In its first year of including novels written in English from across the globe, the Man Booker long list boasts city boy Neel Mukherjeeís second novel, The Lives of Others. The British-Indian author speaks to Metro on the nomination, the book, his college days and more
Congratulations on the Booker nomination. What does it mean to you?
It makes me very happy, of course. It gives the book a little bit of a fighting chance at a very difficult time for writers and publishers and, more especially, for literary fiction.
What was studying English at Jadavpur University like?
English at JU was life-changing in all kinds of positive ways. Well, Supriya Chaudhuri was an astonishing revelation. All my life Iíve had the very great fortune to be taught by immensely inspirational teachers and she was the beginning of what I think of as the Great New Wave. The JU English syllabus was very good; even better now, I discover. The JU English department was always a sort of country cousin to the grander Presidency but I feel Iíve been vindicated in my long-held conviction that it was, in reality, far superior.
I was a very lazy student, more known for ďsitting in the (infamous) lobbyĒ ó alas, long gone ó than for attending classes. But that was a different kind of education, if such it can be called. There was theatre in the air, and endless, informal, impromptu quizzes. There were compulsive punners around and larger-than-life characters and a kind of golden innocence (or perhaps a denial) about the nature of time. And a fair amount of, er, drugs... Iím coming over all nostalgic now. Itís a rare feeling, trust me.
Have you been to Calcutta recently? Do you come often? If not, why so...
Yes, I was there in 2013. No, I donít go often. I have a rather difficult relationship with that place. Thatís all Iím going to say.
How did you arrive at the name Supratik for your protagonist? Is it a nod to an old friend? Is there a story behind this story?
I have a thing about names of characters in novels. I guess I picked it up from studying James, that names must offer a kind of metaphorical underpinning to the characters; not all the time, not in all instances, but occasionally; a little bit of shading to the portrait, or cross-hatching, if you will. The book glances on this matter in relation to Supratikís name. It is not really a nod to an old friend but I did have a friend called Supratik, a lovely, bright, nice chap (masses of curly hair; John Lennon glasses), who was more like Suranjan in the book than Supratik.
Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University, speaks on her former student, who had topped his year at JU before proceeding to University College Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Chaudhuri had also reviewed Neel Mukherjeeís first book, Past Continuous, for Biblio, a review journal.
Neel Mukherjee was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught at Jadavpur University. He has an exceptional mind and an extraordinary feel for language, place and persons. I admire him enormously as a writer.
I am still in touch with him and am in the process of reading The Lives of Others, of which he has sent me a copy.