The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others has two strands – one tells the story of the Naxal movement in Bengal and the other the humdrum of the daily life of a Bengali upper middle class family. The Ghosh family, a business family based in Bhawanipore, Calcutta, are into their third generation and they have seen better days: their business is smarting under debts they can hardly repay, some of their factories have closed down and some are on the verge of closing.  Amidst this, a Ghosh scion is constantly grappling with the questions of class difference.

As someone who has grown up in Bengal I never believed I had anything new to know about Naxalism, the left extremist movement which rocked Bengal in the 60s, thanks to the countless oral accounts about the movement I heard in my growing up years. Naxals, although Naxalism was a dead movement by the time I was into my formative years, were never untouchably far from our lives. Almost every one growing up in Bengal knew (or heard about) someone from the earlier generation who had participated in the movement and had led the life of a fugitive for some time. Depending on the school of belief you came from, the accounts would either be told with admiration or sympathy.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Low Land added a literary flavor to my knowledge on the subject. But Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others left me humbled.

The book’s dealing with the subject of Naxalism is not the only humbling factor; it has many other things to offer.

What Mukherjee has written about Naxalism is an outcome of thorough research on the subject, but what he has written on Bengali life must be a product of firsthand experience. (Neel grew up in Jadavpur south Calcutta, the same part of the city the book is set in.) The book is an encyclopedia of day-to-day details of Bengali life, so much so that it sometimes feels too close for comfort. The Ghosh family has every species you find the Bengali society. The wastrel, slothful, revolutionary, genius, the list is comprehensive.

Adinath is an average business man. Bholanath is an aspiring writer without any business acumen. Somnath is a wastrel with insatiable libido. Prafullanath, the Ghosh patriarch who built the business the Ghoses owe their wealth and position to, now confined to bed owning to old age ailments, wonders why while subsequent generations of Marwaris build upon the wealth and power accumulated by earlier generations, it takes only one generation for Bengalis to completely destroy what the former generation built. Everything that happens in the Ghosh family, in the novel, seems to support this reflection of the old patriarch. On the other hand, it shows the class-difference practices ingrained in Bengali society.

The two aspects of the plot unspool alternately as if neither of the sides is complete without the other, together they make a whole, though they deal with worlds that are worlds apart. Before the narrative splits into two, Mukherjee explains the plight of the rural folk.

Forced out of their villages by poverty and lack of opportunities when they come to cities in search of better lives, the city gives them an equally raw deal. They take up low-paying menial jobs and stay in sub-human conditions. Some of them, the luckier ones, manage to get employments through their city-based contacts in houses of the rich as domestic helps tying themselves up with a lifelong commitment to serve their masters. Their prospects don’t improve but they escape staying in poor quarters of the city where their unluckier country cousins subsist their whole lives unless they return home. And the luckiest ones succumb to city destitute soon after arriving and die.

Madan the maid at the Ghoshes’ is among the luckier ones, who, through a contact, got a shelter, upbringing and later employment at the Ghoshes. After years of service to the Ghoshes, Madan managed an employment for his son, Dulal, at one of the factories of the Ghoshes.  Many years later, Dulal becomes a union leader and forces a Ghosh factory shut to force the Ghoshes to reinstate a factory worker who had been sacked following an accident in the factory to which he lost a hand. As the novel moves closer to a conclusion, the Naxal movement having turned excessively murderous and violent slowly hurtles to an end in the wake of a military crackdown by the state government on the rebels.

The Naxalism part of the novel is narrated in the first person, unlike the other part. And also unlike the other part, which slowly emerges from chaos amidst too many characters doing too many things, the Naxalism part builds up from a minimalistic setting.  Supratik narrates his own account of how he became an ideologue and got drawn into the movement (a reflection of the youth of his time) – and slowly builds up from there drawing the entire picture of rural landscape comprising the exploitative power structure of the landowning gentry and the impact of their actions on the poor peasants. Gradually Supratik becomes comfortable with the idea of killing to server larger goods.

The book is too detailed and wading through them sometimes can be a little tiresome. I particularly struggled going through the details about female politics in the Ghosh family. The murder scenes are too graphic and sometimes can be very disturbing. The lives of Others is not an easy read but is certainly worth reading.