Book review: The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

tumblr_n58zolCVGV1rxrxxxo1_500Book: The Lives of Others
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Random House India

The first chapter of Neel Mukherjee’s second novel is so close to home, it makes you squirm in your seat and nearly shut the book and have nothing more to do with it.

Set in Calcutta, 1967 — when the wounds of Independence are only a couple of decades old and when India is still far from economic freedom — chapter one introduces us to the Ghosh family, they of the paper mills and large joint setup with simmering jealousies and superstitions. So intimately are we acquainted with a few select members of the sprawling home that it almost seems as if we’re looking into a mirror of our own traditional-modern, educated Indian society and dysfunctional selves, our own weaknesses and warts on naked display for the world to view. Brrr.

But if there is one thing we are not, it is cowardly. So we brave the next few chapters with stoicism and, by the time the book ends, are richly rewarded for it. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, The Lives of Others is not only realistic and relevant, it’s also a gripping, consummate read.

Drawn in firm shades of grey, the heroes and heroines in the book go through life’s hardships and struggles with hope, bitterness and desperation, always driven by that nebulous thing called love, albeit in its most possessive, self-serving form. Supratik, who is closest to being the protagonist in this multi-star performance, is disappointed and disillusioned by his entitled life, and joins the hordes of leftist urban intellectuals who set up camp in the jungles of Bengal and Bihar and are called Naxalites, outlaws, by others. His unmarried aunt Chhaya schemes and plots her days through the maze of a hierarchical home, constantly outdone by her greatest enemies — her own skin colour and intellect. His other aunt Purba, widowed within years of marriage to a beastly man, lives a wretched existence with her two children in a corner of the home reserved for servants, living off scraps of food and clothing thrown their way by the rest. And the servants themselves burn in the race to survive, inhabiting a zone where human values and loyalties are ambiguous and ever-changing.

Neel Mukherjee. Photo: Outlookindia.com
Neel Mukherjee. Photo: Outlookindia.com

There are moments of redemption, but they are quickly overshadowed by the clouds of national turmoil, of an uncertain time in India’s history when battle lines between the haves and have-nots were just starting to be drawn, and when democratic equality had begun to show itself up as an illusion. You can’t blame anyone for their role in the turbulence. They are all merely doing their best to prevail, given the circumstances. The comparison with Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is unavoidable, given that they talk of similar class and political conflict in a similar period in modern India. But while it is clear who the good guys in Mistry’s stories are, Mukherjee’s characters refuse to fit into the role of hero or villain. Everyone is a villain. And yet everyone is their own hero too. Coincidentally, A Fine Balance (1995) also made it to the Booker shortlist.

As a citizen of 21st-century, wired, enthusiastic India, you’ll need courage to look this book in the eye, to face our truth, to see where we’ve come from. But you’ll also find courage within its pages. It will evoke empathy, stir your soul and make a better Indian of you. Looking back sometimes prepares you to look forward.