Written with élan

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, which was on the Booker short list 2014, is a saga of Bengali upper middle-class life juxtaposed against the Naxal movement of the late 1960s. Sketched on a large tapestry and involving three generations of members of a joint family who live in a sprawling multi-storeyed bungalow in Bhowanipore, this is no diaspora take on life in 1960s-‘Calcutta’. The hard-bound volume of 500 pages revolves around a people who have no sahib -connect or English-proficiency; they think, thankfully, in the vernacular; and effectively so, which is to the author’s credit.

The story opens with a drought and its aftermath on a farmer and his family setting the tone for the mood of rebellion that runs through the book. But that’s only a scene from the whole saga. There are two parallel threads. One swirls around the drama in the Ghosh family’s mansion. And the other follows a linear thread of a never-posted series of letters from Supratik Ghosh, who joins the Naxal movement. Neel Mukherjee spins both threads with élan.

In his narration of contemporary angst and life sketches of ‘the others’, Supratik tries to illustrate a loss of innocence. This develops into an act of rebellion and the subsequent birth of a radical, typically the middle-class student Naxal of those times. Mukherjee is not lenient with this narrative; the grotesqueness of bloodletting is not painted out of the picture.

The Ghosh family comes across as people with plenty, yet almost diversely dysfunctional. The patriarch and matriarch, their three sons and their spouses of varying calibres and characters, an unmarried sister, a widowed daughter-in-law and an entire brood of grandchildren including a genius; the reader can now guess the reason for the books bulkiness.

The frustrations of the unmarried sister and her devious ways, the perversions and hidden lives of the various brothers, incest, love affairs, the daughters-in-law’s competitive routine, the dramas and back-stories, the weddings and the Durga Pujo … all roll out in slow motion. At times, the pace lags, testing the patience of the reader. The police interrogation scene, especially, seems a little too drawn out, as does the math-ridden chapters. One can sense the purpose for these scenes, but not justify its length.

Mukherjee’s skill for outlines and details either makes you hold your breath or shocks you. The book stretches from the Bengal famine of 1943 to the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s. He is painstakingly accurate, down to the names of popular movies of the time. At the same time, the fetish of a coprophiliac is documented too graphically and the author also seems to have a penchant for not-so-commonly used words, which adds the grandiose effect.

The family tree that appears in the first pages seems distracting but is a necessity, given the number of main characters. Then there are the minor non-family guest appearances, and loyal retainers woven into the tapestry without blocking the main narrative. The story proceeds on expected lines for anyone who is familiar with the social and political history of the period, but the story blends seamlessly into the contemporary scene towards the end.

This review appeared in The Hindu Literary Review of September 2014.

My ‘between fiction’ novella ‘The Guest’ is on the Amazon.

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