Only three Indian novels have won the Booker, and two of them (which won in the last decade), are small-scale family dramas. While Mukherjee is continuing the trend of Indian family dramas appearing in Booker lists, this is not a small novel. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of big books. I must confess, this is because I tend to find them offputting. Committing yourself to anything over 500 pages requires an act of great faith in an author, and I can’t think of many that I trust that implicitly. However, in an attempt to get over this, I pulled Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others off the shelf.
Although I was aware of the Naxalites before reading this, I certainly wasn’t aware of the horrific acts of violence they undertook the name of progress and ideology. What is perhaps even more galling is the fact that so many of them—Supratik included—are not part of the poor, disenfranchised they are supposed to be lifting out of poverty. They are simply spoiled middle-class boys who think going around to villages causing trouble will be a laugh. Like all bull-headed twenty-somethings obsessed with ideology over the real world, they think what they are doing is right and just, even though they are, in fact, upsetting delicately balanced relationships (that, granted, should be upset), an action that eventually devolves into murder. These are not heroes to be worshipped—they are garden-variety terrorists that should be stopped.
And yet, the punishment that is eventually meted out to Supratik is brutal. The physical and emotional torture he faces at the hands of the police after his arrest is cruelty of the highest order, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s a testament to Mukherjee that he made me sympathise with Supartik near the end.
Parallel to this (so parallel, in fact, it often seems like it is taking place in a parallel universe) is the rather charming story of the Ghoshes—a middle-class family on the verge of falling apart. As their accumulated wealth slowly trickles from their hands, cracks in the already tense familial relationships begin to appear. Some of these scenes are the best in the novel—Mukherjee has a talent for finding the worst in people, and still ensuring that we care about them. Each time we return to family life, we follow a different member of the family, struggling to find their own place in a family creaking with history and expectation. Though their actions may adversely affect others, when we are with them, we are with them all the way.
Despite some structural issues, as well as slightly confusing/slow start, The Lives of Others has a lot to offer. The two competing storylines are both important, and while it might have made more sense to separate them out, allowing them to run simultaneously allows Mukherjee to remind us that, while huge political shifts are happening, human nature tends towards ignoring it unless it has a direct influence on you. Recommended.