by Neel Mukherjee
Random House India, 2014.
pp- 514, Rs. 599.
The problem with making it to the shortlist of an important award is forever thereafter being condemned to the ranks of the also-rans. Therefore, more than ever, after the announcement of the Man Booker Prize for 2014, it is crucial to look at the brilliance that Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others is.
An epigraph to the novel quotes James Salter (Light Years),‘How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?’ Much of the text then becomes an exploration of what/who constitutes the ‘others’. The story begins in a small village in West Bengal in 1966 with a farmer suicide- a term which had become almost banal in its implications in our current socio-political climate. It then segues into the upper middle class lives of the Ghosh family in Calcutta of the late 1960’s. Poised between the complacency of the traditional and the robust, often violent energy of the modern, three generations of Ghoshes occupy three stories of a house, itself a microcosm of the class privileges and prejudices that defined urban life in a capitalist economy dependent on feudal structures. The city becomes a space for the playing out of personal drama against the backdrop of varying degrees of violence as exemplified in the Naxalite insurgency as well the ensuing Naxalite purges, air raids, food riots, economic slumps and consequent agitations by the newly-emergent working class.
Mukherjee’s tremendous success lies in making the reader a participant in the lives of others- Purba, the young widow, condemned to a life of privation and servitude, Madan da,the family retainer, always ‘like family’ but never quite becoming it, as well as the dispossessed farmers and their families that Supratik encounters and writes of in his journal. The journal itself becomes a crucial tool for negotiating the rapidly changing meanings of family, belongingness and the indistinguishable categories of right and wrong.
The power of the prose lies in its ability to lay bare the harshness of existence. Like a naked wire, it snakes through lives, connecting them, often with explosive results, leaving the reader struggling to reconcile with the idea of violence as both retribution and a cry for help. Mukherjee’s novel is complex and searing and needs to be read and re-read and recommended widely.
Saloni Sharma has a keen interest in contemporary fiction and teaches literatures in English at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.