Neel Mukherjee’s 2008 novel, Past Continuous [i] is a many-stranded story, set partly in Calcutta (now Kolkata [ii]) and partly in Oxford and London (I should add that the book shared the Crossword Prize with my Sea of Poppies that year; since then Neel and I have become good friends).
The Calcutta sections of Past Continuous are powerful and disturbing: they depict Bengali family life as being riven with violence, repression, abuse, manipulation and perversion.
In his new novel The Lives of Others Neel returns to the fictional terrain of middle-class Bengali family life. The novel is in some ways a saga: the narrative unfolds around a Calcutta joint family; its principal setting is their house, which is in Bhowanipore, a neighbourhood of leafy streets and handsome pre-war mansions, many of them now crumbling.
The family’s patriarch, Prafullanath Ghosh, is a successful entrepreneur with several paper mills; the family is relatively affluent, with two cars and many servants. But this is not an English-educated family of the kind that so often features in Anglophone novels about Calcutta. As daal is to lentil soup, so are the Ghoshes of Bhowanipore to the Westernized denizens of Kolkata’s sahiby neighbourhoods. They are a solidly middle-class family, and their inner life is lived wholly in Bengali: not the least of Neel’s achievements in this book is his vivid and precise rendering of the textures, idioms and rhythms of the language in which his characters speak and write.
The novel touches briefly on some notable moments in the city’s history – the Bengal famine of 1943; the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of 1946; Partition, and the rise to power of the Left Front. But most of the action takes place in the years 1968-72, the period in which Calcutta was convulsed by the Maoist uprising known as the Naxalite movement. The novel’s most important character is a Naxalite: Supratik Ghosh, a grandson of the patriarch.
I was in my teens in the early 1970s, and in those years I viewed Calcutta largely through the prism of an extended family that lived in a rambling house not far from Bhowanipore (there, fortunately, the parallels end). Neel is too young to have any first-hand memories of that time, but his account of the period certainly jibes closely with my memories, especially in the details – the magazines that used to lie around the house, the films that everyone went to see, the popular shops and eating-places. But the accuracy goes beyond the details: Neel’s portrayal of Supratik and his Naxalite comrades is, I think, correct also in its basic premise, which is that the urban student radicalism of that time was in large part a response to the stifling repressiveness of Bengali family life.
The scholar Rabindra Ray, who was himself once a fellow-traveler, has written very perceptively about the phenomenon of middle-class student Naxalism (it is important to note that this kind of radicalism was very different from the Naxalism of dispossessed farmers and forest people). As Ray sees it, the radicalism of the urban college-going Naxalite was often a response to the ‘disjunction between enlightenment in public life and orthodoxy in private.’
This indeed is how Supratik’s radicalization begins, while he is a student at Presidency College (alma mater to Amartya Sen and many other luminaries). Supratik finds it impossible to reconcile the ideas he is exposed to in college with the suffocating hypocrisies and casual cruelties that he observes at home. Along with a group of comrades he slips away to Medinipur district, where West Bengal converges with Jharkhand and Odisha, in the hope of fomenting a revolutionary uprising of the peasantry.
The Ghosh family does not hear from Supratik while he is in Medinipur. But during his years there he composes a series of letters to a widowed aunt with whom he is in love. The letters are never sent but it is through them – in other words through Supratik’s first-person voice, translated from Bengali into English – that we learn of his revolutionary activities.
To attempt to recreate a voice like Supratik’s, through his translated letters, is a high-wire act: it would be all too easy to slip and fall, to lapse into sentimentalism. It is a tribute to Neel’s skill as a writer (and also as a translator) that he is able to pull it off – and he does so mainly by creating a rich, thick layering of detail. Here is Supratik’s description of harvesting:
‘I bracketed the sickle around the base of a sheaf of stalks and cut using the ‘towards me’ motion that they’d taught me. The sickle was very sharp and there was no effort involved in the actual cutting. The cut stalks fell over my head. This was the thing I was failing to master, the way the left hand gathered the cut plants into a bundle, the bundle increasing in girth and the hand adjusting to accommodate that as you moved forward, cutting more stalks, until you had enough and you turned around and threw the harvested sheaves behind you and moved on. Even that flinging backward of the sheaves – even that required the mastery of a trick, a particular motion of the hand and wrist so that the stalks all fell with their bases aligned to the bases of the others already harvested, the tips to the tips. Mine fell in a fanned mess. How was I ever going to reach the end of the field? And then I noticed: my palms and fingers were a mad criss-cross of little cuts from the sharp, dry edges of the rice leaves and stalks. Shame rose in me like bile. Hands that revealed instantly that I hadn’t done a day’s honest work in my life. The only thing I could do was ignore the sting, grit my teeth and keep cutting and advancing with all the strength and endurance I had. I wanted to make the cuts worse, deeper, my hands really bloody. It was the only way I would learn how to harvest properly and the only way my hands could stop being the shamefully middle-class hands they were now. ‘Change yourself, change the world.’
