First of all, the title of this book has been confusing a few people in my life. Neel Mukherjee’s novel has nothing to do with the movie of the same name, about a Stasi spy in East Germany. It’s set in India in the 1960s and chronicles the unravelling lives of the Ghosh family in Calcutta. It’s long, and it’s epic, so of course I loved it. It’s also very good.
Unfortunately, it’s also very like one of last year’s shortlisted novels, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. The historical background, the Marxist Naxalite movement of the late 1960s, is the same, as is the story of an older brother getting entangled in radical politics and his family’s subsequent undoing. These parallels overshadow the quality of Mukherjee’s book, as well as its scope, which is wider on a human scale, where Lahiri’s novel aims further into the future. Both novels are great and important in the slightly differing points they’re making, but their close proximity in Booker Prize history does neither of them a favour.
Mukherjee details the history of the Ghoshes, a well-off family of factory owners in Southern Calcutta. Beginning in 1967, the story makes it clear that this is a time of upheaval: the patriarch is old and frail, the family business has seen better times, and alcoholism and personal feuds are ripe. Then Supratik, the oldest grandson, goes missing, leaving only a cryptic note to his mother. In his diary entries, interspersed throughout the novel, the reader learns that Supratik has joined a Naxalite guerilla group and has gone to live with the poorest farmers in West Bengal in order to gain their confidence and lead them to violent protests. Meanwhile, his father and uncles try in vain to save their paper mill business, which is being hampered by strikes and union protests in the wake of the Marxist actions of the time. The family seems to collapse inside itself the more we learn about the demons of its members and a tragedy of the past. As is human nature, everyone tries to find reasons and enemies to blame in a time of upheaval, but very little hope, for the young country.
India’s history lends itself to sweeping novels like this one, and Neel Mukherjee has managed to cram most of it into The Lives of Others. Each one of the main characters represents a problem in society, be it unmarried daughters, drug addiction, arranged marriages, strict laws governing the behaviour of widows, discrimination based on caste or background, or the fate of servants. In the problematic history of the family business, partition, political unrest and unionist action all play a role. Occasionally, this cramming in of problematic topics seems a bit contrived because there simply isn’t enough space to focus on each individual’s story in detail. Some of the minor characters are merely outlined. The insertion of a math genius in particular was a bit too much for me. But wherever Mukherjee goes, he succeeds in moving the reader. The passages detailing the inhuman living conditions of the working poor are heartbreaking, and the outrage of the naive young activists, however ill-judged their reactions, is perfectly understandable. Every character’s problems are understandable and crushing in their own way, and Mukherjee is careful not to disparage anyone’s motives or emotions. Mukherjee shows life as it is: a conflict of interests without clear dividing lines between right and wrong. We see and compare ourselves through the lives of others, and our worth is determined by this comparison. Without offering a solution (because history doesn’t), Mukherjee shows that it can’t ever be acceptable that one group of people should have no worth at all, and no hope of it. This simple realisation is enough to make you lose all hope if humans weren’t able to see even the littlest scraps of it. In the end, nothing much has changed. But there is hope, and it’s a good novel that makes the reader feel guilty for being lucky enough to come to such a conclusion.
The Lives of Others deserves all the attention it can get, and it’s not entirely fair that its timing might well disqualify it from receiving the highest merits. But that’s life, too.