Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

A 504- page novel published by Vintage Books and Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2014
Review by Dr. Amal Chaudhuri


The focal point of the novel is a relatively recent political movement and its catastrophic impact on the fortunes
of a upwardly mobile family in Kolkata. This movement refers to the peasant revolts in certain provinces of India,
viz. West Bengal and adjoining areas of Bihar, Orissa as well as Madhya Pradesh and the erstwhile Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh in the South. Trouble continues to rage even now in many of those parts, but in certain districts of W. Bengal in the 1960s and 70s, it reached boiling point having acquired its signature name ‘Naxalite movement’ due to its origin in Naxalbari in the foothills of the Himalayas in a Northern district of W. Bengal.

Writer Neel Mukherjee

The hero of the story, Supratik, a scion of the Ghosh family, is a 21 year-old upper middle class college educated idealistic man. His family hails from a traditional jewellery-making lineage in North Kolkata, but the patriarch of the family, his grandfather, Prafullanath, following a quarrel with his brothers, started a new business with a
paper shop which later grew into a manufacturing business in several factories spread over few districts of undivided Bengal, thus amassing considerable wealth.

The patriarch moved to the then-upmarket Bhowanipur area of South Kolkata and bought a big four-storey house plus garden with room enough for a family of four sons and a daughter, several servants, maids and a cook and three cars by the middle of the 20th century.

The novel bestrides two parallel narratives: the first tackles the mundane affairs within a big family of petty quarrels, tensions, as part of the daily interactions between the mother-in-law and daughters-in-law. The daughters-in-law themselves formed their sub-family units (the sons got married one by one and produced offspring, six of them).

All the married women of the household without much formal education represented typical stereotypes of a traditional Hindu joint family; Chhaya, the only daughter of with dark complexion and a slight squint, remained
a spinster despite her education in an English-medium Diocesan school followed by an university degree of M.A.
and proficiency in ‘Rabindra music’, a requirement of the upper middle class, led a depressed, vacant life, committing self-harm as her parents couldn’t find a suitable groom despite offering ever-higher dowry.

This narrative also depicts a few business problems including disputes with the workers in their manufacturing units leading to confrontation with the union resulting in a lockout in their most profitable unit in the suburb of Kolkata.

The other arm of the parallel narrative, which is the more crucial and compelling hub of the story, involves the
sudden disappearance of Supratik, the first grandson, from his home having left only a cryptic note to his mother.

He had been studying in the most prestigious Presidency College of Kolkata, but he goes underground and,
along with few young comrades from Kolkata, aligns with, organises and eventually leads a violent revolt of the
village peasants in the district of Medinipur in West Bengal against their oppressors and class enemies, the zamindars, jotedars and moneylenders, which ends with a few killings involving his active participation.

The narrative up to this point is penned as a diary by Supratik himself in the first person, interwoven with the
chapters of the other one. Although Supratik returns home after three years of clandestine and risk-laden life unhurt, police surveillance soon catches up with him and he becomes a victim of their equally brutal reprisals.

The story is spread over 500 and odd pages with many characters and episodes of minor run-of-the-mill nature as well as a fair number of major ones, almost all of which are realistic portrayals of life in a typical, wealthy Bengali middle class family. Although written in fluent English, the author uses many Bengali native proverbs and colloquial expressions translating them verbatim into English which will probably sound unfamiliar to English ears!

A character by the name of Sona, the youngest grandson of the patriarch’s youngest son, is a child prodigy in Mathematics at school level by the age of fifteen. He is invited to join a famous American University as a student. In the epilogue he, now Dr. Swarnendu Ghosh, is a Professor of Mathematics enjoying world-wide fame in the States for his original discoveries and publications.

I couldn’t fathom the relevance of this character to the storyline, except that following the untimely death of his
philandering father in rather disgraceful circumstances, he, his young widowed mother and his sister are reduced
to an ostracised existence in a shabby corner of the big house where he grows up in unhappy circumstances,
thus illustrating an unusual quirk of fate perhaps!

Incidentally, while giving glimpses of Sona’s student career the author reveals impressive felicity in explaining
the complicated jargon and formulae of collegelevel mathematical theories unfamiliar to average
readers (it was all Greek to me!).

However, his most striking achievement is the vivid depiction of how Supratik and his comrades shared with the half-starving destitute peasant families their daily life in huts, participating in back-breaking chores in the fields in hot or rainy weather for three long years.

Supratik and his comrades, having a middle class urban upbringing, undergo incredible hardship in order to forge sincere bonding and identification with the peasants which would inspire the required motivation for a peasant revolt which is their mission. I imagine such intensity of the author’s depiction cannot be achieved through bookish research, however meticulous. I wondered how the author, born in 1970, almost coinciding with the dateline of the Naxalite revolt in Medinipur district, the locale of the events referred to in the novel, managed to absorb and write about it in such grim detail long after the historic event.

Despite falling short of being an epic novel it unfolds an important chapter of West Bengal’s social political economic history beginning from the early twentieth century when Supratik’s grandfather entered into his adult
business career.

This period heralded Ghosh family’s upwardly mobile ascent, spanning about four decades until the decline
in the fortune of their paper manufacturing business following prolonged confrontation with the union and
the hero’s unnatural demise in the 1970’s at the hands of the police. This is a remarkable fictionalised account of
how two conflicts—indeed it was one conflict with two edges—had severe repercussions on a wealthy family. This novel represents a milestone in Indo-Anglian literature and Neel Mukherjee, the author deserves high praise for his achievement.

Dr. Amal Chaudhuri served as a senior hospital consultantDr Amal Chaudhuri cropped
in the NHS UK for many years. After saying goodbye
to the sacred thread of stethoscope he
shifted his focus to the study of Culture
and Civilisation. He has published articles
on this theme in several journals
and delivered talks on it in several fora
in London and elsewhere.