Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: The Lives Of Others (By Neel Mukherjee)

[Buy online HERE]

Poverty. Suicide. Murder. Domestic tussles. Incest. Adolescent minds. Worker unions. Red Tape. Marginalisation of widows. Prejudice over skin color. Drug abuse. Text book revolutionaries. Exploitation of tribals. Naxalities issues. Torture. 'Lives of Others' has all this and more. Neel Mukherjee has tried to cram in as much as he can. And with a wonderful flourish as the guy seems to have a remarkable talent for detailing.

It starts on a tragic note with a mass murder and a suicide by a impoverished farmer. But in the very next chapter, we are introduced to a rich family with the ladies of the house deliberating over what to wear during those five days of Durga Puja. In a stark contrast, the story moves along two parallel worlds, the bourgeois Bengali family residing at 22/6 and the marginalized farmers residing in the countryside. These two world are bridged (at least though a series of letters that have never been posted) when the pampered grandson of the family along with his revolutionary mates, leaves the material comforts of his home to become one with the farmers. But Supratik is no hero. He takes out his frustrations on his simpleton mother, ignores his brother who is sinking deep into drugs, feels outraged when lectured by the domestic help and finally ends up framing the poor man. His shocking untimely death makes one feel that he died an unsung hero. But redemption comes in the last chapter when a young Naxalite remembers the Pratik-da who invented the technique to dislodge fishplates on the railway tracks. The author should be given credit for providing such deep insights into two radically different worlds.

The Ghosh family is headed by the now-ailing patriarch Prafullanath who has built a fortune from the paper mills in the early 1900's. The story centers around his sons and daughter-in-laws who are now trying to grab on to the bigger share of the family fortune which is on a decline (thanks to labor unrest and a plant modernization gone kaput). Interestingly, the station of each member in the four storeyed house mirrors their position/status in the family hierarchy. Most heart-breaking is the fate of the widow of the youngest son and her children, who are relegated to the servant quarters and subsist on leftovers. Another heart wrenching plot is the fate of the only unmarried daughter of the house. Though well-educated and blessed with a golden voice, marriage has eluded her because of her being dark-skinned and cross-eyed. Her relationship with Priyo and jealousy towards her lower caste sister in law make for some thought-provoking episodes.

But it is the power struggle between Charulata (MIL) and Purnima (DIL) that provide some of the most sparkling moments on the domestic front. One such gem is the when the elderly woman silences the garrulous Purnima by threatening to withhold the family's heirloom jewelry from the latter' daughter's wedding trousseau.

The beautiful descriptions of Durga Puja, a girl's obsession with a imported pencil box and her cruel manipulation of her mother's lack of English skills, the episode when Chhaya spills nail-polish on Purnima's clothes or the time when she cleverly exposes her niece's escapades with the neighbor's son, Priyo's obsession with coprophila and the episode involving a prostitute, the family's mollycoddling on the youngest child Somnath and his inflicting torture on hapless insects and animals are memorable on the domestic front.

The sequence of letters which interrupt the happenings on the domestic front expose the inner turmoils of Supratik and his first hand experience of country life .The intricate detailing of the rice cultivation process and the back-breaking labor involved, the abject episodes of poverty, a village fair, the murders of Harekrishna Das and Senapati are very well narrated.

In short a very powerful and well-chronicled account by Neel Mukherjee. It goes on and on in your mind even after you have finished reading it( currently reading it for the second time and enjoying it even more than the first ). A must read.

[ The Lives of Others has been nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize ]

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