Manabjameen by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay is a recent classic of Bengali literature. The book revolves around the lives of the Chaterjee family which comprises of five siblings: four brothers and a sister. The book is written with realism, and the reader gets immersed in the narrative due to its authentic description and dialogue, that is true to life experiences.
Though the writer uses realism as a depiction of characters and events, his style is also formalistic, this can especially be seen in his use of dialogue.
Long conversations between two characters, without interruptions, which go on for pages, are a hallmark of the writer’s style. The writer is conscientious to maintaining the basics of good writing, which is faithfully translated into English by Soma Das.
A range of human emotion and personality traits are displayed across the characters in the novel. Mallinath, the oldest brother, is eccentric but headstrong; the second brother Srinath is a hedonist, living in the shadow of his successful wife; Deepnath the third brother and the protagonist, is a moralist who does not succumb to idealism but is simply surviving albeit living following certain principles; the youngest brother Somnath is cunning, and is trying to usurp the property left behind by Mallinath. Somnath is egged on by his wife in this endeavour. The sister Bilu is adulterous. She is emotionless and swayed by her lover who is a materialist that does not believe in the norms of morality laid down in society.
To an extent the book is structured like Dostoevsky’s , ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. But while Dostoevsky dealt in psychology, Mukhopadhyay is interested in the emotions. The book has a maze of complex relationships that highlight what a complicated animal man is. For instance, in the novel, Srinath’s wife Trishna has an affair with Mallinath, a relationship which bears them the son Sajal. Sajal is brought up to believe that Srinath is his father, as Trishna is still Srinath’s wife. Mallinath is Trishna’a true amour, despite her being married to his younger brother Srinath. Despite these factors which seem to be in favour of Sajal being attached to his mother, as the novel progresses, Sajal gradually becomes his mother’s adversary. On the surface, given the evidence, this seems implausible, but the author leaves enough clues to show how Sajal’s metamorphosis may have occurred.
This is also a way of launching a cold war against his wife, whose success he grudges. Trishna runs the little empire she inherited from Mallinath like a dictator. The gender roles are reversed in Trishna and her husband. Sajal is exposed to all this as the novel progresses. Sajal also gradually starts spending time with his father-a coward and good for nothing-but he is the only person in the world that an unruly Sajal fears. Many such relationships blossom or break down in the laboratory of Mukhopadhya’s prose. Anecdotes and incidents are presented, true to life, but given slight garnishes to make it aesthetic.
The character of Pritam is another protagonist of the novel. He is Deepnath’s brother-in-law, who is suffering from a terminal neural degenerative illness. Pritam is very dear to Deepnath and is a moral compass for him. A memory lies deep within Deepnath that attaches Pritam to him. Years ago, when Deepnath and Pritam were both children, Deepnath had beaten up Pritam. Pritam was frail and skinny then, and a few years younger to Deepnath. He had beaten him and Pritam was lying hurt near a drain. In his hurt state Pritam had shouted: ‘Eat my left arm; eat my left leg.’ Pritam had not known any slang; never had he uttered the simplest curse. His upbringing preserved the purity of his tongue. Deep had rolled with laughter at Pritam’s cursing, if they at all fell into the category of curses! (23)
Pritam too learns from this incident and many years later the two discuss it: Pritam admits that the incident gives him the strength to fight his disease, as it toughened him. Such instances in the novel make the book a reflection of reality pertaining to the inner space of our emotions. The novel excels at this. Questions like what brings about attachment and what is the nature of friendship at the level of emotions are subtly answered by it. Pritam is in love with his wife Bilu and has great affection for his daughter Labu. Pritam’s senses are heightened by his illness, and he immediately learns that his wife has committed adultery, the first time she commits it and comes back home.
Though he was recovering despite the doctor’s giving him a short time to live, his will to live is shattered by his wife’s betrayal, and he goes into a near death state.
His wife had cared for him, but in an emotionless manner, and she believed that the will had no power, but that only modern medicine could save her husband.
Deepnath learns of Pritam’s state and tells him that he too knows of his sister’s adultery. He encourages him and says that he is too great to be felled by something so trivial. He also confides that Pritam is more important to him than his sister.
From this point on Pritam improves in health. He becomes spiritual. He becomes like what the philosopher Wittgenstein spoke of in the Tractatus: I am my world. Pritam takes his destiny into his own hands and defies death via living with a higher understanding.
Pritam’s character emphasises the author’s belief in the human will. The will is a force that helps man overcome the conditioning of matter. Pritam’s survival is also a testament against fatalism, or a blind faith in modern science.
The novel has political undertones. Mukhopadhyay is subtly critical of the materialist Left movement in Bengal, and the existential thinking which compliments it, that holds sway with Bengal’s intellectuals.
Deepnath’s boss’s wife Monideepa is a paradigm of this. She speaks of class struggle and her sympathies for the poor, but is unable to give up her exorbitant lifestyle. She is also naive, as despite not having business acumen she desperately tries to gather a large sum to start a business. Bilu’s attitude towards Pritam shows Mukhopadhyay’s attitude towards existentialism. He portrays the philosophy as defeatist, pessimistic and immoral.
Time is dealt with in a casual way by the writer. Events unfold quite fast in the universe of the novel. It would have helped if the writer had juxtaposed the happenings in the novel with some historical happenings of the time.
This would have made the reader have a smoother experience of the flow of time in the work. The author does a good job by not having a definitive ending.
He hints at the way things may go down, but leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination. This heightens realism. Maybe he is working on a sequel.