The Lives of Others
An excerpt from the brilliant new novel by Neel Mukherjee
Shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Available in the US from W. W. Norton.
“A devastating portrayal of a decadent society and the inevitably violent uprising against it…It is ferocious, unsparing, and brutally honest.” — Anita Desai
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Around six, the zoo starts to shake itself up from its brief sleep. Lying in bed, wide awake, Purnima hears the stirrings of life, each animal, each part of each animal, becoming animated in slow succession. Under the mosquito net the September humidity is already beginning to congeal into the suffocating blanket it will soon become. The fan, running at its top speed of five, battles away, unmindful of its futility. The only thing it circulates around the room is the sound of the fluttery pages of the Ghosh Gold Palace calendar hanging from a nail on the cream-painted walls. That calendar is a sign of her defiance; by some silent understanding reached a long time before she arrived in this house, all tokens of Ghosh Gold Palace are forbidden here, so she has made a point of having their calendar on the wall in her room.
Beside her, Priyo sleeps the sleep of the sinless. His early-morning snore has a three-toned sound to it – a snarly growl in the inhalation, then a hissing during part of the exhalation, completed by a final high-pitched insecty whine. She hears the scouring sound of a broom sluicing out with water some drain or courtyard. Someone is cleaning his teeth in the bathroom of a neighboring house – there is the usual accompaniment of loud hawking, coughing and a brief, one-note retch. A juddering car goes down Basanta Bose Road with the unmistakable sound of every loose vibrating component about to come off – a taxi. A rickshaw cycles by, the driver relentlessly squeezing its bellows-horn. Another starts up, as if in response. Soon an entire fleet of rickshaws rackets past, their continuous horn shredding what little sleepiness remains of the morning.
Now she can hear other vehicles: the toot of a scooter-horn, the bell of a bicycle. This is how this world begins every day; noise is the way it signals that it is alive, indomitable. The sparrows send up a chinkless wall of manic cheeping. The doleful remonstrations of the pigeons, shuffling about on windowsills, sometimes tumble over into an aggressive chorus; they have the same merciless presence. The sound of water loops like a liquid thread through the other sounds; someone is beating their washing against the stone or concrete perimeter around a running tap. The clatter of metal buckets; uninterrupted cawing of crows; wrangling stray dogs; a distant conch-shell being blown three times in the prayer room of a house nearby…Here, up on the first floor of 22/6 Basanta Bose Road, all sounds converge as in an amphitheater. Had she, her husband and their daughter, Baishakhi, lived on the top floor, where her parents-in-law and their favorite son, their eldest, Adinath, and his family have their quarters, it would have been so much less noisy, she knows. And away from the onslaught of mosquitoes, which would never have been able to ascend to the third floor. And, of course, more distant and safer from the troubles in the streets, bombings and murders, the terrifying stuff she hears about, that have started erupting in the city. Who can say that their street will not be the scene of such action?
From the thought of that one minor instance of preferential treatment of Dada to the real cause of all the rankling is a negligible distance. Dada, her elder brother-in-law, had been groomed to enter the family business, Charu Paper & Sons (Pvt. Ltd), from his school days and had obediently followed the path set out for him by his father, a trajectory as natural as the cycle of seasons. If family stories and reminiscences are to be believed, her husband, Priyo, however, had never shown any interest in the business, despite receiving the same training and indoctrination that his older brother had. If this had once caused ructions and displeasure, they are long vanished now, or almost vanished, for it is so obvious and accepted that Adinath is going to inherit the greater share of the family wealth in all its forms – business, money, house – that it is, like the air one breathes, not noticed, not remarked upon.
Despite the pervasive chatter of how the Ghoshes have fallen on hard times, how the business has been doing badly for years now, resulting in the selling-off of most of their mills, even most of her mother-in-law’s jewelry, Purnima has never quite believed these crafty, convoluted North Calcutta people. Well, maybe they don’t live there any longer, Purnima concedes, but her parents-in-law were originally from North Calcutta and these traits are difficult to eradicate and, she’s convinced, even passed down the generations, irrespective of location. Everyone knew what a big gap existed between what they said in public and what they did in private.
