Book Review: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

In a previous post I mentioned that I had resolved to read 6 books in 2016 that I’d always wanted to read. Through the year I managed to finish five of them, the last of which was Neel Mukherjee’s masterful account of life in 1950’s Bengal, The Lives of Others.

Credit: Chatto and Windus

The Lives of Others (which confusingly has nothing to do with the outstanding 2006 film about East Berlin of the same name) is only Mukherjee’s second novel. You’d never guess he was such a relative neophyte given this highly complex, intricately realised portrait of family life in 1960s Bengal.

Mukherjee, born and brought up in West Benegal, manages to conjure a darkly vivid portrayal of life in the highly ordered, but nevertheless chaotic, social structures of Kolkata. The story follows the intricately interwoven lives of the Ghosh family, spanning from Prafullanath and Charubala, products of early Edwardian, empire-riden Calcutta, to their many grandchildren, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, into a newly partitioned, and newly ambitious, India.

The dramas of that political upheaval are writ large on the lives of the family members, but the action (with one notable exception), pertains on the four storey townhouse they cohabit. The house is an obvious, but effective, metaphor for the way in which the family operates. Power structures are realised in physical walls and staircases — with elder sons and their wives promoted to roomy upper floors, whilst younger daughters and, lowest of all, widowed daughter-in-laws, confined to damp basements.

The family dynamics are universal, but also deeply rooted in a specific culture milieu. I’d be the first to admit is not my world. I found myself consistently returning to the family tree in the preface to recall the relationships between the characters. Mukherjee make little concession (other than a glossary note) for the reader unfamiliar with abbreviated and relational Bengali naming conventions. These result in each character being called something distinct depending on who is addressing them. The effect is to render the group at once intimate with each other and inaccessible to outsiders.

As the reader shifts perspective from one family member to another, an increasingly intricate picture is constructed of the trusts and mistrust, the secrets and sympathies, that animate family life. The Ghoshs are resolutely middle-class, but as their wealth and social standing begins the decline fracture lines and fractiousness is exposed.

Nothing does more to accelerate this disintergation than the disappearance of eldest grandson Supratik. His story is the notable exception mentioned above. He leaves the house in Basanta Road to join revolutionary Maoists and Naxalites in the Bengali hinterland. His account of his experiences constitute half of the novel’s narrative and provide a stark counterpoint to cloistered city life.

Mukherjee’s ability to conjure these two co-existent but incompatible worlds is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength. I was initially fonder (if that is the right word) of the family scenes than of expositions on how Mao’s principles could translate to the India context. But as Supratik’s experiences deepen, and darken, the two narratives lend each other a weight and meaningfulness neither could achieve alone.

Mukherjee’s other great skill is to so effortless capture the voices of his characters. He ranges from croaking anger of an ailing industrialist, to the hopeful, if silent, optimism of a infant maths prodigy, covering embittered aunties and drug-addled nephews in between.

The overall effect is a compelling, captivating, and vivid, even for those of us unfamiliar with the tumultuous events of 1960s India. It is however also unremittingly dark. From the visceral prologue, to the depressingly familiar postscript, there is no let up in Mukherjee’s portrayal of the physical brutality of life. I’m sure that this is intentional, designed to remind the reader that rose-tinted nostalgia for the simple ways of the ‘good old days’ does nothing to convey the past’s harshness. This is a novel full of crushing poverty, repressed emotion, and casual cruelty. It is unquestionable effective, but I felt Mukherjee could have given some space to the lighter sides of the human experience, if for no other reason than to provide contrast to the shade.

I had the great privilege to visit India for the first time whilst I was reading this book. It was a very different India to the one the Ghoshs inhabit and I was exposed to none of the darkness deprivation that so characterised this story. It did however lend fresh appreciation of what life is like in such a densely peopled world. It also vividly clarified how alive the issues of inequality and impoverishment are 50 years after the events convey in this superb novel.

In summary, the Lives of Others, is a confident, complex and compelling family drama that challenges its reader to confront harsh realities. Mukherjee clearly has an impressive talent and I’ll be keenly awaiting his next novel, A State of Freedom, due to be published in September.

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