A long (505 pages), meandering story of an upper middle-class Kolkata family in the 1960s, Neel Mukherjee’s second novel is, like the city, crammed to overflowing with stories and characters. But, unfortunately, few of the central characters are actually likeable.
A once proud, successful family living in the elite northern suburbs, the Ghoshes have been forced to up sticks and move to a four storey home in the less ritzy Bhowanipore to the south. The problem is that the family – and the patriarch, Prafullanath, in particular – has been ignorant of the tides of change going on around them. A botched modernisation programme of their successful printing business along with shifting political sands and the rise of trade unionism has left the family fortunes in a downward spiral.
With Prafullanath now left infirm due to a series of heart attacks, it is left to two of his sons, Adinath and Priyonath, to try and make sense of the business. Home life is overseen by the ageing matriarch Charabula from the top floor of the Bhowanipore home, with the living arrangements of her adult children and their families arranged according to rank on the lower floors.
Life in the Ghosh home is strained at the best of times, with petty jealousies, rising frustrations and deeply felt anger rife within the family unit. Three brothers (and their families), an unmarried sister and the widow and children of the deceased youngest – a total of sixteen plus permanent servants and casual staff all live under one roof. But it’s the disappearance of the eldest grandchild, Supratik, and the discovery of his involvement with the extremist politics of the Naxalites that highlights the fractures in the family and their lack of understanding of the evolving world outside the front door.
Structurally, Mukherjee has chosen, once Supratik has left home, to present three interwoven strands – the present tense is Kolkata, the past tense filling in the family’s back history and the third as a series of (undelivered) letters from the rebellious Maoist explaining to an unnamed recipient his motivations in having chosen to live in the rural areas among people at the lowest rungs of social order.
The dynamics of a country in change are reflected in the Ghosh family dynamics. The old order of the British Empire and its demise is very much represented by the infirm patriarch and the (pre-independence) business. Confusion reigned for years post-1948 with decisions being made without access to all the details and ramifications of decisions (Adinath and Priyonath desperately trying to keep the company afloat). And, as the 60s moved towards the 70s, the massive global political shift of a younger generation fighting poverty and injustice is placed firmly in the lap of Supratik and the Naxalite rebellion. Behind closed doors, the women in the family attempt to maintain tradition and social order.
The Lives of Others joins many sagas on the bookshelf of the struggles of post-independence India. The chapters written ‘by’ Supratik are stylistically different to the rest of the book – matter of fact and to the point fictionalised characterisation of real events. It’s through him we are introduced to the socio-political situation of West Bengal in the 1960s. It is through the stories of the unmarried Chhaya, the clashes between the matriarch and her daughters-in-law, the pecking order of the teenage cousins and relationships to the servants that provide us with an understanding of an upper middle-class family in Kolkata (still known as the anglicised Calcutta).
It’s a fascinating insight. Sadly, however, there are two major problems. The first is that lack of any sympathetic and empathic central character. The young widow, Purba, is possibly the closest, packed off as she is by Charabula with her children to one room on the ground floor after the death of the youngest (and favourite) son. But, like her station in life, Purba is too much on the periphery of the story to have much impact. Even the idealistic Supratik is proven to be a hypocrite.
And then there’s Mukherjee’s love of words. There are just too many of them! Why use five words? Use thirty or forty instead.
Over the last few years, instead of excitedly anticipating what lies ahead, he has fallen into the enfeebling habit of returning in his thoughts to a juncture in his recent past that he identifies as a turning point. But every time the hope for a neat, single locus, where the bend marks the before and the after, defies him, and what he had hoped was going to be apparent as a clear turning point dissolves into something resembling an estuary, the unitary flow of events fracturing into a prodigal multiplicity of streams of cause and effect, so that he can no longer identify what or who to blame for everything that followed….
That was at page 81 – and there are 505 of them. Occasionally, just occasionally, I wished his editor had been a little more judicious.
Although the favourite to win the 2014 Man Booker Prize, The Lives of Others lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.