On paper, Priyo appeared to have equal standing with Dada, certainly as far as the burden of work went, but it was Purnima’s unshakeable belief that Adinath drew a significantly bigger salary than her husband. While she had a fair idea of the amount Priyo brought home, she was still in the dark about her elder brother-in-law’s takings; this ignorance was not for lack of trying on her part. It was made even more maddening by too much information from another, opposite side: Priyo’s contributions to the running of the household, which kept rising. Over and above paying the electricity bills for the entire household, which had been his responsibility for as long as Purnima had lived here, and paying some subsistence money to Purba, his youngest sister-in-law, he was now expected to increase his regular contribution to the family purse. The rest of his salary was deposited in a State Bank of India account held jointly by Purnima and Priyo. Part of this balance was cashed and kept by her in a locked drawer of their Godrej steel almirah, to dispose of and use as she deemed fit.
Despite being wholly in charge of this subset economy, Purnima felt that neither the money for her use nor the sum in the joint bank account was enough. She never reconciled herself to the fact that an increase in one meant a proportional depletion of the other. She wanted both to go up, and the mathematical impossibility of it irritated her so much that she often fell back on haranguing her husband. This, however, did not take the form of direct complaints about the meagre- ness of his income – it was not meagre – but about the inequitable nature of the levies imposed on her husband’s salary. Why did he have to shell out so much? Adinath practically owned the family business, so he should shoulder most of the costs. Besides, being the eldest son, it was his duty to look after the younger ones. Did he, Priyo, know for certain that Dada’s share of the costs was significantly larger or did he simply believe what he was told? How naïve was that? And what about her younger brother-in-law, Bholanath? He was the sole director of Charu Books, an entire company in itself. All his income seemed to go on the expensive education of his daughter in a fancy English-medium school. Where were his contributions? Exactly how much were they? And talking of dependants, shouldn’t Dada have the sole responsibility of looking after that hapless widow, Purba? If all the brothers contributed equally, why should Dada get preferential treatment in the family? It was still the case that no meal could begin without Dada taking a big spoon to the virgin mound of cooked rice and breaking it, yet another irritating North Calcutta affectation.
These and other related questions had accumulated over the course of their seventeen-year marriage and now found expression in ever-longer sessions of nagging. If Priyo had tried, in the past, to answer a few of them with reason and accuracy, he had long since given up, faced with the proliferating queries; now they went in through one ear and left through the other. And yet this is not the nub of Purnima’s dissatisfaction. That lies in the future.
It is evident that after the deaths of Baba and Ma, her parents-in- law, Dada will become head of the family. But who will the house, this big, four-story house with a rare back garden in the heart of Bhabanipur, be left to? Will the entirety of it go to Dada or will it be divided amongst all the brothers? If divided, how? Equally or commen- surate with the differential treatment they have received?
Years of trying to extract solid information from Priyo had yielded nothing. He was either evasive and lackadaisical in his responses, saying, ‘Let’s wait and see,’ to which she always said that that would be too late, they couldn’t do much after the division; or he sided with his family. ‘We’ve all lived together happily in this home, sharing everything; the question of dividing it into units for the use of one and not another does not arise. We’ll continue to live like this. Everything belongs to every one of us,’ he’d say.
Purnima took this badly. A threatening cloud would settle over husband and wife until its inevitable precipitation into tantrums and shouting. ‘I’ll see who looks after you and your daughter when you’re left with nothing,’ she’d rage. ‘They’ll take everything, counting each and every brick of the house, each and every single brick, you mark my words.’ The ‘they’ remained nebulous and unspecified.
The seven o’clock siren from a distant factory now adds its wail to the symphony outside. Like another clock, the blind beggar and his daughter begin working this particular patch of their beat, the sound of small cymbals accompanying their devotional duet, ‘Let my soul blossom like the hibiscus at the feet of my mother-goddess’. Purnima reluctantly gets out of bed to begin another day in her prison.
W. W. Norton & Company published Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others in the US on October 1, 2014 (press release).
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More Praise for The Lives of Others
“Very ambitious and very successful…One of Mukherjee’s great gifts is precisely his capacity to imagine the lives of others…Neel Mukherjee terrifies and delights us simultaneously.” — A. S. Byatt, The Guardian
“Searing, savage, and deeply moving: an unforgettably vivid picture of a time of turmoil.” — Amitav Ghosh