Domestic rhythms: queue outside a Bombay dry food store in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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A dazzling portrayal of domestic strife: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

In this novel of political activisim in 1960s Calcutta, Mukherjee's writing has fluent precision and a fine ear for the chaos of family life.

The Lives of Others
Neel Mukherjee
Chatto & Windus, 528pp, £16.99

Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, the prize-winning A Life Apart, had as its protagonist a young man, Ritwik Ghosh, who left the clamour of his extended family in Calcutta for a life of hazardous solitude. Mukherjee’s second novel plunges the reader directly into the maelstrom of Bengali family life that Ritwik fled. The protagonist of The Lives of Others is not an individual but the many-headed hydra of the (unrelated) Ghosh clan. Once wealthy, the family is now in decline but it remains prosperous enough to occupy a large house in Bhow­anipore, a genteel neighbourhood of Calcutta, where the days are spent in tireless spiteful intrigue.

The main narrative is set between 1967 and 1970, a time of political unrest in the city, when the Maoist Naxalite movement gained supporters among students and intellectuals. A prologue set in 1966 describes the convulsive despair of a debt-ridden peasant farmer, Nitai Das, whose wife and children are starving. His story is one incident among many that ignited the revulsion of the Naxalites at the intolerable contrast between their privileged lives and those of the unregarded suffering masses around them.

The Ghosh household consists of an elderly paterfamilias, Prafullanath, enfeebled by stroke and tormented by the pointless chatter of the garrulous, long-serving household major-domo. With his shrewish wife, Charubala, Prafullanath has four sons (the adored Somnath, the youngest, is now dead) and a clever daughter, whose startling plainness has left her unmarried and embittered. A sextet of grandchildren includes Sona and Kalyani, the son and daughter of Somnath’s widow, Purba, the daily victim of Charubala’s formidable talent for bullying.

A resounding absence in the household is that of Supratik, the eldest grandson, a taciturn 21-year-old politics student: “The opacity of his inner world, its unknowable resilience, makes [his mother] Sandhya fear far more for him than any mother should for her child.” She is right to be afraid. After a troubling – and to Sandhya incomprehensible – conversation about social inequality, Supratik vanishes. The only signs of his continued existence are two brief postcards.

But to one family member he reveals more. In a series of letters written (but never sent) to his young aunt Purba, with whom he is in love, Supratik details his Naxalite activism. “Being a Bengali,” he writes, “one is surprised when all the endless spume and froth of talk suddenly reveals itself to be the front of a gigantic wave of action.”

At first, Supratik’s activism is more of a ripple than a wave. With a group of fellow students, he leaves Calcutta to work with landless peasants in West Bengal, helping in the fields where the wretched Nitai Das slaughtered his family and attempting to organise the peasants into armed struggle. Despite the hardships of the life, there is an innocence about the students’ youthful idealism, which only slowly takes a darker tone.

Back in the household at 22/6 Basanta Bose Road, a different darkness is gradually revealed: the seething family rivalries, the perverse complicities and the impregnable narrowness of vision that has fuelled Supratik’s revolutionary fervour. His own political engagement is not devoid of meanness. Returning to the family home, he calculatedly betrays a character to whom he should feel bound by ties of childhood affection and class solidarity.

Mukherjee’s first novel was contrapuntal in form and The Lives of Others, though much more ambitious in scope, is similar in structure: the narrative of the Ghosh family’s decline is punctuated by Supratik’s despatches to Purba. The writing is unfailingly beautiful but the device seems slightly strained. Would even the most lovelorn young revolutionary commit himself to paper in such reckless detail?

It is in the depiction of the teeming Ghosh household that the fluent precision of Mukherjee’s writing is most powerful. The opening passage, in which the house stirs into life at dawn, resembles a tone poem in its dazzling orchestration of the crescendo of domestic racket. His eye is as acute as his ear: the physicality of people and objects is delineated with a hyper-aesthetic vividness that becomes agonising when the activity described is coprophilia, as in one passage; or the torture of Supratik in a police cell.

Two epilogues provide a half-sardonic, half-melancholy commentary on the events of this extraordinary chronicle. The first is a newspaper report from 1986 of a mathematics prize awarded to Purba’s son, Sona, a former child prodigy, now a reclusive 30-year-old professor of pure mathematics at Stanford University.

The other, dated 2012, describes a terrorist act by a group of Naxalite activists who derail the Ajmer-Kolkata Express using a method pioneered by Supratik, now revered as a martyr of the revolution. All the noisy intensity of the Ghosh clan is distilled, it seems, into this pair of opposed activities: on the one hand, the solitary pursuit of pure reason; on the other, the equally tenacious pursuit of hatred, anarchy and revenge.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood