my favourite radio program — the daily episode of The Archers. For those of you who live in the UK you’ll know this radio program is a national institution with around 5 million listeners some of who are extremely devoted and get very passionate about some of the story lines. It’s set in the fictional English village of Ambridge, featuring the daily trials and tribulations of the local families, many of whom have been farming the land for generations. Which means we get plenty of info about seasonal activities like lambing mixed in with the drama of family life and village events such as the annual pantomime and the quiz in the village pub. The story lines do dip now and again which is to be expected for a series that’s been running since 1950 but I still miss it when I’m away. Actually, many years ago on holiday in France, we managed to pick it on the car radio and so sat in a field somewhere in Normandy, eating our Camembert and munching on a baguette, listening to a people talking about sheep shearing or potato planting and the price of milk. Quite bizarre. 

Learning

The Future Learn on line course about Shakespeare’s World is now coming to an end. It’s sustained a high level of quality throughout and introduced me to new interpretations of his plays which I’d love to explore further when I have some time. It’s likely to be on offer again so keep an eye out for it.

The View from Here: Books from India

viewfromhereWelcome to India, the next country in the View from Here series on literature from around the world. We’re going to be in the expert hands of Nishita, who blogs at Nishita’s Rants and Raves. She lives in the IT power house of Bangalore where she is a technical writer and the mother of a new baby nicknamed The Snubnose.

Let’s meet Nishita

I’ve been blogging off and on for the past seven years. My blog originated as a personal blog. I wanted my little place on the web to write about stuff I was dealing with. I was struggling with too much work pressure, taking care of a new baby and basically trying to keep it all together. The last thing I needed was a new blog, but I needed some creativity in my life, and a blog seemed fun, and it all started from there.

nishitaAfter some time, I realized I wasn’t comfortable voicing out too much personal stuff on the web; I was hardly blogging at all because I had a huge amount of written drafts, but nothing I actually wanted to publish. The only posts I ended up publishing were my bookish posts, and so I changed my blog focus to books, moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress and a book blog was born. I am not as prolific as other book bloggers. My reading rate is a book a week (if it is something light), so apart from books, I do blog about other non-book related stuff on my blog.

Currently, I am working on reading a lot of Man Booker prize books and classics, which I think take time to read and assimilate so I am quite happy focusing on what I read rather than how much I read.

At work, I am a writer – a technical writer but writer nevertheless. Technical writing is not creative writing at all. You stick to a particular style and format, and there is very little room for creativity – except in certain areas like multimedia and graphics. Nevertheless, I enjoy my work as the technology space I work in keeps me interested.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in India?
India has had a huge spurt in publishing. More new authors are getting published here as compared to even 5-6 years ago. There are a few books that are very popular in India I reviewed The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi earlier on my blog. He is like an Indian Dan Brown and is immensely popular. Another series of books (which I haven’t read) is The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi. These books have become bestsellers here and I’ve heard they are even being made into a Bollywood movie.

Q. Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in India

Mythology-related books are very popular in India. The books that I mentioned above are all closely tied to ancient Indian myths. These books tend to do very well.

Of late, a lot of Indian chick-lit and historical romances are popular in the Indian market.  Stuff like Rajput princes falling in love with dancing maidens, that type of thing. Most of them are just fluff, but there are a few gems like The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan who I think is the Sophie Kinsella of India. She’s awesome.

The Indian detective novel is also slowly coming into its own. There are a few talented writers out there. One is Kiswar Desai. I reviewed one of her books The Sea of Innocence here .

Earlier Indian writing was a lot more grim dealing with issues like poverty, crime etc. Books went through a rigorous screening process and only a few but quality books were published.  But the new breed of writers is choosing to look beyond that and come up with something more generic and light-hearted. It’s also comparatively easier to get published. Is this a good thing? I honestly don’t know. It seems to be a global trend though, and so I can’t say it is specific to India only.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Indian literature?

We studied the Ramayana and Mahabharatha in school. These are epics and we studied them in an abridged form in Hindi our national language. I am not sure if there are good translations around, but I highly recommend The Mahabharatha especially. It’s one of the most powerful stories out there, and although humongous has a lot to offer.

I was also introduced to a lot of English literature in school. Our schools would teach some short chapters from classic English literature, and then we were encouraged to read the whole book. I was introduced to some great writers through my school English teachers – Asimov (I devoured the Robot series afterwards), I still remember Maggie Tulliver’s infamous hair chopping episode from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

A classic but still very readable Indian author is R.K.Narayan – a couple of his stories were included in our English textbooks. His books reflect an older India which is sadly not around anymore.  I would recommend Swami and Friends highly – stories about a group of school boys in British India. Do you know Graham Greene loved these stories so much, he helped get them published? I didn’t know until I found this article on Wikipedia.

