The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee was very much a novel of the lives of ‘others.’ Set from 1966 to 1970 in West Bengal, the focus of a portion of the novel was the on-going saga of the Ghosh family,comprising the grandparents who built up the family fortune, the second generation who were frittering it away and the wayward grandchildren. Petty and vicious jealousy, squabbles, pain, peculiar relationships, isolation and despair filled the family section. The chapters dealing with the family alternated with letters written by Supratik, the eldest grandson, who at 21 joined the Naxalite movement to try to redress the economic imbalance in the society of which he found himself a part.
As a group we found it very difficult to relate to any of the characters, in the family, as they were all so despicable. The intrigue among family members and especially the wives who all lived in the same four-storey house in Calcutta was enervating. Being unable to sympathize with any of the characters made reading the book a challenge, and not all were able to get through it. From our point of view the characters indeed remained ‘others,’ people with whom we could not connect.
Supratik’s letters were his way of documenting his journey from joining the communists while in college to taking part in the Naxalite movement, in which urban students went out to the extremely poor, rural areas to mobilize farmers against those who had sucked their blood for centuries. We were reminded of Jumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in which a son joins the Naxalite movement, which our group read a few years ago. However unlike Lahiri, Mukerjee gives us an excellent insight into the lives of the landless peasants and tribal people with whom Supratik lived and worked for a time. From being involved in the backbreaking and heartbreaking working of the land, Supratik moves on to episodes of civil disobedience in his efforts to bring justice to the lives of the dispossessed. His ultimate fate is no surprise.
We would be hard pressed to recommend this book. Although as mentioned the chapters/letters on the lives of the tribal peoples were so strongly portrayed. We also applauded Mukherjee’s writing, as in places his descriptions were almost poetic. We feel that there has to be a strong or central character whose fate we are concerned about, whom we cheer on and sadly, we found this not to be the case. However it must be pointed out that there were those who saw it differently as it was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. So it had strong appeal to ‘others.’
Submitted by Leslie Muri
Book Group 1