Book: The Lives of Others
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Random House India
Price: Rs 599
Reviewed by Samantak Das
The Lives of Others opens, and closes, with two acts of almost unimaginable violence, separated in time and space, but linked, nevertheless, through a complex chain of events that take in the history and culture of the turbulent years of late-1960s and early-1970s Bengal. Situated in Calcutta and the inaccessible villages of western Medinipur, Mukherjee centres his narrative on the Ghosh family of Bhabanipur, whose four-storey house is a microcosm of the world of the Bengali middle-class of the time. Prafullanath, a self-made man, is close to 70 when the novel opens, watching his carefully-built manufacturing empire collapsing around him as his three sons, Adinath, Priyonath, and Bholanath, struggle to come to terms with their straitened circumstances. His clever but ugly, and therefore unmarried, daughter, Chhaya, is a spiteful and vindictive presence around the house while Purba, the widow of Prafullanath’s fourth and youngest son, Somnath, is condemned to a single room on the ground floor of the Ghosh residence, treated little better, and sometimes worse, than a servant, striving desperately to raise her two young children.
Some two-fifths of the way into the novel, Supratik, Adinath’s older son, who leaves the comfort of his middle-class existence to turn revolutionary (a Maoist in today’s lingo) writes these lines in his journal, “Sometimes when my body simply couldn’t move, when I was incapable of lifting even my little finger, incapacitated by the combined tyranny of the sun and the humidity, I forced myself to beat and rake and pulverise the clods of earth by thinking I was beating and raking and pulverising and eviscerating men like Bhaben Sinha, men like the Rays, who were smuggling rice at night, men like the police, who were standing guard over the operation, all the jotedars and mahajans in this village. I wanted to stand outside the world, wielding a giant wooden stick, and use that to shatter the planet into tiny bits. I wanted to break the air, tear the wind, smash the water.”
Mukherjee’s novel spans a mere four years, 1967-1970, but he is able to take his readers back to the early years of the century, when the seeds of the Ghosh family’s affluence were sown, and forward to the second decade of the next century when Supratik’s legacy, so to speak, will bear terrible fruit, with a fluency and ease that deserves unstinted praise.
22/6, Basanta Bose Road is the centre of Mukherjee’s fictional world from which all that is good and all that is evil springs. Both Supratik’s revolutionary fervour and his younger brother, Suranjan’s, equally fervent pursuit of narcotic bliss seem to have their origin in the petty deceptions, power struggles and tyrannical codes that constitute the world of the family, as does their nephew Swarnendu’s precocious mathematical talents and their uncle Priyo’s unusual sexual preferences. Many of the features that colour Calcutta’s Bengali middle-class life — English-medium versus Bangla-medium schooling, Puja romances, little magazines and adda, to name but a few — find place in Mukherjee’s finely-observed and sensitively-recorded account.
In showing his readers the connections between the intimately personal and the institutionally political, by tracing the links between the death of a starving farmer and the collapse of a successful business enterprise, by taking his readers from the shabby gentility of a family in decline to the snobbishness of the newly-affluent, and, most of all, by demonstrating how idealism turns into cynical blood-lust, Mukherjee is able to alert us to the fact that what might appear to be the lives of others are, in fact, intimately and inexorably linked to our own. This lush, moving, deeply felt and ferociously intelligent novel resonates with much that is applicable to our here and now and deserves to be widely read.
Samantak Das teaches literature at Jadavpur University