Neel Mukherjee may have narrowly missed out on winning the Booker Prize when his previous novel “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted in 2014, but someone ought to give this writer a crown just for writing such impactful openings in his novels. In both that book and his new novel “A State of Freedom” I was moved, surprised and totally gripped after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. The vignettes which open these novels are separate from the main plots but have the ability to capture a reader’s attention and emotionally set the tone for what’s to come. In the case of this new novel, we meet a man who returns to India after living in America for a long time with his son in tow. On their travels to tourist sites he has a conflicted sense of identity seeing his native country through Western eyes. He has feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety and disgust. Then something so surprising and eerie occurs that I became hooked. The novel goes on to describe the lives of a few different individuals whose stories connect in fascinating ways. It’s a sweeping story that makes a complex but highly readable portrait of the state of modern India, economic inequality, classism and national identity.

Although the novel deals with a lot of serious subjects and has many brutally heartrending scenes, a lot of the book is saturated by the warm sensation of cooking. In the second section, an unnamed character makes annual visits to his family in Bombay after he’s permanently settled in England. He’s writing a book about regional Indian cooking because he asserts “Indians have always known there is nothing called Indian food, only different, sometimes wildly and thrillingly different, regional cuisines. This is a fact that has been flattened out in the West.” So he develops a special interest in his parents’ Bengali cook Renu and frequently gossips with his mother about her and their maid Milly. We’re given a strong sense of the flavours of their meals and aromas like fennel, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and mustard seeds which permeate their kitchen. These descriptions are not only evocative of sensory experience but the author delineates the origins of dishes, their attachment to particular sections of society and the way recipes are passed down through generations. This character’s desire to acquire this information and neatly present it for a British audience begs questions about cultural appropriation or cultural/class tourism as he delves further into Renu’s humble origins and the slum she inhabits.

A Qalandar and his bear.

A Qalandar and his bear.

The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.

One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”

Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment. 

We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

Running parallel with Milly’s story is that of her childhood friend Soni who suffers devastating losses due to illness. This highlights another important schism between classes of society: access to healthcare. Through emotional scenes in a rural underfunded and understaffed hospital the author powerfully depicts how “Illness was a luxury for the rich. Illness had reduced everyone here to a beggar.” Soni’s tragic circumstances prompt her to join the “People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army” – a radical Maoist armed group bent on overthrowing the government. This brushes against the Naxalite movement which Mukherjee explored so fascinatingly in “The Lives of Others.” In this story it makes a sharp contrast between the paths that Milly and Soni take in life and elucidate the central preoccupation of the novel: what choices do we really have in determining our personal freedom?

The final section, yet again, goes somewhere else entirely and demonstrates a complete stylistic change as well, but poignantly circles back to earlier story lines. It builds to a spectacular tale that prompts uncomfortable questions about the degree to which our own independence impinges upon or inhibits the freedom of others. Mukherjee excels at describing evocative details of particular places, but also movingly comments upon universal conditions such as friendship and aging: “Childhood friendships were often like that – intense in presence and in the present tense, remote and unreachable in absence.” His characters are so memorable not only because he movingly captures the arcs of their development, but lets us feel so intensely that given a twist of fate their stories might be our own.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
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