The Lives of Others

Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9788184003796
Rating: ★★★★☆
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The Lives of Others is a novel of sweeping scope. It showcases 3 generations of a Kolkata upper-middle-class business family as they struggle against the winds of radical Communism sweeping across Bengal in the late sixties. Their plight is juxtaposed against the lives of others; the struggling, starving, poorest-of-the-poor landless labourers of Bengal.

I wrote this review almost a month after reading the book, simply because I was so afraid that I would write a never-ending paean of praise instead of an objective review. Well, I don’t think I’ve succeeded. The time interval has done nothing to diminish my awe.

This book had the most chilling opening chapter I’ve read in a long time. Nitai Das, landless labourer returns empty-handed after being beaten by his landlord for begging for food. Nitai knows what to do. Grabbing a sickle, he decapitates his wife and son. He throttles his elder daughter, and suffocates his baby girl. He then drinks Folidol, slurping until his insides are burned away, returning, as Mukherjee puts it, “from the nothing in his life to nothing”.

Here on the main narrative begins, with the Ghosh family’s trials and tribulations; factories that have to be shut down due to union trouble, power struggles between frustrated sisters-in-law, an unmarried dark-skinned daughter, a coprophiliac son, and most eminent among these, the communist grandson who drives the story forward. It is this grandson, Supratik – meaning “Good Symbol” or “Good Omen” – who is responsible for bringing into sharp relief the obliviousness of the Ghosh family – indeed, of most middle-class folk – to the fate of those others whose lives are so much worse than theirs.

What I loved

The Lives of Others will force you to think, to question yourself, and it will shake you out of your apathy. Is it justifiable to ignore the inequality in society? When does blissful ignorance cross the line into callousness and from there into deliberate cruelty?

These are heavy questions, but Neel Mukherjee brings them to you with finesse and subtlety. The shocking way in which Purba, the widowed daughter-in-law of the Ghosh family who, in spite of being family, is treated simply because she is a poor widow, gives you a glimpse of the basic attitude towards the unfortunate: Kick them while they’re down!

Meanwhile, though the book’s tone is serious in the main, there are glimpses of humour in certain passages, such as the one where the Indian education system is described:

“… learning by rote (that) is the basic, dominant and only model of education. Ingest and vomit – that is the order of things… It develops only one faculty, memory, and atrophies everything else, most of all thinking…

You can see the results of this in the teachers themselves; there is a blankness, something of a ruminant’s absence of thought about them.”

What could be considered negatives …

It is always daunting to pick up a book which you know will not fit in your purse. An intense 500+ page book, this one is not your average in-flight reading, and the pace is luxuriously leisurely. For the first quarter of the book, some might feel that, as in the best Godot traditions, “Nothing much happens”.

Does it deserve to win the Booker?

Hmmm. That’s a difficult question.

For almost 2 weeks after reading this book, I was in book hangover – I couldn’t move on. I kept thinking about the story and about the issues in it – communism, the Naxalite movement, the morality of favouring one’s own above the others.

But at the same time, IMHO, this book does not break new ground, unlike last year’s winner, The Luminaries, which was a brave literary experiment that attempted something radical with style as well as content and succeeded spectacularly. (Coincidentally, another of last year’s nominees, The Lowland, also flirted with some of the same issues as this book – a young man dabbling in Communism and the impact this has on his family.)

The Verdict

This book is a must-must-read. Every Indian should pick up a copy, steal some time – uninterrupted if possible – and wade into it, soaking in the richness of language and content. The ending stunned me – I never saw it coming, and I was invested enough in the characters to be angry with the author for ending it that way!

The Lives of Others is a gently worded but strong commentary on our times. By the end of the book, Supratik, the “Good Symbol”, is referred to by his labourer comrades simply as Pratik: “Symbol”, a Question Mark about the current state of our world. Perhaps also an Omen for the future?

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The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer
Author: Bilal Tanweer
Publisher: Random House India
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9788184004595
Rating: ★★½☆☆
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Catastrophe. It’s the phenomenon that has the power to bring a city together or take a city apart. Cities, like people, have their own ways of dealing with the crisis at hand. Some just shut themselves down from the pain and anguish and a few form steel-like resolve and fight the menacing intrusion. The Scatter Here is Too Great talks about Karachi, dealing with a crisis, combining its fight or flight mechanisms to piece back a city that has been too far chiselled at and eroded away.

