A novel by Neel Mukherjee
Upon reading the first chapters of Neel Mukherjee’s Booker Prize nominated novel, you are in culture shock. He transplants you instantly in South Calcutta, 1960, in the hustling and bustling house of the Ghosh family,where three generations live. The family is headed by the aging Prafullanath and Charubala, who have five children, six grandchildren and a loyal servant who is like family, but not quite. He introduces them all to you, all at once and you are dizzy, with the smells and sounds and sense of chaos.
The first string that is pulled from the ball of chaos, is the story of Supratick, the ideological grandson of the Ghosh family, who has left to join Maoist Naxalite guerrillas. This string is what holds the whole novel together, as we then peer into the lives of the other members of the Ghosh family. Mukherjee jumps randomly into the mind of one character and then the other, and this is at any given moment in their lives. Piece by piece, what slowly emerges, is the complex dynamics of how this family functions. The Ghosh family is a mere reflection of 1960’s post colonial Indian society. A broken family, functioning within the bounds of an archaic caste system, appealed by modernisation and with a bucketful of ambition.
In the feast of characters introduced, none of them are particularly lovable with their faults and their hang-ups, but they are all too human. My favourite is Chaya, the dark skinned sister who is cross- eyed and will never marry. The ‘smudge’ in the family, whose skin tone is an ‘odd shade of brown’. In her childhood days, she asks her mother if she prefers her younger, fairer, beautiful brother. Her mother denies what she shamefully regards as true. Chaya later grows up to be a total bitch. Although you don’t like her much, she exudes sympathy from the reader like no other character.
The story is essentially about the rich and the poor. It describes the Indian caste system of the 1960s and ones acute awareness of their social standing in society. It is graphic in its observation of the poor and their acts of desperation. The novel flickers sheer horror. However, it also has empathy for the middle class that protects itself with good intent and helplessness. Prafullanath, the head of the family, is a self made man, and you admire his ambition and his achievements. But Supratnik, the eldest grandchild, is the guilty conscience of possessing wealth, when so much poverty exists. Where concepts of caste are still prevalent in India today, The Lives of Others is an uncomfortable read. It doesn’t romanticise or dress-up, it lays it bare.
As the fate of the characters near their end, each one reflects ‘so this is how it ends’. And the story does end, it folds up quite neatly actually, but there are no conclusions and certainly no answers.