Reflections of a Political Mind: Neel Mukherjee on writing his great Bengali novel

The nomination for the Booker prize came as a bit of a surprise, but Mukherjee, who confesses to being distracted ever since, would rather dwell on the changes it has already wrought than discuss his possibilities of a win.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Published:October 5, 2014 1:00 am
a matter of class Mukherjee at the Legacy Lounge, Lalit Hotel in New Delhi. The Man Booker prize will be announced on October 14 A matter of class: Mukherjee at the Legacy Lounge, Lalit Hotel in New Delhi. The Man Booker prize will be announced on October 14

Years ago, watching a telecast of Blue, the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s striking Three Colours trilogy on Channel Four, a comment made by British filmmaker Ken Loach during his analysis of the film had caught writer Neel Mukherjee’s attention. Loach had described the story of the young woman, who learns to rebuild her life after she loses her husband and child in a car crash, as a deeply political one. “Politics is the matrix that human life unfolds against, even if it is a personal story of loss and survival. I find it to be a dangerously political attitude to call things post-political. Everything is political,” says Mukherjee, 44. He found his own politics in his writings, in particular, in his second novel The Lives of Others (Random House), shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker prize to be announced next week.

A fortnight before the prize is announced, the London-based Mukherjee is in New Delhi, talking of how the sprawl of the novel captures not merely the dwindling fortunes of the Ghoshes of 22/6 Basanta Road, Kolkata and the tumult of the Naxalite Movement in the late 1960s-early ’70s, but also of his own engagement with “the politics of the bourgeoisie realist novel”. “The rise of mercantilism and the bourgeoisie is connected to the rise of the novel and I wanted to explore that particular politics. Then, when I began to write, I wanted to open it up a little more to see how the triangulation of capital, labour and output works in different worlds,” he says.

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A re-reading of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and George Lukacs’ Marxist essays on the Nobel-winning novel gave him food for thought: could he retell the story of the decline of four generations of a family against a crumbling social order in a way that would integrate form and content? The success of the novel would suggest the fulfillment of his ambition, but Mukherjee says he is mildly dismayed at the book being described as a “family saga” because “it’s so much more that it’s a little like mistaking a candy wrapper for the candy itself”. “At the heart of every development lies a desire for change. I wanted to explore how this change takes effect through the prism of a particular historical moment and from the perspective of different members of a family,” he says.

His choice of the Naxalite movement as the fulcrum of the novel followed from this thought. Even though he grew up after the decline of the movement, Mukherjee had his own childhood memories — the hush that surrounded the mention of any young man or woman believed to have been a sympathiser, or the urgent whispers by family elders to steer clear of them. Vernacular literature such as Mahasweta Devi’s Hajar Churashir Maa, Samaresh Majumdar’s Uttoradhikar trilogy (which he didn’t quite enjoy) nudged him into further research — he went to Midnapore to learn about farming, visited paper mills to see how they worked and read old political publications like Liberation and Deshabrati. “In my childhood, ‘Naxal’ was a byword for fear and terror. I cannot say that I have felt particularly curious about the movement, but sometimes, writers are not very aware of the choices they make. It seemed most natural to have the book set in that period,” he says. He also found it conducive to showcase the disjunctive idealism of the middle-class in a full-throttle class war. “If you look at the Maoist movement today, there is very little participation from the middle-class. It is centred on the grassroots. In that sense, the ultra-Left thinking of leaders like Charu Majumdar has come true,” he says.

Once Mukherjee had his “chalchitra (framework)” in place, he allowed the characters to take shape and fill out the contours of the plot. “I wanted it to be a novel about change, and one which wore its moral prescriptiveness in the title itself,” he says. His choice of the title came not from the German film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, but from the book Light Years by American writer James Salter, one of Mukherjee’s favourites. Halfway through the book, Nedra, the protagonist who loves to read biographies, reflects that “the power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark”. For Mukherjee, it came with the remark: “How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?”

Mukherjee, who graduated from Kolkata’s Jadavpur University in English literature before leaving for England for another BA degree at the Oxford University at the age of 22 (followed by a PhD from Cambridge University and a course in creative writing from the University of East Anglia), speaks in perfect Bangla, his diction unmarred by the inflections of over two decades abroad. “It could have been different had I left at the age of eight or earlier, but I was fully formed by the time I left,” he says. So when he decided to write his “great Bengali novel, and by that I mean a novel like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, whose language and cadence echo its time”, he arranged his language to suit the texture of his work. Shorn of sophistry, redolent of vernacular phrases and idioms, Mukherjee’s usage of English is somewhat perplexing for those who don’t know Bangla, and all too familiar for those who do. “I wanted the book to capture the tricks of the mind, the habits of language, the comforts of home. At no point was I looking to write an Oxford novel in English. I remember my British editor once pointed out a sentence to me that read ‘you have chewed your daughter’s head’ and told me, ‘Neel, that really does not mean anything.’ But when I told her of my intention, she let it be. I wanted it to be dense and familiar at the same time,” he says.

What this also does is to unmoor the novel from the broad genre of immigrant fiction and anchor it firmly on home turf. Mukherjee does not find himself drawn to Kolkata any longer, even with its promise of poriborton (“I don’t think I can ever use the word innocuously anymore,” he says), but he is not prepared to temper his writing with the ameliorative hand of nostalgia. The Lives of Others, that took him three quick years to write, pulses with violence even as the interior lives of its characters are set out like a match to the larger social fabric of the time. “Nostalgia is a particular affliction of immigrant fiction and it’s led to a kind of sclerosis of the form. I hate nostalgia and I feel it’s good to be aware of the politics of these genres,” he says.

The nomination for the Booker prize came as a bit of a surprise, but Mukherjee, who confesses to being distracted ever since, would rather dwell on the changes it has already wrought than discuss his possibilities of a win. Publishing is a capricious industry and literary novels do not often make it to the top of sales lists. “It’s difficult both for the publisher and for the writer of literary fiction. But it’s quite extraordinary what prizes or nominations can do. The book came out in May and it was doing modestly till it made it to the longlist in July. But beyond the interests of commerce, they also make it possible to read each book with the care and attention it deserves,” he says.

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