And of transplanting rice:
‘I watched the transplanting process, hypnotised. Kanu told me that I should study it carefully. It was not something I could be taught hands-on because there was no margin for error here, as there was in ploughing the soil. It was mostly women who did the transplanting. The uprooted saplings, all about four to six inches high – Kanu said ‘one-hand tall’ – and bundled into bunches of a dozen or so, were dotted all over the plots that we had prepared. Then it began. The women, their short saris hitched up nearly to their calves, stood ankle-deep in the mud in the inundated plots, bent low from their waist, leaned down, picked up a bundle, separated it into individual saplings, then fixed each in the mud, making sure the roots remained underwater. The next one was planted about four inches away. The women worked with speed, precision and what I could only call a kind ofchoreography – the whole thing looked like a disciplined dance. And then it struck me that it was probably as physically trying; bending down so that your top half made, at the waist, a variable angle between forty-five and sixty degrees with your bottom half and maintaining that for hours without interruption was a visual illustration of the process that had given us the term ‘back-breaking labour’.
Reflecting on his experiences Supratik writes:
‘I can hear you asking if it was truly so hard. Yes, it was. Rats bit us – some of them could be as big as kittens – while we were asleep; the rice fields were full of them. In desperate times, I was told the Santhals caught and ate them. Snakes came into the huts during the monsoon. Upset stomachs and a mild dysentery were our doggedly faithful companions – we knew they would go away, but also that they would be back before we could fully appreciate their absence. Then there was the business of eating once a day, if you were lucky (rice, a watery dal, a little bit of fried greens of some kind); of days of eating puffed rice only, or water-rice with chillies and salt; or not eating, days of fast followed by a half-meal, that instantly set you running into the bushes. There was the lack of bathroom or any kind of sanitation. Above all, there was the slow pace of life, with nothing happening and nothing to do for enormous chunks of time, nowhere to go, nothing to read, no one to speak to.
‘I try not to write about these because I can hear you taunting – Aha re, my cream doll! Besides, I feel ashamed to admit to feeling the bite of those hardships; really, a middle-class cream-doll, that’s what I am. It hurts to acknowledge this.’
Except for Supratik’s letters The Lives of Others is focused very closely, almost claustrophobically, on the Ghosh family’s house, in Bhowanipur, Calcutta. Neel is both pitiless and perceptive in his observations of the dynamics of the extended family. He understands very well its theatrical quality: ‘The opera of Bengali life, already pitched so high, had begun… In this world of overheated reactions and hysteria, words spoken carried with them the unearthable charge of honour and insult; they remained crackling and alive for generation after generation. Another boundary was crossed, this time without the possibility of return.’ (186)
Neel chronicles, in unsparing detail, the Ghosh family’s hypocrisies, cruelties, sadism, acquisitiveness and perversions (one member is a coprophiliac – and yes, the details of his fetish are described in meticulous detail). Slowly under the combined weight of their own dysfunction and the changing political dynamics of Bengal the family’s fortunes go into a downward slide. And at just that moment, Supratik, the Naxalite grandson, returns.
Let it be noted that Neel is no less harsh on the Naxalites than he is on his other characters: he chronicles in detail their grotesque relish for blood-letting, their self-serving delusions, their endangerment of the very people whose cause they profess to champion. I don’t want to give the plot away but suffice it to say that Supratik leaves a long trail of disaster behind him; his revolutionary zeal brings ruin and death upon many of those he is fighting for. In the end he dooms himself as well – and this part of the book is so graphic that it is difficult to read. But of course to write passages like these is far more difficult than to read them: I am sure it was an ordeal, but then one of Neel’s great strengths as a writer is that he is as unsparing of himself as he is of the reader.
The Lives of Others is an impassioned, dystopic, despairing book: its darkness is relieved by only two glimmers of light. One is the story of a boy called Sona, Supratik’s cousin, who turns out to be a mathematical genius, ‘the next Ramanujan’. His abilities are such that Stanford University whisks him away from India at the age of 15; he eventually goes on to win the Fields Medal for his work in number theory.
The boy-genius serves as a resolution of the great paradox of middle-class Bengali life: that despite the dysfunction, deprivation and repression, Calcutta does, against all the odds, somehow produce people of unusual talent and ability (such as Neel himself). But in Neel’s portrayal these people owe their achievements solely to their own gifts: Sona’s relatives have nothing to do with his mathematical abilities; he is a freak, a singularity, a flash in the pan.
