Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, like his Vodafone Crossword Award 2008 winning debut novel A Life Apart (initially published under the title – Past Continuous), continues the Calcutta (now Kolkata) connections, but this time with a different time frame and in a more ‘focalized’ way. Unlike the Bengal (most particularly, Calcutta) of 1990s in his first novel, his second novel, though offers some significant snapshots from the city’s history (like, the 1943 Bengal famine, the partition and the riots between Muslims and Hindus just before and after it, and the rise to power of the Left Front) focusing particularly on the period from 1966 to 1970 , a turmoil period blistered with events destabilizing the natural rhythm of the middle-class Bengali life – the Naxalite movement, small-scale farmer insurgencies, state atrocity, police-terrorism, violence, under-cover killings, naked blood-shedding, president’s rule and trade unionism. These glimpses into Bengal’s history are achieved through the unfurling of events centered around the family drama of a certain Ghosh family, once at the helm of its prosperity but now its glory being on the wane, on a continuous downward slope.
The novel begins with a harrowing event of May, 1966, giving readers a jolt: Netai Das, a destitute landless framer, not being able to cope with the difficult times; three years of continuous draught has ditched his family and many others like his into, decapitates his wife and eldest son, strangles his two daughters in quick succession and then kills himself before the spur of remaining energy in his skeletal frame gets deflated. The relevance of this Prologue (yes, Mukherjee has captioned it this way) becomes clear only when one goes through the family scion, Supratik’s epistolary memoirs of his revolutionary days in the hinterlands of south-west part of Medinipur district, and finds him contextualizing it in the larger framework of years-long exploitation of the people occupying the lowest rung of the society by the Zamindars and their consolidating ancillary agencies, and also in the contexts of the dialectics of Naxalite insurgency, of armed revolution. However, this gory sight of the Prologue is set in contrast, in the following chapter, with the petty concerns in the lives of the Ghosh’s, a well-off family living in a four-storey house in Bhowanipur, South Calcutta. After a few chapters, it becomes obvious that the novel consists of two contrasting but intersecting narratives, producing sometimes dramatic convergences.
One strand presents the regular opera of/in the lives of the Ghoshes – their aspirations, botched-up dreams, tragedies, hypocrisies, cruelties, viciousness, philistinism, acquisitiveness, perversion and familial fall-outs. Headed by Prafullanath and Charubala, the family has made a good fortune in their paper manufacturing business, acquired enough capital to branch out their business in other areas like publishing sector and owns personal cars. The heads of the family with their sons, daughter, daughter-in-laws, grandchildren and faithful servants ‘seem’ to lead a comfortable middle-class life with its middle-class moralities and mentalities. But as the narrative moves forward with its occasional flash-backs, it emerges that behind the veneer of comfortable life, something reeking really exists which starts surfacing very unpleasantly at the strained, depressed hours in the lives of both the state and this particular family. The exploitative hierarchy of the ‘outside world’ appears to be very much present inside the house in its unequal distribution of shares of the house, of the business, and most prominently when, after the ‘tragic’ death of Somnath, the youngest son of Prafullanath and Charubala, his wife, Purba, with her son and daughter, is forced to live in a dingy room of the ground floor and is treated almost as a servant. Under the joint weight of the changing political scenario and their own dysfunctions coupled with internecine problems and suspicion, the vast Ghosh empire starts dwindling, crumpling and disintegrating. The paper mills are shut down; and the Ghoshes face unimaginable situations. Prafullanath and his sons, Adinath and Priyonath start blaming each other for such a financially strained situation. A dense cloud of gloom, tragedy and mishap seems to hang over the family: Prafullanath gets heart-attack for the second time that almost renders him an invalid; Sandhya, Adinath’s wife, who has been the cohesive force in the family, is left heart-broken and takes to bed once Supratik, their eldest son, leaves the house to join the Naxalite revolutionaries and Suranjan, their youngest, takes to addiction; Chhaya, Prafullanath and Charubala’s unmarried daughter remains involved in an interminable fall-out with her sister-in-law, Purnima, Priyonath’s wife; Priya and Purnima’s daughter Baishakhi brings shame to the family when caught red-handed in a romantic liaison with the neighboring Dutta-lad; Bholanath, Prafullanath’s third son, incurs huge loss in the publishing sector . No longer can the centre hold; the Ghosh Family seems to fall apart. The only sunshine in this suffocating gloom is Sona, Purba’s genius son who is whisked away by Standford University for his sheer skill in mathematics and who ultimately wins the Fields Medal and rescues his mother from her pitiful situation.
