Kitaab Review: ‘The Lives of Others’ by Neel Mukherjee is a tour de force

Neel Mukherjee has delivered on the promise of his first novel. His second, The Lives of Others, currently long listed for the Booker Prize, is a tour de force, says Oindrila Mukherjee. 

the-lives-of-othersThe novel opens in a village in Bengal in May 1966 with the impoverished Nitai Das walking back to his hut from the landlord’s house where he begged all morning for a cup of rice. Unable to procure food or work and mired in debt, Nitai is driven to kill his wife and children before committing suicide. We then switch to the following year at 22/6 Basanta Bose Road, a four-storied house in Calcutta, where the Ghosh family resides.

The Ghoshes exhibit many characteristic features of affluent Bengali joint families in the sixties. Prafullanath, the ageing patriarch who built the family business, Charu Paper & Sons (Pvt. Ltd.) lives in the house with his three sons, Adinath, Priyo, and Bholanath, their respective families, the widow and children of his youngest son, and a retinue of servants including the old and trusted Madan. All the brothers are involved in the family business. The widow, Purba, and her children, are treated with contempt by most of the others and live in squalid conditions in their dark and dingy room downstairs. But the rest of them, for the most part, enjoy considerable material comfort and of course a reputation for being an established, “bonedi” family.

However, we soon discover that, like that of many old Bengali families, the legacy of the Ghoshes of Basanta Bose Road is on the decline. Their finances are dwindling as one mill after another in the paper company has had to be shut down. A series of crises have made Prafullanath unwell. Chaya is the unattractive daughter who failed to find a husband and must therefore live with her brothers for the rest of her life. Priyo’s wife Purnima believes that Adinath receives preferential treatment and more money than her husband. Their daughter, Baisakhi, gets involved with the neighbor’s son, a most unsuitable match. Purba, the widowed daughter in law, and her children, are treated with little respect or consideration. Adinath’s younger son is a drug addict. And then there is his older son, Supratik, who runs away to join the rising Naxal movement in the villages, causing the family much shame and sorrow.

The domestic plots involve a failing empire, heart ailments, a jewellery theft, neighborhood gossip, a suicide attempt and other elements of a lavish and thoroughly entertaining literary soap. But Mukherjee’s writing, deeply researched and evocative, ensures that the book is far more than a family saga.

Forming a stark contrast to the sections in the house are Supratik’s letters to a recipient who remains undisclosed until much later. In the letters he describes his adventures with his Naxalite comrade among the farmers in rural Bengal. The hardships of village life slowly evolve into thrilling accounts of planned killings of exploitative landlords and subsequent escape attempts by the revolutionaries. “The outside life” vs. inside life, as depicted by the parallel chapters, is a constant theme in the book.

This is a delightfully messy book. Mukherjee has little regard for chronology, and thank goodness for that. He moves effortlessly between past and present events in the domestic sections. We start with the present, then move to the past, and further back, fast forward a few years, rewind again, rewind further, back to the present, and so on, in dizzying narrative that is made even more so by the sheer number of characters. Each of them has a unique personality, flaws and fetishes, stories of their own. At the very beginning, the family members are a little hard to keep straight. Who is the youngest brother’s daughter and who the middle brother’s? Which brother is the literary one? Which sister in law is jealous of whom? But this mess sorts itself out over time, as we get better acquainted with each of them. Moreover, one or two are not all that important, such as Jayanti and Arunima. The chaos of characters in this household, including servants, reflects the flurry of people and activities in actual households of this size and constitution. Life in joint families is not supposed to be clear or simple.

The non-linear narrative creates more suspense about what actually happened to the characters to bring them to their present situations as well as what will happen to them in the future. It is also an exhausting narrative, both by length and volume, and by its end there is an effect of having aged along with Charulata and Prafullanath, of having lived through at least one if not more lifetimes.

In contrast to the back and forth structure of these sections, the Naxal chapters are linear, and reflect the purposefulness of the movement and the clarity that the insurgents possessed with regard to their goal. Each section provides some relief from the other, although the change in font seems unnecessary (and frankly is a little hard to read!)

Mukherjee’s earlier novel, Past Continuous, also switches between narratives, one set in England in the present and the other in 19th century Bengal. One deals with the point of view of a young Indian student, and the other with that of an English woman in colonial India. The author’s fondness for parallel narratives is obvious as is his interest in Bengal’s history. In this case, extensive research has gone into multiple subjects, such as the Naxal movement, prime numbers, and the paper making business.

