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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.

Domestic rhythms: queue outside a Bombay dry food store in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
Domestic rhythms: queue outside a Bombay dry food store in the 1970s. Photo: Getty

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.