Book review: Neel Mukherjee’s ‘The Lives of Others’

THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Neel Mukherjee. Norton. 516 pages. $26.95.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Neel Mukherjee. Norton. 516 pages. $26.95.

The Naxalite insurgency that began in 1967 has held a snug purchase over West Bengal’s literary psyche. The tragedy of state jackboots crushing idealistic students smitten with communism weighs heavily on the collective imagination. Last fall, Jhumpa Lahiri tried halfheartedly to use Naxalism as a fuzzy framing device for her novel The Lowland. Now, Neel Mukherjee has set the bar a little higher in The Lives of Others, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker prize.

In the novel’s horrific prologue, a laborer reeling from drought and debt slaughters his starving family and swallows a deadly dose of insecticide. What can such poor people in rural Medinipur possibly have to do with the Ghoshes, a decadent, self-absorbed family in Kolkata? This becomes clear when the family scion, Supratik, leaves the comforts of home to throw in his lot with landless peasants and displaced tribesfolk — the “Others” of the title.

The novel splits into two interlacing narratives, presented in different fonts: an epistolary account of the violent agrarian movement through Supratik’s eyes; and in counterpoint, a third-person account of the Ghosh family’s intrigue and privilege. The introspective, restrained tone of Supratik’s letters contrasts with the noisier writing of the other narrative, and these opposing perspectives converge several times with particularly dramatic results.

Mukherjee’s capacious novel is filled with the Ghosh family’s tattling and scheming. The melodrama, reminiscent of Bengali TV, is pitched a little high but has no false notes. Colonial and local allusions are shoehorned into back stories wherever possible. Readers will appreciate that Mukherjee provides a family tree, a glossary, a map magnifying Bengal-Bihar border towns and even a tip sheet for complex relational names.

The Ghosh empire is in free fall, with petty showdowns at the family estate and shutdowns in its many paper mills. The older generation seeks refuge in alcohol, sadism, gold, coprophilia, incest, embezzlement, rape and prayer. The younger set finds God in Mao’s Little Red Book. Behind all the snobbery and spite, there’s the sad failure of simmering romances not fully acted upon and dreams not realized.

The book raises bitter questions: When do the newly hopeful poor realize that they can never be architects of their own reform and that they will remain on the losing side of history, victims of mining interests and politics? At what point does Supratik, with his pure social conscience, decide that giving voice to the voiceless must also entail tearing out the windpipe of a greedy exploiter? How does his abstract support of the underclass result in the betrayal of a poor servant who has cared so deeply for him?

Supratik studies steel plates on railway tracks in an early scene, ominously foreshadowing the epilogue, set in 2012, where Maoist radicals sabotage tracks seconds before a doomed train approaches. They have heard that this technique was the “bequest” of a certain Supratik from the ’70s, a famous Naxalite martyr. In a novel in which the Ghoshes spend most of their time squabbling over the balance of power and inheritance, this bloody, derailed legacy of the once-idealistic activist bears thinking about.

Nandini Lal reviewed this book for The Washington Post.