Author(s): Neel Mukherjee
'Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It's time to find my own. Forgive me.' Calcutta, 1967. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind before disappearing is this note. The ageing patriarch and matriarch of his family, the Ghoshes, preside over their large household, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. More than poisonous rivalries among sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business, this is a family unravelling as the society around it fractures. For this is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider. Ambitious, rich and compassionate The Lives of Others anatomises the soul of a nation as it unfolds a family history. A novel about many things, including the limits of empathy and the nature of political action, it asks: how do we imagine our place amongst others in the world? Can that be reimagined? And at what cost? This is a novel of unflinching power and emotional force.
Mukherjee's ferocious tale of India is played out through the lives of three generations of the Ghosh family. Politics, superstition, class and caste, the legacies of imperial rule and petty jealousies are drawn with both empathy and brutality. Excellent writing from an insightful author. Deservedly Man Booker shortlisted. - Stella
Mukherjee takes the classic epic Indian novel as his starting point: the Indian family - its prejudices, in-fighting, concerns for social status, power structure, superstitions and preoccupation with outward appearance. Take a disenchanted, privileged young man from this family and place him in the grass-roots of the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s and a compelling and thoughtful story is the result. Like many Indian novels there is a large cast and many interlinked the stories: the mathematics prodigy (the son of the outcast widowed wife - they live in the basement rooms of the grand house reduced to complete independence and humiliation); the unhealthy relationship between a brother and sister; the unmarriageable daughter who has become a cruel and tragic figure both ridiculed and feared; the failing family business empire scarred by bad decisions; the two brothers (eldest grandchildren) both disillusioned - one descending into drug addiction, the other turning to radical politics. And it is here that the story moves from the classical to the contemporary, exploring the faces of freedom movements or terror organisations (depending on your viewpoint). Supratik, whose story is told in the form of letters to an unknown correspondent, leaves his university and privileged upbringing to journey to the countryside where the realities of the rural poor are shocking and disturbing. Entrenched in village life, working alongside the labourers in the fields he has a gruelling introduction to the lives of others. When exhaustion and hunger do not overcome them, he and his Naxalite comrades have political conversations about Maoist doctrine. As the movement builds, Supratik's involvement becomes more than doctrine, and he is immersed in a violent action struggle to break the corruption, power structure and criminality that reinforces the class system. Unsurprisingly, this leads to increasing danger. Mukherjee's ability to write about both the greater concepts of the rebellion movement and political structures as well as the everyday smaller concerns, such as a young girl falling in love and the mathematical prodigy who is removed into his world of numbers, makes The Lives of Others an intriguing satisfying read which makes the reader question their own attitudes to terror and political power. - Stella
An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta - exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.
2014 Man Booker Prize short list.
"Neel Mukherjee has written an outstanding novel: compelling, compassionate and complex, vivid, musical and fierce." Rose Tremain "A devastating portrayal of a decadent society and the inevitably violent uprising against it, in the tradition of such politically charged Indian literature as the work of Prem Chand, Manto and Mulk Raj Anand. It is ferocious, unsparing and brutally honest." Anita Desai
Neel Mukherjee was born in Calcutta. His first novel, A Life Apart (2010), won the Vodafone-Crossword Award in India, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for best fiction, and was shortlisted for the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. This is his second novel. He lives in London.