In The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, we are transported back to the Calcutta (Kolkata) of the 1960s—a world where the personal and the political combined together, a world that is still clinging on to the dregs of colonialism on the one hand, while on the other, capitalism is rearing its head, and the Naxal movement is beginning to take off the ground. While Mukherjee’s first novel was set in Kolkata, Oxford and London, in The Lives of Others¸ Mukherjee concentrates solely on the Kolkata landscape, and the landscape of West Bengal. It paints a broad canvas of Calcutta of the 1960s and 1970s—a world of idealism, Naxal history, juxtaposed with the everyday life of the middle class Ghosh family, with its own complexities and secrets.
At one level, the story is about the trials and tribulations, joys and jealousies of the Ghosh family of Bhowanipur. At another level, this family is a microcosm of the caste, hierarchical and other societal divisions that plague Indian society even today. Four generations of the family live under the same roof, something that is increasingly rare in a twenty-first century globalized society, where nuclear families are the norm. Not surprisingly perhaps, the top floor is reserved for the patriarch Prafullanath, who owns a paper mill, fast declining. His wife Charubala is a housewife, looking after the family, and Prafulla’s pillar of support through thick and thin. They have four children—each of whom, along with their respective spouses have their own individual struggles and desires—material, sexual (including a graphic description of one son’s sexual arousal through coprophilia, stemming from the time when he sees his sister indulge in the same), and personal. I must admit that the family map of the Ghosh family reminds me much of my own family—even my grandmother was called Charubala! Mukherjee delves into the minds of each of his characters and provides a microcosmic picture of the petty jealousies that are almost an integral part of every household—from petty things like pencil boxes and cosmetics, to boys and even jewellery and inheritance.
Each character living in the Bhowanipur house has his/her own story to tell, many of which are simply hinted at. It is also a family with clear caste divides—therefore, Madan, the old family retainer is one of the family, but simultaneously, an outcast, because of his caste. Chaaya, the youngest daughter of Prafulla, unable to find a groom for herself, because of her dark looks and good education, in spite of all the family’s efforts, is consumed with jealousy at the fact that her sister-in-law, Purnima, enjoys a better lifestyle with her favourite brother Priyo, despite belonging to a lower caste. The incestuous relationship between Priyo and Chaaya is more than hinted at. In one telling incident, she spoils Purnima’s new clothes, laid out for Durga Puja, and also ensures that Purnima’s daughter Buli, gets the blame for the same. She also ensures that the whole family comes to know of Buli’s clandestine romance with the boy next door, resulting in red faces for the family in the whole locality.
Of the other children and grandchildren in the family, Mukherjee focuses on the youngest daughter-in-law and her two children. The three of them, ‘punished’ due to the untimely death of Purba’s husband, are consecrated to the margins of the house, reduced to eating leftovers, wearing hand-me-down clothes, and suffering the caustic tongue of the mother-in-law, blaming her for her son’s death. In a telling example, Mukherjee describes the discrimination within the family, when he compares the many new clothes that the other daughters in law and their children receive for Durga Puja with the one new set that is quietly kept into the room of Purba and her children. It is also deliberately ironical that of all the grandchildren, it is Sona, the most neglected, the most marginalized, who is ultimately the most successful—a mathematical genius, whizzed away to the US and touted as the next Ramanujan.
This neo-liberal, upper middle class life of the Ghosh family is in deep contrast to the world that the eldest grandson of the house, Supratik experiences when he runs away from home and joins the Naxal movement. In his letters, he talks of the two worlds that the British have left behind—of superficial jealousies and struggles on the one hand contrasting with the very struggle of living and existence on the other. Early in the book he asks his mother: ‘Don’t you agree we eat too much?’ She is unable to comprehend his question, for her this is the way ‘everyone’ eats, forgetting for a moment even the less privileged living within the same four walls. It is also a world which though is in the 1960s has many parallels with the world of the Naxal violence that we see around us today. For instance, it is suggested in the epilogue to the novel that Supratik is the inventor of the explosive device that is commonly used by Naxals today to kill unwary people and inflict large-scale disaster. His legacy to the world is therefore, not one of equality, but rather, one of violence that is continuing even to the present day. By doing this, Mukherjee blends the real into the fictional. The quiet, introspective, restrained first person tone of Supratik’s letters contrasts with the intricate family politics prevalent in the Ghosh family, narrated in third person, and these opposing perspectives converge several times throughout the novel. For instance, in a significant incident, Prafulla-nath, confronts union workers at his factory. This whole incident is narrated from multiple points of view. Supratik on the other hand, toils with poor peasants and learns to reap paddy stalks with a sickle—this same weapon is later used by him to decapitate corrupt moneylenders and landlords.
The novel asks uncomfortable questions —about economic divides, about haves and have-nots, about politics and social reform, about power struggles, about the country that our forefathers dreamt of, and the country we are today. The idealism of Supratik’s initial days in the movement is soon replaced by a violence that he soon sees as essential to his struggle. The novel also asks questions of loyality—family, filial and social. While members of the Ghosh family, divided by their petty jealousies against each other, do not hesitate to undercut each other, and find a perverse pleasure in the unhappiness of fellow family members, Supratik speaks out against the same, but does not hesitate to sell out the son of the long-faithful family retainer. Madan tells him: ‘Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?’ The Lives of Others is a powerful, searing, thought-provoking narrative that tells us that nothing in this world is ever black or white—it is the layers of grey that determine the direction of our lives.
Madhumita Chakraborty is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Zakir Husain College (Evening), University of Delhi, Delhi.