I remember that there wasn’t anything very controversial though. Most of the stories were very safe without raising any awkward questions. Not a good thing I know, but that was how it was. The college literature program laid heavy emphasis on Thomas Hardy. Although I didn’t study literature, I would sit in on the classes where they talked about Tess of the D’urbervilles. I think a whole semester was devoted to this book. Some Indian books were also covered.  I remember Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, and also The Good Earth by Pearl S.Buck.

Q. There’s a rich heritage of literature in your country with some authors who’ve made it big on the world stage -people like Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy. Are they just as big in India as they are in other parts of the world?

Amitav Ghosh is huge in India. Even if not many people have read his books, he has very strong name recognition.  I think many people were angry with Aravind Adiga’s portrayal of India in The White Tiger. There were a lot of unhappy editorials in newspapers about how he portrayed India in a bad light. I don’t agree though. I thought it was a honest book showing a side of India that we like to pretend doesn’t exist.

Arundhati Roy is involved in a lot of social activism. While her book (The God of Small Things) is highly regarded, she is more in the news for the stance she takes on various current events. And most people’s opinion of her seems to come from whether they agree with her ideas or not.

Q. Although geographically close to Asia, there are deep roots which connect India to Europe (through the period of colonisation). How does this position in the middle of different cultures affect your authors? 

India has very strong ties to English authors – not as much now as before. But writers like Ruskin Bond, P.G.Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, and Agatha Christie are very popular here. Even Rudyard Kipling who many criticize as being colonialist is well-regarded in India among the older generation.

When I visited America I was quite surprised to see that a lot of people hadn’t even heard of them, but lord, I grew up with Blyton. I loved her world. Adults here love Wodehouse and Christie. Some of them even love Barbara Cartland. 🙂

Indian writers used to be heavily influenced by the British style. We learn and therefore write in British English. However, of late, this influence is waning and more and more Indian writers are looking locally for inspiration, incorporating the local lingo and mannerisms in their story.

Q. Kobo has just announced it wants to break into the Indian market with its e-reader. How do you think this will work – are readers ready for this or will they want to stick to paper ?

The Kindle is doing pretty well in India. The e-reader market in India is still a niche market. Why? Because the book reading market in India is still only a small percentage of the Indian population. So I am not very sure how well two competing e-readers will perform. I think there will be a lot of competition and may be some clever placement for both to do well. I don’t see the Kobe overtaking Kindle in any way. The Kindle is too well-entrenched and well-known.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie #bookerprize

Bedazzled; bemused; baffled: reading Salman Rushdie’s 1991 Man Booker Prize wining novel Midnight’s midnights childrenChildren is a roller coaster experience. It’s a novel on a grand scale both physically (weighing in at more than 600 pages) and thematically; covering more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan.  It demands a great deal from the reader with its abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow, its multiple digressions and contradictions,  its 100 or so characters and a style that blends comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and  olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them. Under Saleem’s instigation the children unite in a Midnight Conference during which they telepathically discuss options for their country’s future governance. Saleem believes his destiny is inextricably linked with that of India or, as he puts it:

I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.

Every twist and turn in India’s history he therefore reads in terms of his the vagaries of his own life and the fortunes and misfortunes of his family.  A bomb raid by Pakistan on Bombay he sees as a deliberate attempt to wipe out his entire family while Indira Gandhi’s repression and round up of undesirables, he re-interpretes as a systematic campaign to  eradicate all the Midnight’s Children who are viewed as de-stablising forces in society.

But there is a huge gulf between the expectations he believes are placed on his shoulders as the first child of a new nation, and the reality of his life. He is acutely aware of this gulf even at a young age.

Already at the age of nearly nine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me … had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy…… I became afraid that everyone was wrong – that my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be acutely useless, void and without the shred of a purpose.

As unreliable as Saleem proves to be as a historian,  we still warm to this man labouring with the burden of history on his shoulders as well as multiple nicknames that draw attention to his enormous nose (Snotnose and Sniffer are just two of his sobriquets). Impossible too not to be bemused at the bizarre nature of some sections (an arch enemy who kills people by squeezing them with his knees; a married couple who live secretly in a cellar of a house, entering and exiting through a trapdoor). And equally impossible not to admire Rushdie’s creative imagination or the vividness of his writing.

Despite all of those factors, I still did not enjoy reading Midnight’s Children. The moments of pleasure were sadly too few to outweigh the times when I felt I was ploughing my way through the reading equivalent of treacle. Too much detail (particularly towards the end when Saleem is fighting a war in Pakistan), too many different allusions to keep track of and too many twists and turns. So I admire the ingenuity and appreciate how Rushdie pushed the boundaries of literature but ultimately I was bored.

Why I read this: One of the titles in my Booker Prize project

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