The Lives of Others

livesThe Lives of Others
by Neel Mukherjee
2013/ 505 pages
rating:  8.75 / historical fiction

Another long one – omg – but it won a slot on the Man Booker    short list in 2014 so the Booker Prize reading group chose it for their June/July discussion – And I’m “categorizing” this as historical fiction because the author was born in 1970,  about 2 or 3 years prior to the main events which were almost 50 years ago and then there’s a lot of backstory which goes back to 1902 or so.  It’s basically a family saga in times of national trouble.

Be warned – this novel has some incredibly violent scenes – not for the queasy.

The frame story takes place in Calcutta and the forest regions of West Bengal some time in 1967 but there are  India  has been an independent nation for almost 20 years, but things are not as some folks want them. In fact it seems to some they are worse than ever for many.

Our first person protagonist, a college age boy indianamed Supratik (meaning auspicious symbol)  Ghosh,  lives in a 4-story house with his parents, brother,  grandparents,  3 uncles and their wives,  1 unmarried aunt,  and 4 cousins. Each nuclear family has its own floor except an  unmarried aunt and the youngest uncles family.   They’re still upper middle class from the days of being rich factory owners (with a cook, maids,  a driver and otheres) but slipping with only one car left and many fewer servants.   The living arrangement might be a metaphor with the broader political themes in the novel.  The characters all have their own problems, issues and secrets,  some far worse than others.

After the end of a Hindu holiday Supratik runs away to  take part in the “peasant revolution”  south of the Naxalbari area in North Bengal (see map) north of Calcutta.  The situation of the field workers there was essentially feudal in those days (1967)  and Mao was the hero of the revolutionaries.

The chapters alternate between what’s happening to Supratik  and the rest of the family –  Supratik’s leave-taking causes serious disruptions in the extended family.  The narrative relating to the extended family has frequent back-stories to the childhoods of the current adult generation.   This makes for an interesting structure and I get involved in one plot thread and here comes another.

The characters:
Prafullanath –  father/grandfather
Charubala  mother/grandmother
** Adinath – eldest son and heir
* Sandhya –  Adinath’s wife
Supratik – their oldest son who runs away
Suranjan – son – who stays,
** Priyonath  – Prafullanath’s second son – sick pup
*Purnima  – wife
Baishakha (Buli)   Priyonath’s   daughter
** Chhaya –  Prafullanath’s daughter – unattractive, dark skinned, unmarried,
** Bholanath  – Prafullanath’s third son – printing company
*Jayaut – Bhola’s wife
Arunina – Bhola’s daughter (trouble in school)
**Somnath – Prafullanath’s fourth son
*Purba – wife, from a poor family, lowest in pecking order of wives
Sona – son – brilliant at math
Kalyani – son –
Madan – senior male help in household –
Dulai – Madan’s son
(also see the NOTE at the end of the book for relational names)

Themes – life in rebel-torn Calcutta,  the rippling effect of our actions – everyone is affected by Supratik’s leaving and that added to the serious problems the family members had prior to his going. Ripple upon ripple – cause and effect creating cause and effect and colliding effects for more causes.  But the family was riddled with serious issues prior to Supratik’s leave-taking – that may have been simply one more symptom of the decline of the family (think Buddenbrooks?)

The book is really long and Mukherjee gets a bit too detailed sometimes – there are places where it drags a bit.

I’m reminded of Buddenbrooks.

Tidbits – one rupee is worth about 1.6 cents in the US in 2015,   so the 100 rupee note for the prostitute in 1967 was worth about $1.60 in today’s US currency.  Using an inflation calculator on the $1.60 brings it to about $13.   Still really pathetically little.

Naxalbari was also an issue in The Lowland by Jumpa Lahiri which I read last year – good book).   Here is an excellent blog piece on that bloody episode which continues even today:  India Blogs/New York Times   The House of Blue Mangos by David Davidar (2001)  also takes place in that area but in the years prior and during India’s revolution.

2 Responses to The Lives of Others

  1. Haha, Bekah, I agree re the detail sometimes, but I do think the book is largely about power and economic inequities and that tha family story provides a parallel for the Naxalite rebellion.

    BTW, interested in your definition of historical fiction. This is a close one, eh?


  2. Yes, exactly about the historical fiction but … if there’s a definition there are going to be fuzzy places. And Mukherjee had to have done some research for this.


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