The other strand relates the various strands of experiences Supratik gathers as a revolutionary soldier. In 1967 when Naxalite insurgency starts, Supratik, like many other middle-class educated students, feels for the ‘others’, for the exploited section of peasants and sharecroppers, and leaves his houses and college to join the revolutionary band and mobilize the people into armed revolution in the hope of better world. He moves to the rural Medinipur, stays there for two and a half years, ‘staging’ the party-laid-down tasks and remaining an incognito to his family for all these years. But during these days, he composes a series of letters to an unidentified addressee who, it is revealed later on, is none other than his ‘chhoto-kaki’, widowed aunt, Purba with whom he is in love. Of course, these letters never get sent to their addressee. But it is through these letters only that we come to know about their activities and the lives of the ‘others’. It is important to note how Supratik problematizes the concept by altering the location of the self in respect to shifting ‘other’. However, his return to the family, when it has been in a critical condition, on the verge of breaking-down almost, does not ameliorate the situation; rather his activities bring tragedy in the life of the old, faithful household servant, Madan, and destroy his own life too. The graphic details with which Mukherjee has described the sheer brutality inflicted on Supratik by the state-police reminds me of Animesh in Samares Majumdar’s Kalbela. Of course, there Animesh never dies.
Mukherjee has maintained a sense of detachment on his part. Probably this detachment on his part has provided him the much-needed vantage position to lodge criticism against the violence, killings, meaningless blood-shedding by both the revolutionaries and the state-sponsored agencies. He never forgets to show that these ideology-fed revolutionaries like Supratik and his comrades leave behind them unmistakable trails of ruin, ruin of the very people they think they are working for. And regarding detachment, it must be mentioned that this detachment does not mean any dearth of imagination in Mukherjee. Rather he possesses a queer sort of capability of imagination, of delving deep into other people’s consciousness, to present evenly the points-of-view of both the sides. Probably this has become instrumental for Mukherjee to create a ‘heteroglossic’ world. The graphic detailing of everything, undulating between harshness and pictorial poeticism of things, keeps a reader glued to the text. And, the continual deferment for a certain period, then revelation of ‘links’ one by one and the continual shifting of narrative voice in the narration engage the reader more intensely.
Another thing to be noted, the gruesome event of the Prologue is balanced by the horrendous possibility of an impending large-scale mass-killing when, in the epilogue, a band of Maoist, in the breachless dark, removes the fishplate and slips into darkness again with the full knowledge that an express train is going to hurtle down the track shortly. When I read it, a sense of terror seized me because it was exactly the way, later it was found out, that a horrible accident – Gyaneshari Train Accident – happened in May, 2010 between Jhargram Railway Station and Kharagpur Jn.. And the Maoists were said to be involved in it. I freezed at the thought of what horrible kind of purchase it would have. However, before I conclude, I must add that when I came across the names of the places like Jhargram, Belpahari, Gopiballavpur – all those places very much familiar to me since I hail from a rural place in that very Jhargram subdivision – I got seized with mischievousness to verify the accuracy of those places and conditions. When Mukhejee is successful in depicting the places and its natural fecundities and barrenness, its economic slackness, he succumbs to the habit of stereotyping, in some places, of their inhabitants. The stereotypical images of Santhal men and women are sure to remind one of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Aranyer Din Ratri. Barring all such trivial shortcomings, this book by Mukherjee is engaging throughout and remains true to what Amitav Ghosh, in his review of the novel, has to say of it – “The Lives of Other is searing, savage and deeply moving: an unforgettably vivid picture of a time of turmoil.”
Reviewed by Soumen Jana
Research Scholar, Department of English, Vidyasagar University, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, India