Review: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

by Mugdha Wagle on August 19, 2014

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?

Written by Mugdha Wagle

Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she’s reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!

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