BENGALURU :There are two parallel strands to Neel Mukherjee’s almost-Man Booker prize winning, far too ambitious, second novel, The Lives of Others. While one strand takes the reader on a journey through the topography of the Calcutta-based Ghosh family, a wealthy but secretly coming-undone-at-the-seams kind of joint family; the other is a first-person account by Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family, who has joined the Naxalite movement.
The book opens with a powerful and unforgettable prologue. A drought and debt-riddled farmer begs the owner of the farm for food, but is savagely beaten and kicked out. Summoning strength from the depths of his misery, the farmer returns home, to murder his wife, son and two little daughters, after which he himself consumes a lethal dose of insecticide. It sets the tone for the rest of the book that looks at the violence, both inside and outside the family setup; both as an implosion as well as a terrible explosion.
The novelist inhabits both these worlds with ease. The descriptions transport us to ‘60s Bengal right away; amidst the growing resentment of the proletariat against the businessmen, who have unwittingly pushed the wage-earners past breaking-point, bringing about their own downfall. The Ghosh family is a great metaphor for this debacle.
Living in a multi-storeyed house, the head of the family, Prafullanath and his family occupy the top floor, while the son who has fallen out of favour and his family occupy the dingy bottom floor. Right from the outset we know this is an unhappy family.
Even the wealthiest members have their demons to battle. Prafullanath’s paper mills are collapsing and while his life unravels, the members of the Ghosh family quietly plot each other’s doom. The sisters-in-law are venomous, the grand-children disinterested and far too queer.
So much has gone into detailing the lives of each member of the house, it takes a while before we begin to understand who is who; (something I’m not sure I’ve understood fully even after reading the entire book). Mukherjee’s liberal usage of Bengali terms doesn’t help, as the reader is forced to keep skipping to the end of the book to refer the glossary. While I’m all for not dumbing down your source material, it is also quite senseless to make your reader work so hard.
Set against the squabbles over inheritance and power between the Ghosh family members, the struggles and idealism of the young Naxalite Supratik is almost welcoming— at first. This part of the novel is both lyrical and existentialist in nature. Supratik’s heroes become his own undoing and this is he only space where the novel manages to connect with the reader.
It’s quite difficult to find a character you like in this book. And that gives the reader very little motivation to stick it out. Even Supratik, fighting for the less-privileged, with his larger-than-life anti-bourgeios sentiment fails to kindle anything but pure spite. This couldn’t have been the author’s intention and thereby marks some negligence on his part.
Mukherjee also lingers a tad too long on some of his images. The book could have been easily 150 pages shorter. For example, he explains the entire paper-mill business to his readers in words that are far too technical and flat, making the context boring and unstimulating. There are also long passages that talk about mathematical theory, thanks to a young Sona, a mathematical prodigy, who ends up winning the Fields medal, the only positive legacy of the Ghosh’s dysfunctional offspring. It would be difficult even for a mathematician to follow some of these pieces.
While The Lives of Others shows off Mukherjee’s skill at combining the personal and the political, against a spectacular backdrop, filled with action, melodrama and pure human agony; it is also an example of why the novel is touted as a dying art-form. A thoroughly wasteful and
overlong experiment which will really try the reader’s patience.