Neel Mukherjee was born in 1970 in Kolkata (then Calcutta), West Bengal, three years after the State witnessed a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, which attracted many urban youth in its wake. The intervening years form the setting of Neel’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”, which has been shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014 (to be announced on October 14).
While the wait between the announcements of the longlist and the shortlist was a tense one, Neel is now at ease (even though bookies have him down as one of the favourites). With a number of events lined up, Neel doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker, “but it’s good that one doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker”, the London-based writer contends. “I think it’s just great to be on the shortlist because I’m only two books old. I am thrilled, delighted and I am shell-shocked. It’s like I’ve been hit in the back of my head and I’m still seeing the stars.”
“The Lives of Others” is, at a very simple level, the story of the private torment of the once-prosperous Ghoshes, written against the social ferment of the years between 1967-70.
The novel unfolds in episodes that take the point of view of each of these characters, as well as a series of letters from Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family, who has left unannounced to join the Naxal movement. The effect of this narrative movement is one of an edifice being built and chipped away at simultaneously.
“I start with theory rather than people,” he says of his craft. “I don’t like novels which have no theoretical or philosophical underpinning. I hate the contemporary novel where people just sit and talk to each other about their relationships. I feel it’s a free-floating form that will get swept away very soon.”
Neel sought to explode from within the form of the realist novel which, at its inception and for much of its evolution, has held up a mirror to the bourgeoisie, “to make the world either comprehensible or palatable to them.”
The theoretical core of this novel came from thinking about the writings of Georg Lukacs and Hayden White on the function of forms, as also the words of the writer M John Harrison – “start with a form, then ask what it's afraid of”. “I thought it could become the core of a writer’s project – asking of a genre what it is hiding, what it is colluding in, what it is not doing,” Neel explains. “I thought if one has to write a novel to lay bare the ideological foundations of the bourgeois realist novel, one has to do it dialectically. So therefore I thought it wouldn’t do just to write the story of a family, I would have to have an antithetical ideology.” The Naxal movement fell firmly into this design.
Although the writer grew up in close proximity to the period he describes, Naxalism was no more than a distant murmur, “a background noise” for him. It was something he grew to be interested in for the purpose of this novel.
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