Neel Mukherjee’s The lives of others, and those epilogues
When my reading group discussed The lives of others questions were raised about the meaning of the two epilogues, specifically in terms of what they contributed to the meaning of the book. Not having finished the book in time, I wasn’t able to join in, so I’m having a go now.
As I mentioned in my review, the two epilogues are dated much later than the main action of the book, the first occuring in 1986, and the second in 2012. Let’s start with 1986 …
It’s about Sona, the youngest grandson in the house and the son of the youngest, and most ill-treated, daughter-in-law Purba. At the end of the novel, before the epilogue, we learn that his mathematical skills have resulted in his being offered a scholarship to go to America. He’s 15. In 1986, he is 30, and a Professor of Pure Mathematics at Stanford University – and he has won a special Mathematics Prize. What has this to do with the novel?
Tricky. At one level, it shows that the lowest in the family hierarchy did manage to get away and “make good”. It’s lovely seeing poor Purba, even before they left, suddenly being recognised and appreciated by the family. But, it’s how they got away that is also significant, which is through skill, ability and education. Education is one of the novel’s themes. Early, daughter Chhaya sees a niece (another grand-daughter in the family) displaying signs of immodesty and defiance:
This is what happens when one has an uneducated mother, Chhaya thinks …
Then again, the rather unpleasant Chhaya is unmarried. Some say that
being a graduate, having a BA degree, had harmed Chhaya’s chances of finding a husband.
Even given that Chhaya is not the most sympathetic character, the message seems to be that for women education is a complicated issue – at that time, in that society. For men, though, it is a way out. For Sona (our Professor), education was critical to escaping a controlling family. For Sona’s grandfather, Prafullanath, however, education was unnecessary to his achievement, and he doesn’t see its value. His oldest son Adi though does, as does second son Priyo, who wishes he’d been born into a different family, one comprising “fierce reformers; progressive, educated people”. Go down another generation, to Sona’s that is, and we find Prafullanath’s oldest grandson and Adi’s son, Supratik. He is, in today’s parlance, radicalised at university to the point that he becomes a Naxalite.
I could go on, but for me it’s clear that a major point of Epilogue 1 has to do with education, and with the fact that with education you can escape.
But, what about maths? Why maths in particular? Is this significant? I think it is, and it deserves further study. For example, here is Supratik near the end, when he is under arrest and being confronted by his surely hypocritical decisions and actions:
The calculation at that time, he remembers, had been strictly mathematical – if one have-not had to be sacrificed so that fifty have-nots could be benefited, nothing trivial such as emotions could stand in the way.
I’ll leave you with that thought! Maths, like education, itself, or almost any idea in the book, has no intrinsic value. It is how it is used that is important. In other words, as I said in my review, Mukherjee doesn’t seem to want to give answers, but to show different ways of being. I think I know what he thinks, just by the fact that he has told this story, but he certainly doesn’t ram it down our throats.
This Epilogue is dark. It describes a terrorist act that will result in mass murder, and it is conducted by new revolutionaries, revolutionaries who see Supratik as a hero, a martyr to their cause. Their technique is his:
The trick is more than forty years old, she has been told during her training. Someone had come from Chhattisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. […] his gift to his future comrades survived and, for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest …
Our young Maoist revolutionary knows what she is fighting for:
The tribal people knew what fate awaited them outside their land – daily wage-labourer in the city, maidservant in someone’s home, prostitute.
And she’s pragmatic about the implications of her role:
They would all die one day – and it will come a lot sooner in their lives than in others’ – but it was better to die fighting, like a cornered wildcat, than crushed underfoot like an unseen worm.
But what is Mukherjee saying? That it’s ok to continue to calculate, to sacrifice the lives of others for some better future?
I’m not sure, but going back a few chapter to when Supratik is under arrest, he thinks
The questions of feelings and principles and inhuman betrayal that he has had to wrestle with surge back, this time without the soul-destroying arithmetic to balance them out: did he . . . did he go down that route because of reasons of class, because a servant stealing is so much more credible, so much more natural, than a member of the family? Was it to make the theft believable to the police that he had framed Madan-da, or was it because it had cost less to betray a servant than one’s own kind? The questions are so unbearable …
And so now, I think, I understand the novel a little more. The questions are, indeed, unbearable … and the basic one is: when are the answers absolute and when do they require calculation, that soul-destroying arithmetic? The risk is, I suspect Mukherjee is saying, that when we apply that arithmetic we are more likely to sacrifice the lives of others than those of our own.