The Lives of others By Neel Mukherjee, Random House, Rs 599
There are writers who don’t like to tell you a story. They conjure up an incident or the lack of one, a person or people or a place or just emptiness, and sometimes just nothing of what you would anticipate. After which they expect you to create your story. There are others who don’t believe in this. Neel Mukherjee is fiercely committed to telling you a story without overwhelming it with style, form or artifice. A story shorn of any distraction or pretence is the only purpose to be served, his kind would affirm. But critics will carp at this, arguing that writing has moved forward in the way it is used now to tackle the past, present or future, and the reader has come to accept this, often subliminally. So, they will say, don’t desert contemporary recognition by winding the clock back, if not to Dickens then to Galsworthy, particularly when the author is presenting current realities that are — and since it’s Man Booker time again — more Roy than Mantel.
As if to prove his point, Mukherjee speaks of decadence, resistance to change, social upheaval and excess, without any artfulness; in this, he pens an almost cautionary tale. The Lives of Others concerns itself with four generations of the Ghosh family, first of North, and then South, Calcutta. This, in itself, is a fair cursor of the timelines, you would agree. It’s easy to see that the family is thoroughly dysfunctional; there’s nothing like a value system in place, hierarchies are subverted, distortions are the norm, yet no one — save one — makes any effort to get away in either mind or body. Here is Mukherjee reminding me, at times, of another Mukherjee, Siddhartha, who has written about the most dreadful things with irony and precision, and anger at the inevitability of it all; both saying, “I am trying to be detached, but you must not be.” The Ghoshes in Mukherjee’s book are existential; but I will not cavil by insisting that this is most unusual in Indian middle-class joint families, as we have known them to be. When this book is discussed, as it will be, this could be a major reason for disagreement with Mukherjee’s formulation, although, as if to establish credibility, he has skillfully introduced names and places that swim within our penumbra of awareness; a lot of people are going to try and figure out from where Mukherjee drew his real-life parallels. To verbalize all this as coincidental is bound to appear too much of a coincidence.
To continue with the story, the Ghoshes have, over the last six decades, built up a neat conglomerate of businesses; paper manufacture and gold retailing in particular by smoothly adapting to the events that had an impact on Bengal during these years; they have licked the spume from the waves and held their breath cleverly in the troughs. Things have always looked too good to bother with the needs of the future, or with the dangers it could bring, elemental and menacing. And now the Ghoshes were losing out in the makeovers because they seemed to have learnt just one way of doing things, which is, tragically, no longer the right way. With the leaking away of fortune, all of Mukherjee’s characters take on a carapace, hard on the outside and callous within; it is as if bank balances and immovable properties are not the only things their collective bad luck and bad judgment have ruined. In such circumstances, we know that many families have banded together to defeat a common enemy, or at least surrendered things of personal value for the familial good. Mukherjee makes it clear that he isn’t talking about such people, and he doesn’t leave it at that; nobody wants to escape his or her condition, he says, deftly writing in the equations that litter the book.
Even though Supratik, the grandson, runs away to the share-cropped farmlands and jungles on the state’s western fringes with Charu Mazumdar on his mind and Mao’s Little Red Book clutched to his chest, he isn’t really running away from the Ghosh mansion in Bhabanipur. Those were testing times for everyone, but mainly for the youth in the city and its hinterlands, confused as they were with the push and pull of belief and doctrine, choice and option. There was clarity only about the need to bring about change. After that, what was it going to be? Paddy fields or pavements, overt or covert, Mao or Marighella? And so on. And who was the enemy: the reactionaries or the revisionists, class enemies or running dogs? The idealistas had sparse chances, as did the Revolution. But Supratik and his small group from the city wouldn’t be too aware of this, except for brief flashes of self-doubt, as they meld into the lives of the villagers and begin their targeting of the jotedars.
As the episode charges along, you ask, how was it that the jotedars were ignorant of Supratik’s group and the motives of these city men hired to farm their lands for months on end? No check-backs, no spies, no thrashings? Speaking of motives, how did the farmers come to accept these men unreservedly? Where was the cell that trained and directed the group on the ground, and where indeed was the central authority? These questions arise because Mukherjee is so acutely detailed and meticulous throughout the book. We sense, but are not told why, Supratik returns. But he does, and falls prey to his family’s depredations and the animus of the police. There is just one way the story can go from here.
The Lives of Others wrecks two closely held beliefs that have shaped the Bengali psyche, the durability of the Bengali bhadralok and bhadramohila, and the need for continuous societal upheaval. One wonders which is the greater loss.