Odds stacked against US novelists Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler, as shortlisted authors wait for announcement of winner: The Guardian

Neel Mukherjee, author of The Lives of Others.
Neel Mukherjee, author of The Lives of Others. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

The US novelists Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler will have to beat the odds if one of them is to become the first American winner of the Man Booker prize, to be announced on Tuesday night in London.

For the first time, the £50,000 prize is open to any author writing originally in English and published in the UK, but Ferris’s book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, described as a New York tale of existential dentistry, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Fowler, a tale of family life where a psychologist father twins his daughter with a chimp, are the bookmakers’ outsiders.

Neel

Walking into the prize ceremony for the Man Booker Prize in the knowledge that you could win one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world should be the crowning moment in the career of any novelist writing in English.

But ask Neel Mukherjee whether he’s looking forward to his book, The Lives of Others, battling with works from the feted American author Joshua Ferris or the venerable past winner Howard Jacobson on Tuesday, and the response is close to total bafflement.

“What kind of question is that anyway?” he counters. “Of course I’m not. It’s going to be completely stressful.”

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.

the-lives-of-othersNorth Calcutta—a place of jostling alleyways and people and tall, crumbling hou­ses inhabited by squabbling families and divided by the whims of inheritance. Add to this the explosion of the Naxalbari revolution—with its fulcrum in the city on College Street, also in North Calcutta—which stead­ily infiltrated the homes of the middle class, depriving them of young, many bright, men. Neel Mukherjee stays away from the landed zamindari backgrounds and turns instead to business families, those directly affected by trade unionism and the steadily growing grip of Communism on West Bengal. For Bengalis, the family Mukherjee describes inThe Lives of Others and the minutiae of their lives, except for some gross aspects, is very identifiable. The girl tiptoeing up to braid her hair on the terrace in the early evening, secure in the knowledge that a young man on the opposite terrace will be eyeing her, was an inextricable part of growing up in the city.

the-lives-of-othersThe Lives of Others is an impassioned, dystopic, despairing book: its darkness is relieved by only two glimmers of light.

One is the story of a boy called Sona, Supratik’s cousin, who turns out to be a mathematical genius, ‘the next Ramanujan’. His abilities are such that Stanford University whisks him away from India at the age of 15; he eventually goes on to win the Fields Medal for his work in number theory.

The boy-genius serves as a resolution of the great paradox of middle-class Bengali life: that despite the dysfunction, deprivation and repression, Calcutta does, against all the odds, somehow produce people of unusual talent and ability (such as Neel himself). But in Neel’s portrayal these people owe their achievements solely to their own gifts: Sona’s relatives have nothing to do with his mathematical abilities; he is a freak, a singularity, a flash in the pan.