This is to my mind, too easy a resolution. As Ashish Nandy has shown in his brilliant essay on Ramanujan, the great mathematician was not swayambhu or ‘self-created’ as certain gods are said to be; that is to say he was not a being whose abilities were unrelated to his begetting. Ramanujan’s mother was a traditional numerologist and astrologer, and an abiding intimacy with numbers was one of the many gifts he received from her. In The Lives of Others Sona’s mother is allowed no such role in her son’s thought-world; a widow of one of the patriarch’s sons she is a virtual captive in the house, a perfect victim whose contribution to her son’s advancement consists only of the redemptive power of her sorrow and suffering.
Neel cites the example of Ramanujan repeatedly, in order perhaps to shore up the conceit that a ‘genius’ can appear in the most unpromising circumstances. But the reiteration left me unpersuaded. It doesn’t surprise me that Matt Damon, David Leavitt and Robert Kanigel are unable to perceive connections between modern mathematics and un-modern forms of thought; but that a writer as perceptive as Neel should also fail to do so is, to me, very surprising indeed.
In a more general sense, can it really be said that the pressures of Indian (read ‘Asian’) family life have no bearing on individual abilities and successes? To the contrary it is often these very pressures that enable – even force – many gifted individuals to escape their circumstances. Calcutta (like every Indian city) is filled with parents whose ambitions for their children drive them to the brink of bankruptcy and insanity. Yet the true pathos of their plight reveals itself only when they succeed: their brilliant, high-achieving children go away, leaving yawning chasms behind them. Is it fair for these shooting stars to vanish into the firmament without acknowledging that their families’ neuroses and dysfunction are almost always rooted, even amongst the relatively affluent, in a profound economic anxiety (‘study hard or you’ll be pulling rickshaws all your life’, is the mantra I remember from my own childhood)? The truth moreover is that it is these very anxieties and neuroses that often catapult those shooting stars into flight. Those successes are emphatically not flashes in the pan: a better metaphor is that of water-liles blooming upon a muddy pond.
In Past Continuous Neel explored these ambiguities with great empathy; not so in The Lives of Others which makes no acknowledgement either of the contexts that breed domestic dysfunction in India, or of the redeeming features of Bengali family life: the fun, the laughter, the conviviality.
The novel’s second glimmer of light relates to Supratik, the Naxalite. At the very end of the book we find out that while living in Medinipur he had invented a means of derailing trains: this technique has been passed on to present-day Maoists in central and eastern India who are now using it to devastating effect. ‘Someone had come from Chhatitisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. Or was it West Bengal and Orissa?’
This then is the legacy that Neel ascribes to Supratik: a method of derailing trains and killing unwary passengers: ‘his gift to his future comrades survived and for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest.’
In other words, what Neel chooses to celebrate about Supratik’s life is not the transmission of a spirit of resistance – something that is more than ever necessary at a time when the environment and the poor are being subjected to devastating violence in the name of ‘growth’ – but rather a particular means of resisting: in this instance a technique of mass murder. This is troubling, for it was precisely the means adopted by the student-Naxals of the 1970s that doomed their movement. Violence and bloodletting became so essential to their methods as to suggest that the movement was not, in its essence, a social program at all but rather a cult of ritualistic killing, like thuggee. This is why the movement aroused widespread revulsion, even among those who sympathized with its professed social aims. Its trajectory was a perfect illustration of that deadly elision that often occurs when violence is embraced as a means to an end: ultimately the one displaces the other and the means becomes the end.
Indeed Rabindra Ray has argued, very persuasively, that the true core of 1970s Naxalite student-radicalism was constituted not by utopianism but rather by nihilism. To endorse that nihilism – which is what the coda to Supratik’s life suggests – is, to me, both incomprehensible and indefensible. It is the last thing one would wish upon those who find themselves compelled to resist the land-grabs and repression that are being inflicted upon them today.
But none of this detracts from Neel’s achievement in this passionate, angry book: a novel is successful precisely when it forces its readers to engage with its themes, ideas and its characters, and in this The Lives of Others succeeds in ample measure.
The Lives of Others is searing, savage and deeply moving: an unforgettably vivid picture of a time of turmoil.
Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)
The Lives of Others
by Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (UK), Vintage (India).
Pub. date: 22 May, 2014.
[i] Published under the title A Life Apart in the UK.
[ii] I have used ‘Calcutta’ in this review because most of the events referred to take place before the renaming of the city.