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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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