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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem