The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee

This book is sheer brilliance. I don’t think anyone can find faults with this and I’m not even going to try.

Lives of othersThe story revolves around the affluent Ghosh family of Calcutta. The ageing patriarch and matriarch live with their married sons, a spinster daughter and their grandchildren. One day, the eldest daughter-in-law finds a note from her son Supratik.

‘Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own. Forgive me.’

It is evident that he has left the house to become a Naxal revolutionary. The story takes off from this point.

The narrative consists of two main lines – the notes written by Supratik detailing his experiences and the life stories of each of the Ghosh family member. The former was, personally, my favourite portions of the novel. The honesty in the writing draws you in and you become a part of every emotion Supratik feels.

The latter travels across time and this has a wonderful effect in sustaining curiosity – you know certain events have occurred but you won’t know the details until you reach the point where that character’s history is discussed. Apart from dealing with the personal lives of the characters, this portion also captures how society has been changing over time and in this, the author manages to wonderfully tie in the freedom struggle, partition, the world wars, etc into the family narrative.

The characters are perfectly etched out. The writing is brutally honest yet poetic.The attention to detail is remarkable – whether it is in describing the struggling family business, the political and social situations, agriculture or even the role of education in the life of the grandchildren.

Personally, I have always had a bias against novels that come with plenty of additional information like maps, etc. So I felt a slight apprehension when I found that this book had a family tree,a map of Bengal and a list of words with meanings. But my doubts were unfounded – within the first few chapters you get so familiar with the characters that the family tree need not be referred to at all. And even though I don’t know Bengali, the words used were pretty commonplace so I didn’t need to check the meanings either.

Overall, it is not an easy read for two reasons. First, it touches on issues like poverty, social sanctions,the Bengal famine,etc. Second and more importantly, some of the emotional upheavals the characters go through could apply to anyone in any part of the world. For instance, from one of the most colourful characters

… instilling of that most adamantine knowledge of all: that the world is as it is, and knocking your head against its hard shell in only going to break you, not dent the world.

This is one work of literature you wouldn’t mind getting drawn into.