It feels fortuitous that I happened to read Lahiri’s “The Lowland” directly before beginning Neel Mukherjee’s magisterial family epic “The Lives of Others.” Before last week, to shamefully admit my ignorance, I didn’t know about the left wing/communist revolts which took place in Bengal in the late 1960s. In both these novels this movement plays a prominent role. While Lahiri deals primarily with the reverberating effects of one son’s involvement in the uprising long after the event, Mukherjee’s novel delves into the thick of it over those crucial few years at the end of that decade. These are two very different novels, but in some ways Mukerjee’s novel works as sort of an inverted mirror to Lahiri’s book when considering issues of emotional and physical proximity within families. Lahiri’s novel features a large family house which stands virtually empty after expectations that it will be passed on from progenitor to progenitor are spoiled when it’s abandoned by the two sons. Mukherjee’s novel also has a large house at its centre which is filled to the brim with a squabbling family (except one notably absent son) none of who seem able to escape from each other. There are many floors to the house which are inhabited by different generations of the Ghosh family many of whose status and socio-economic position within the family varies wildly from person to person. Over the course of this large, ambitious and brilliant novel we become very familiar with each idiosyncratic family member, the servants who dwell within the house and the idealistic son who left to join a revolution.
Personally, I love a good immersive family epic such as Marquez's “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Oates' “Bellefleur” or Ann-Marie MacDonald's “Fall on Your Knees.” I saw Mukherjee in conversation at the Southbank Centre earlier this week (he's fascinating to listen to in person and very articulate about writing) and he said that one of the greatest literary inspirations for this novel is Mann's Buddenbrooks (which is a book I sadly haven't read yet.) When I first opened the book and saw a family tree charted out I felt excited at the prospect of getting sunk into a family drama. The Ghosh family is certainly filled with drama. The great patriarch of the family Prafullanath was cut out of his own father's lucrative business and became a self-made man building a paper manufacturing empire. His imperial wife Charubala rules over her five children who grow to become very different individuals, many with children of their own. Like in many families who expect the eldest son to take the reigns of the family business, the Ghosh's son Adinath would rather pursue his own interests than fitting into a slot his father has devised for him. The second son Priyo tries to organize his father's various factories but is distracted by his own hidden sexual interests. Sister Chhaya is a fantastically bitter woman who often sees herself in opposition to the world because of her dark skin and crossed eyes. “Chhaya carried tales, not all of which were innocent. She got a thrill out of poisoning people’s minds and playing them off against each other.” She crafts ways to dominate, humiliate and control those around her. Fourth son Bholanath uses his influence at one of his father's factories to support a burgeoning literary group with devastating financial consequences. Youngest son Somnath has a wilful sadistic side and meets a surprising fate. This group of children combined with the individual wives of the sons, their children and the various servants who work in the house create a raucous symphony of conflicting aspirations and values. I could write a lot about each of these fascinating characters, but you need to dive into the intricate plot to fully understand them all. There are also many more characters, many of whom are the type to fall between the cracks of society such as a “mad” mathematics professor Ashish Ray who roams the streets overcome by a darkness in his mind. You can see why Mukherjee requires such a long novel to fully do all his characters justice.
It's Adinath and his wife Sandhya's eldest son Supratik who breaks from this over-flowing home and demands his own narrative which is written in the first person. His story is slotted between chapters which feature the rest of the family and describes his time becoming involved in the communist party, working on back-breaking jobs in rural areas and getting involved with terrorist activities. The age-old conflict of parents who want their children to establish a secure future in the family and carry their values clashes against the child's idealistic views of the world. At one point Sandhya confronts her son stating: “The rile of the world is to look after your family, your elders, your children, and see that you do the best you can for them all the time.” To which Supratik, mimicking the ideology he's read about, replies: “Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?” Supratik believes in sacrificing oneself for the greater good over carrying on his family's legacy. It breaks Sandhya that she loses her son so totally. The mysterious process by which children grow to diverge from their parents' intimate embrace is handled so skilfully by the author. The refrain for any helpless parent who witnesses the long process of their child turning into a stranger is summed up with this question asked at one point in the narrative: “Did one ever know the mind and soul and personality of one’s child, even little segments of them?”
One of the difficult duties of any great writer is to describe the way in which language itself isn't able to sufficiently serve the characters he portrays. There are intricacies of emotion experienced which can't be expressed other than in the actions of the character and their surrounding environment. Through the spaces between sentences we glean an understanding about truth which can't be described with words, but which is most definitely there. At one point in the narrative a character “felt himself fall into the gap between feelings and their articulation in language.” Mukherjee captures his characters moving through their particular time and space grappling with sensations which can't be expressed, but which impact upon the way they negotiate with the world and each other. One quote I love in particular is from a scene where Chhaya confronts her mother Charubala about the fact of her own ugliness.
“Were love, compassion, pity expressible? How? Charubala certainly did not know. Love and affection were not particular instances of their manifestations, but rather the entire world one moved around in, an atmosphere. How could you isolate something so brutally flat and one-dimensional, such as words, from a kind of sky, which was intangible, both there and not there?”
Charubala finds herself unable to console her child the way she wishes because the complexity of her feeling and love cannot be so simply conveyed. Language has a way of sometimes failing when we most need it. That Mukherjee is able to show this while also conveying a density of emotion that draws you into the character's experience is a powerful accomplishment.
“The Lives of Others” contains a wealth of detail that resurrects a very specific time and place where huge swaths of people found themselves in desperate circumstances and their way of life in upheaval. Mukherjee elucidates the complex political movements of the time by framing them within one particular family's story in a way that challenges the way you think but is fully accessible, informative and beautifully written. The startling and brutal opening section of the novel acts as a bleak reminder of what's really at stake throughout the rest of the book. The fortunes of families can fall so drastically that they can be obliterated completely. The Ghosh family's dramatic downfall captures the complexity of these few years of life in Bengal and makes for an enthralling richly-layered story that I fully sank into.