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.