The book begins with a little boy’s transition to manhood, characterised by him colourfully and vituperatively abusing a classmate. This angers his father and shocks his mother. As they come to terms with his teenage phase and the boy learns to handle his hot head, the story divulges other stories set in Karachi. The book is a coalescence of stories of love, strained relationships, reprieves, epiphanies and all other emotions that form a city. A city has two faces – its hard, perennial infrastructure and the warmth and life of its people. The people and their emotions infuse the city with life. Mutually exclusive existence is not possible, the city depends on its people and the people depend on their city. So when this tenuous thread of dependence and delicate yet strong status quo is shaken, rocked and destroyed by a bomb, what happens? The spirals just tumble to the abyss.

The initial chapters tell us the beginnings of this intricate web of interconnected stories. The boy who learnt new abuses, the boyfriend who misses his ex, the girl who is taunted because she denigrated her family’s name, the communist grandfather who believes that his former glory will be restored are a few among such stories of the book. All the stories are interconnected somewhere, which provides ground to the saying ‘the world is a small place.’ It restores your belief in that one momentary daydream that all of us are somehow, somewhere connected. That we never really are alone. And that is the underlying tone of the book.
The author draws a strikingly beautiful comparison between a bullet-shot windscreen and a city rocked with a bomb blast. He describes his city, Karachi, as ‘beautiful, broken and born of tremendous violence.’

The final chapters tie up the loose ends and clear up confusions that may have arisen in the reader’s mind. In some places, the narrative seems choppy and jumps from story to story, taking your attention with it. But the next story always makes you sit up straight and as you skim through and read the broken, mended and patched up pieces of a city destroyed and reformed, you feel rapture.

For more Karachi, check out Saba Imtiaz’s new release Karachi, You’re Killing Me! 

We also have a great review of The Smoke Is Rising, which tells the story of Mysore through its citizens’ tales. 

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Navigating the Dating World: Ladies Please! Dating Truths by a Man

August 14, 2014
Ladies Please! Dating Truths by a Man by Jose Covaco
Author: Jose Covaco
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9788184004410
Rating: ★★½☆☆
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Ladies Please! Dating Truths by a Man is a self help book by MTV’s VJ Jose Covaco, intended for the broken hearted as well as people struggling in the dating world.

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Interview with Ashwin Sanghi

August 11, 2014

“The best thing about collaborating is the fact that one can pool ideas and expertise. The problem, however, is that it is far more difficult to write in a coordinated fashion as part of a team effort than to write solo. Collaboration requires method and discipline.” – Ashwin Sanghi

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Hilarious Reactions to Chetan Bhagat’s new book Half Girlfriend!

August 7, 2014

Chetan Bhagat announced the October release of his latest book, provocatively named ‘ Half Girlfriend ’. One wonders how much time he spent choosing the name! Because that name, that irritating, grammatically incorrect, execrable name has single-handedly gathered enough publicity to launch a rocket, never mind a book. No PR agency could have done better.

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Love Beyond Death: Gulab

August 6, 2014
Gulab by Annie Zaidi
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9789351362791
Rating: ★★★★☆
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In this enthralling novel, Annie Zaidi tells us an engaging love story about loss and holding on.

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Review: Last King In India – Wajid Ali Shah

August 4, 2014
The Last King In India – Wajid Ali Shah

Author: Rosie Llewellyn-Jones Publisher: Random House India Year: 2014 ISBN: 9788184005493 Rating: Click for latest prices Rosie Llewellyn-Jones impeccably reconstructs the life of the often misunderstood King of Awadh with the help of her meticulous research and vivid portrayal of a life much unknown to Indians. The human mind is so nonchalant. It reads an […]

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Friendship Day Books Special! Greatest Books on Friendship

August 1, 2014

We thought we’d compile a list of friendship-themed books to enter into the spirit of this day. Not all of these books have friendship as the dominant theme, but each of them celebrate, in some form or the other, the thrills, joys, the bitter-sweet pains and the enduring pleasures of friendship. Read on!

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Not so wicked after all: Wicked Games

August 1, 2014
Wicked Games by Arjun Krishna Lal
Author: Arjun Krishna Lal
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780143333203
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
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Wicked Games is a very interesting title. So when I chose to review this book, I took it at face value and mentally prepared myself to read about the dirty laundry of the characters.

Instead, I found myself reading a teenage rom-com flick, wedged into a book.

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Get enchanted by Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitram

July 30, 2014
Malavikagnimitram

Author: Kalidasa, Srinivas Reddy
Publisher: Penguin Publications
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780670086870
Rating: ★★★★☆
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Considered to be Kalidasa’s first work, Malavikagnimitram is the love story of King Agnimitra, the Shunga king of Vidisha and the beautiful dancer Malavika, who is a resident of the Royal Harem.

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