As in the earlier book, here too Mukherjee gets into the psyche of each character. Even as they act as archetypes, fighting familiar battles, recognizable to most Bengali readers, each character is also complex and full of contradictions. No one is spared some flaw or perversion or at least grave error. Not even Supratik the idealist, the revolutionary, the one who most easily steps out of the family to sacrifice his comfort and safety for the greater good. He too must falter and fall short of his own expectations of himself, for this novel to be not didactic but a real, throbbing indictment of the middle class.

Despite the author’s penchant for characterization and research, his real strength as a writer lies in evoking place. He describes the character of neighborhoods and institutions in Calcutta with the authority of someone who knows the city intimately. In a recent interview, he mentioned that he does not return to Calcutta often owing to a difficult relationship with the city. But one would not guess that from his writing. His descriptions evoke an immediacy that brings the city alive. He records the most familiar of Bengali daily rituals and cultural phenomena in a way that renders them new.

“There is the smell of puja in the air: a crisp, cool, weightless sensation. In the collective Bengali imagination, fields of kaash phul, with their enormous plumes of satiny cream flowers, bowing gracefully to the clement autumn breeze, are easily visualized…And to the collective ear the sound of the dhaak, beaten to a whole complex repertoire of rhythms and syncopations by the dhaaki, is already veering on the air…”

Sometimes, however, the descriptions of Bengali festivals and traditions read like an explanation for a foreign audience. For instance, right after the idol of Durga is immersed in the river after the festival has ended, we learn that “wives bend down to touch the feet of their husbands with their right hands and bring the hands forward to their foreheads and then to their chests in the gesture of pranam; sons and daughters do the same to their parents and elders, younger relations to older, and the men embrace each other three times in quick succession.” I found these moments difficult to enjoy. While not every term or Bengali dish is translated in this manner, many are. The book could have done without these or the glossary at the end where even an expression of irritation such as “ufff” is explained. This of course might well have been an editorial choice.

Economics plays an important part in the lives and gradual decline of the family. The father, Prafullanath, almost single-handedly built a paper empire, accumulating mills, gold jewellery, and a formidable reputation. The family’s wealth and standing in society are demonstrated through ostentatious weddings, celebrations of Durga Puja, and other festivities. Respectability is key, which is why the slightest hint of scandal can and does wreak havoc. As is legendary with many “bonedi” (aristocratic or otherwise old and established) Bengali families, the business doesn’t last long. Prafullanath reflects on this all too familiar downward trend among the Bengali business families: “One generation builds, the next generation consumes it to nothing; that is the abiding truth of life. That is the abiding law of Bengali life. Look at the Marwaris; they come from villages in Rajasthan, stick together, work together, and build family empires in business that subsequent generations consolidate…in his life, his family has been the eroding power: he built, his sons ate.”

But even as the Ghosh family’s position in society continues to decline, their misfortunes, Supratik points out, is nothing compared to the lot of the rural poor. When his father points out that his political activities have brought shame to the family as far as the “outside world” is concerned, Supratik wonders what Adinath knows of the “outside world,” the world of the impoverished peasants in the villages and immigrant workers in the city.

The Lives of Others is about class war at multiple levels. Social and economic hierarchy are first established inside the Ghosh residence, where the parents and oldest son’s family live on the top floor, the second son’s family and sister on the first, and the widow and her family, inhabit the ground floor. Purnima, Priyo’s wife, resentfully reflects on this hierarchy early in the book.

The “others” in the title could easily refer to family members other than oneself, those whom Purnima envies at the beginning perhaps; those whom Purba watches from a distance; those whom Sandhya worries about, that is the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the siblings, even the servants, some of whom at least are like extended family. However, make no mistake. The “others” really refers to those less fortunate than the Ghoshes and other middle and upper middle class Bengalis like them with their safe and comfortable lives. Supratik acts as the conscience of his community, but he too is a product of his upbringing and whether not his attempts to break the gulf between them and the “others” will succeed remains to be seen.

But Mukherjee’s success is not in any doubt. He has delivered on the promise of his first novel. This one, currently long listed for the Booker Prize, is a tour de force.

Oindrila Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA, is the fiction editor of Kitaab.

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