Neel Mukherjee, The lives of others (Review)
Before I talk about Neel Mukherjee’s Booker Prize short-listed The lives of others, I want to briefly mention the experience of reading it on the Kindle. I probably haven’t told you my little reading rule of thumb before, which is that I aim to buy Australian books in print, and overseas books electronically. It’s my measured foray into downsizing!
However, I don’t greatly enjoy reading on my Kindle. I like the Kindle itself. It handles pretty much like a book, the e-ink technology is easy on the eye, it’s light and portable, and with this particular author whose vocabulary is impressive, I did find the in-built dictionary to be very useful. But, I don’t find reading books in e-formats particularly pleasurable. It’s not easy to get the measure of a book, to flick through it and see what’s what. Consequently, I didn’t discover the family tree until I’d read the first couple of chapters. Now, if you’ve read this book, you will know that the three generations of the Ghosh family who live in a four-storey house are introduced in one chapter. Their names are unfamiliar to a westerner’s ears making it hard to remember who’s who, so that family tree was a godsend. But, I only found it when a a reading group friend mentioned its existence. The diagram’s small print was, though, very hard to read, and could not be enlarged like e-text can, so I hand-drew a family tree, photographed it, and shared it with my group. Then there were the many specifically Indian words that were not in the dictionary. They were in the glossary at the back, but it’s tedious flipping between glossary and text in an e-book environment, so I didn’t. How hard would it have been to hyper-link those words to the glossary?
“the very quicksands of family” (Suranjan)
Rant over, let’s talk about the book! The lives of others is set in West Bengal from 1966 to 1970, with two epilogues set much later, one in 1986 and the other in 2012. It centres on the aforementioned Ghoshes, a well-to-do family whose wealth comes from paper mills. By the time the novel opens, business is starting to fail, so there is tension in the air, exacerbating the rivalries, envies and secrecies which characterise the family’s relationships. That’s the personal, but this book is also political, because one of the characters, a grandson of the old couple, becomes a revolutionary with the Naxalites, a section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (or, CPI-M). In 1967, they commenced radical action to redistribute land to landless farmers and labourers. The book’s chronology mirrors the early years of this movement.
Indeed, the book is chronologically structured, with each chapter labelled by date. The first thirteen of its nineteen chapters comprise two sections – a third person story about the family in the Calcutta house, and a first person epistolary story (presented in a different font – unless your e-book was on an iPad, but that’s another story) by Supratik, the revolutionary grandson who is in the countryside “where the real politics lay”. This first person story finishes in chapter 14, when Supratik returns to Calcutta. The effect of this structure is to parallel manipulative behaviour and power plays in the family with the societal/political power imbalances against which Supratik fights. Just before he leaves the family, Supratik says to his mother, Sandhya:
Are you happy with the inequalities of our family? Of the power-on-top-ruling-people-below kind of hierarchy? Do you think it’s right? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?
This structure is just one example of how carefully the book is crafted. There are also allusions – and I’m sure there are many that I didn’t get – to literary classics. Chapter 4’s opening line that “not all family bonds are equal” must surely allude to the opening of Anna Karenina, which is also both about family and land/farm reform. And there’s a scene reminiscent of Sense and sensibility. In it the Ghosh patriarch, Prafullanath, is done out of the inheritance his father wanted him to have by a half-brother, who is spurred on by his wife. This reminded me of Fanny Dashwood talking husband John out of properly helping his stepmother and half-sisters, despite his dying father asking him to do. One of the themes of Sense and sensibility is economic power and inequality, and how families can wield power.
“this unvarying calculus about the worth of one’s own kind measured against the lives of others ” (Supratik)
Mukherjee, however, takes these themes to another level. The lives of others is a powerful and often brutal book. The prologue, which tells of a murder-suicide enacted by a poor sharecropper after consistently receiving no help from his landlord for his starving family, establishes the two main themes – economic inequity, and the inhumane treatment of “others”. These themes are played out in the way various members of the family treat each other, their workers and those with whom they come into contact, and are paralleled in the farm politics which engage Supratik’s passion. While the themes can be simply stated, the story-telling is sophisticated. Complex links and parallels, together with concrete and abstract motifs, evocative images and targeted allusions underpin the novel’s layers to expose human capacity for cruelty, self-preservation and self-deception. In a devastating conclusion, Mukherjee shows what happens when idealism loses sight of the humanity it is trying to protect, when calculation over-rides empathy. He offers no answers, makes no judgements, but simply shows.
The result is tough, and sometimes very uncomfortable, reading, but what drove me on was Mukherjee’s language. It is truly delicious. The imagery is accessible, often referencing the very ordinary, but it is so fresh that it takes its mark perfectly, again and again:
… if you fail an exam, it decreases the chances of getting out of the system that will slowly crush you to a flat piece of cardboard
Two things with the power to scrunch Prafullanath’s plans into a shapeless paper bag had not occurred to his myopic mind.
His voice has the serrations of a knife in it.
Cardboard, paperbags and knives. All so mundane but, in Mukherjee’s hands, so on the money. Here’s one more, describing one of the daughters-in-law:
Haranguing the servants at last gave Purnima a point of convergence for all her diffuse days and energies to focus on, and she took to it like a spindly, undernourished sapling to rich loam.
Mukherjee’s ability to capture people and place with such vividness and clarity is impressive. It’s not a perfect book, being weighed down at times by detail that, interesting though it is, doesn’t always seem essential.
However, Mukherjee’s compassionate but unsentimental understanding of human nature, combined with his clear-eyed analysis of how the personal interacts with the political, reveal uncomfortable truths about our dealings with other, and make him, unlike Supratik, a more trustworthy “defence counsel for humanity”.
The lives of others
London: Chatto & Windus, 2014
ISBN (e-pub): 9781448192182