In the late 60s in West Bengal, a Calcutta business family finds itself in tatters. A promising grandson has run away and become a Naxal. The patriarch sits nursing his two heart attacks and finds his influence fast receding. The family-owned Paper Mills are held hostage to aggressive labour politics and bad decision-making, some of them closing down. The daughters-in-law find themselves sharing and hence fighting over the depleting collective resources of the family. One daughter – dark, cross-eyed – is close to middle-age and is staring at spinsterhood. The matriarch finds the world seeping from the middle of her fingers. A grandson lives in the abstract world of numbers promising mathematical genius in the middle of this misery. For each of these strands in Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, the late 60’s is only the present, the author nails an entire century to this decade, as the novel moves through its five-hundred pages, by way of the past accruing in each chapter, exploding within it, layering the threads of the vast, composite story.
By this account so far, you would imagine this to be an epic tale of a rich, joint business family come on hard times, told as if the triumphs and losses of this huge family tree of the Ghoshes, were a world in itself which we are invited to enter, to identify with and bemoan its fissures. It would seem that if the novel’s world is mapped through this specific family, through this specific class of people, then this world itself would reflect their interests, their motives, their ideas of what social success and loss is. It would seem that to write of the bourgeoisie is to make the world a little more palatable to it, to reflect the whole world in its partial glass, something the form of the novel has often done in its three century history. Mukherjee, however, has something else up his sleeve.
The author takes the idea of the bourgeois family – an idea painfully familiar to the genre of the novel from its very inception – and explodes it from within. The novel tells the truth of the Ghoshes but it tells it awry. The Ghoshes make up most of the world of the novel but the world-view of the novel is not of the Ghoshes. Most of the characters belong to the bourgeoisie – factory owners in mid-twentieth century east India – but the novel is able to mount a vision which slowly, painstakingly pulls the grounds from beneath the feet of this class. While seemingly compassionate in recording their dailiness, the novel also subjects its characters to a brutal whetting stone. How does Neel Mukherjee do it? Precisely by mining the very form of the novel in two significant ways – first by using an old technique within it, the epistolary novel, and secondly, by heightening a particular form of literariness, not unfamiliar to the genre of the novel – melodrama – and taking it to its extremity.
The story of the Ghoshes is offset by the letters of Supratik, the Naxal grandson, to his revealed-at-the-end beloved. A little after the third-person grand narrative of the Ghosh family in north Calcutta takes off, this narrative voice starts getting interrupted by Supratik’s letters, and another world rushes in to the novel. The disenchantment of the young man with his own business family and what they stand for interrupts the cosiness of the narrative of domestic intrigue among the Ghoshes set within the four-storeyed Basanta Bose Road house. The Naxal disillusionment crosses into the middle-class household and holds it by its neck. Rural Medinipur enters the urban terrain of mid-century Calcutta stretching its promise to the seams. Since its early days, the epistolary form has been doing precisely this – providing the counter-point. From this basic technique, Mukherjee erects an entire literary structure, which pulls apart any claims of the post-independence nation to have outlived its feudal past. The difficult harvest cycles of the landless wage-labourer Kanu – with whom the guerrilla Supratik, following Mao, tries not without failure to live like fish among water – provides the counterpoint which demystifies the ‘big’ problems of the ailing business of the Ghoshes’ Paper Mills. The Ghoshes’ world is seen for what it is precisely by making us see another world through Supratik’s ‘epistles’. The Ghoshes’ lives are placed in perspective, are ‘illumined’, by ‘the lives of others’.
The epistolary form does another thing. It enlivens the character who writes these letters, fleshing him out, giving him a substantial diagetic space and emotional locus. It establishes him as the pivot of the narrative, someone who helps us make sense of the world that he pours into his letters. This is a political device in Mukherjee’s hands. To a reader in the early twenty-first century, the Naxal is a staple figure from the television and newspaper reportage. Inheritor of the Naxallite movements of the late 60s in east India, this figure, among the ‘new kind of children’ of ‘the trees,’ lives on but hardly finds itself accurately portrayed in mainstream press and policy-oriented non-fiction (500). Where you see only pithy reports of assaults on CRPF jawans, of train-bombings, of police encounters, of ‘left-wing extremism’ or the ‘red menace’, or of the latest Narendra Modi government’s new policy of ‘first clear and then develop’ (read as kill and extract) with hardly an effort to enter and understand the world which this Naxallite inhabits, Mukherjee’s novel writes the Naxal story against the feudal backdrop of rural India, writes the story of resistance in the middle of bourgeois-friendly State planning, writes the story of land and vegetation against the grain of the worldview which is hell-bent on converting them into extractable resources. Because the ‘Maoist’ is not a margin doodle but the backbone of the novel, its soft, struggling, complex voice in those letters, the reader enters the world which made Naxalbari in India possible and is able to counterbalance it with the relatively more familiar world of the Ghoshes. That it exposes savagery in the middle of this familiar civility, violence in the middle of the familiar dream of modernity is the difficult truth that the novel carries home.
Apart from its epistles, the second major device of the book is melodrama. Combining the Greek melos (music) and dran (drama, to do), the genre of melodrama can be traced from the very inception of the genre of which Mukherjee is an inheritor – the novel as a family romance. The novel – no longer the Epic or Tragedy suitable for the nobility – is preeminently a form that takes birth in and reflects the rise of the bourgeois family, both in the subcontinent and in Europe. The insecurities of paternity, the tussle over private property, the concern with lineage and inheritance, the jealousies among the women, the differential dependence among the genders, the focus on dress and ornaments, and on maintaining boundaries of class and decorum are all the primary features of the family romance and The Lives of Others is self-consciously, mischievously, even devastatingly true to its genre’s traits.
Supratik’s letters – sober, struggling, unornamented reportage from the countryside – emerge in a colossal contrast to this decadent array of campy gestures, emotional excesses, stereotypical jealousies that are the overwrought domestic drama of the Ghoshes’ home. ‘That coarse, vulgar, low-born woman,’ Ghosh’s unmarried daughter thinks, for instance, hearing her sister-in-law Purnima, ‘braying all the time, not a whit of class about her, typical of her south Calcutta origins. Her voice is like a split bamboo’ (11). When set in the genre and language of melodrama, the Ghoshes appear both compassionately represented and terribly ridiculed. Often Mukherjee runs the risk of including his own voice within his target-field, within the parameters of what he calls the melodramatic ‘Bengali life’, a phrase that has a grating regularity in the book, grating because it makes his literary project too explicit, the idiosyncrasies of middle-class Bengalis too fetishized. But his technique stands. The sparseness of resources and gestures of Kanu and his wife Bijli, set in the plainness of Supratik’s passages, is consciously inverted in the ‘melodramatic’ excess of the Ghosh household. Melodrama becomes at once a reaching out and a satirical tool in the hands of the novelist. Whereas he takes evident delight in writing the melodramatic passages, his political technique lies in the puncturing of this melodrama, first embroidering a delicate pattern of the Ghosh family line, then tearing it through with a single letter of runaway Naxal grandson.
Mukherjee’s novel starts with the story of Nitai Das, a debt-sunk Bengali landless labourer killing his starving wife and children, and then committing suicide by drinking insecticide. This preface – this concrete, brutal account of man-made torment – casts a shadow throughout the five hundred pages of the novel. After this passage, you can only hurtle forth searching for ways in which one can make sense of the world in which Nitai Das had to kill himself and his own. The only courier Mukherjee allows is that you hurtle forth among those who once dreamt and still dream to change the world capable of this cruelty.