The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee – Marxism and tradition in 1960s India

Neel Mukherjee's very ambitious and very successful novel is set in Calcutta and the ricefields on the edge of the jungle in the west of West Bengal. It takes place in the second half of the 1960s and centres on the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family, whose head, Prafullanath, owns various paper mills. The eldest grandson, Supratik, has left home and joined the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist), and is working secretly to mobilise the peasants against the landlords. Letters from him to an unnamed correspondent form one thread of narrative. The other is an intricate account of events and relationships on the various floors of the Ghosh house. There are tragedies and comedies, deaths and births, disasters and feasts. The story is marked by marriages, and the failure of Chhayha to marry because she is too dark-skinned. The cast is huge and the reader spends time, at one point or another, with most of them. It takes a while to get to know all the men, women and children, but the story is always gripping, and there are various time-bombs that suddenly change the way we see the book's whole world.

One of Mukherjee's great gifts is precisely his capacity to imagine the lives of others. He can move from inside one head to inside another in a conversation or conflict and take the reader with him. He isn't really an omniscient narrator, there is no authorial voice – just an imagination that is more than adequate to its task. There is a scene in which Prafullanath goes in a large car to confront the massed and angry workers at a mill he has closed. Mukherjee sees this dangerous moment from every point of view – the workers who have not been paid for a year, the factory owner whose world has slipped out of his grip, Prafullanath's anxious sons. One of these, a hopeful writer, nevertheless manages to think up an ornate metaphor of "a fully reared-up snake, hood engorged, waiting to strike" for the workers, and to wonder if he could use it. The reader does not lose sight of the moral rights of the workers, but must imagine so much more.
Supratik is possessed by a single-minded moral horror at the lives of the starving and helpless. Early in the book he attacks his mother about food. "Don't you agree we eat too much?" She is baffled. "Everyone eats like this." He attacks again: not the servants. Not the poor. The novel gives us not only Supratik's revulsion but his mother's sense of what has always been as it is. His departure will cause her to break down completely. The novelist inhabits both worlds. Throughout, there are delicious descriptions of lovingly prepared food – as well as descriptions of the stale food eaten by the less favoured family members. There are also precise descriptions of the diet that Supratik is barely able to subsist on among the peasants, who do not have meals that can satisfy their hunger.
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