The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

Palampur Book Club Read for January, 2016

Picking a book that appeals to a diverse group of people, some of whom are not avid readers is always a tough choice. I think the administrator for the Palampur Book Club tries her best to balance reading choices from the ‘heavy’ Booker Prize lists and the more ‘lighter’ popular reads and does a good job of keeping both camps happy. It takes a lot of commitment to run a club of this sort, which requires some ‘homework’ on the part of the participants and the effort is duly noted and sincerely applauded.

Having heard a lot about the ‘Lives of Others’ all over the internet for the past year,I wasn’t surprised to find it on the reading list of the PBC. An Indian author who has been short-listed for the Booker definitely deserves a look see by an Indian audience.

The story is set in 1960’s Calcutta and revolves around the various denizens of the Ghosh household. The once prosperous family businesses are suffering lamentably due to the growing communist movement in the state. As the struggle to maintain a respectable face in society takes a toll on the male members of the household, the women are seen to to be moving in their own cocoons of domestic rivalry and tedium. The joint family consists of the patriarch and the matriarch Ghosh’s, followed by their four sons and one daughter, the wives and the grandchildren. The story alternates between the happenings in the Ghosh household and the diary entries of Β one of the grandsons, Supratik, who has run away to join the naxal movement. The difference between the lives led by the (not so) elite and the truly destitute is stark and seems deeply poignant as the story progresses.

The author has done an incredible job with the characters of the Ghosh household. Each and every member may be identified as someone who is a reflection of someone that one has come across in their lifetime. The petty jealousies and the domestic warfare between the daughter-in-laws and the daughter of the house are at times an incredibly accurate representation of what occurs in joint families all over the country. The surprising part is the way the author has managed to draw his female characters with such deep insight and depth. The male characters are no less defined and hold out their own. I would have been perfectly happy with just the story of this crumbling household to go through for the entire duration of the book. However, as always with certain books, the narrative of the Naxalite grandson is as interesting as the rest of the story and incredibly educational to those not familiar with the rise of the naxal movement in the country. His communist beliefs, his disillusionment with the communist cause, his fight to establish his identity as a true comrade despite coming from a capitalistic household, his submission to the violence that he deems necessary to fulfill his mission are all unearthed slowly from his writings.

The book also subtly points out the way political interests lead to the creation of monsters that later become ten-headed giants. Like the Americans supported the creation of Taliban to fight the Russians, the book chronicles the creation and subsequent loss of control of the naxal movement by the communist regimen of Bengal. A mistake, but what a truly tragic one that haunts us decades down the line.

While overall, the book is a triumph of storytelling, there are some parts that feel unnecessarily contrived to fall into a particular category that is approved by the western idea of what a troubled psych should be like. So, the sexual predilections of one character or the act of burning a cat by another seem to have been added just to cater to satisfy the particular tick-marks that supposedly contribute towards the making of a ‘good’ novel.

The book can be a little tough to read in parts, and even tedious at some points, but these are few and far between. The author has managed to present the kaleidoscope of the Indian community at a particular time in the history of this country with Β a flair and nuance that is truly commendable. Must be read at least once. Its a good book even though it falls way short of being extraordinary.

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