'Others' strike back

'Others' strike back

Lead review

'Others' strike back

We really don’t know how the Booker might have changed the equation, but both this one and the book that won (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) are about a lost time, a vast place and what happens to those who’re cornered.

Both are about doers and those who get crushed under the wheels of things done. In Mukherjee’s case, the wheel rolls, and those below rise in anger.

Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives Of Others could be called a magnum opus. It’s a great work — in terms of size, reach, depth and breadth. Briefly, it tells the story of a family and a land. The routine piques and excitements of living in a joint family on the one side, and the lives of others — the ones with no voice, but the slowly sapping strength to keep at their work, earn a small meal a day. The novel begins with the chilling scene of a peasant driven beyond endurance, killing his family and then himself. That’s the only way out.

There’s another way, but that needs the catalyst of activists, educated people from the city who read, see and sympathise. Oppressors have to be destroyed along with the system if the oppressed is to live. They come with theses and ideologies, mapping out a future to release the wretched from their bonds. Yet, with all their books and study groups, their strategy too ends in destruction and death. The indignities and deprivations suffered in a Calcutta joint family (this is in the 60s, so the name hasn’t changed), which forms the main story, are dwarfed by the basic everyday struggle of impoverished peasants in the far-flung villages of Bengal.

Massive and sweeping as it is, Mukherjee works carefully on the novel’s structure, links and moral networking. He describes Nitai’s plight just before he’s driven to murder and suicide. The landlord’s goons rain blows on his frail body, then joke, “Where are you going to hit this dog? He is nothing but bones.” At the end of the novel, when the retaliation is in full swing, saboteur Sabita Kumari’s thoughts run thus, “You kick a dog, it will run away, but you keep kicking it and kicking it, it will have no option but to bite you back just to stop being kicked.” In this case, she herself has been a victim, swamped by murders and gang rape.

There are three generations of the Ghosh family, Prafullanath downwards, living in a four-storied building in Calcutta. Here again, Mukherjee cleverly uses the hierarchy of the disfavoured to begin his narrative of the wretched. Doing this literally, he places the patriarch on the top floor and his widowed daughter-in-law and her children at the bottom. Each member of the family has stories and secrets. If one harbours puppy love on the terrace, another nurtures bitterness and strikes back whenever she can. Another hides a steamy secret that turns grotesque.

Fathers and sons have their agendas; mothers and daughters, theirs. Some dreams — like those of mathematician Sona, the silent, neglected boy with a hundred equations running in his head, and who provides a final flare before the story ends in darkness — are realised. The hierarchy has favourites and those looked upon with pity even by the servants. Life is such.

When Supratik leaves the hollowness at home to be with “those people”, to join the struggle played out in the shadows, the early stirrings of what will soon storm the state, we see the unspeakable blot, the dishonour, the anxiety. But Supratik is another link that will connect the underdog and its role reversal. We know his story through unsent letters written to a secret love, his aunt. An army recruit’s training in the highest reaches of an icy posting is probably less gruelling than Supratik’s preparation for revolution. Sharing a hungry family’s meagre meals, sleeping outside their hut, matching steps as they burn under a wicked sky, bargaining with an unrelenting earth, always knowing the game is dangerous. There’s no shortcut to what he must achieve.

Mukherjee is no dabbler. He sinks deep into every experience, every calling, every emotion. We burn with Supratik out in the fields, even stay with elaborate, detailed rituals of working on the earth, we are intimately informed of the intricate joys of mathematics, the mechanics of paper manufacturing, the intrigues of business-building. We are shamed, we love, we frown, we get entangled in the petty distractions of bored people.

This novel doesn’t give you a life until it’s over. Moving away from the claustrophobic confines of the Ghosh family, just when you think the vast outdoors will bring relief, you’re pinned even more rudely against the wall. As the novel ends, you have the final, horrible realisation of what lies beyond the written. And you know it isn’t going to leave you so soon.