Amitav Ghosh has called it, “Searing, savage and deeply moving.” Anita Desai felt it was “Ferocious, unsparing and brutally honest.” Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others which is longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize has evoked remarkable reviews.
The novel is set in 1960’s and showcases three generations of a Kolkata upper-middle-class business family, the Ghoshes as they struggle against the winds of radical Communism sweeping across Bengal. The Ghoshes’ world is one of oppression and obligation, both within the family and in society and where family hierarchy mirrors the disparities of wider Indian society. There’s an underlying tension throughout that everything could fall apart at any moment, domestically and politically. The family faces the decline of their paper- manufacturing interests, the Ghosh siblings, sisters-in-law, and youngest generation of cousins struggle with a variety of material desires: for a greater share of the family assets, beautiful clothes, imported pencil boxes, Western music and cosmetics. Their plight is juxtaposed against the struggling, starving landless labourers of Bengal – the others.
The novel begins with a heart wrenching account of how an impoverished wage labourer Nitai Das, unable to feed his starving wife and children, decapitates his wife and son, throttles his elder daughter, suffocates his baby girl and then drinks Folidol until his insides burn away.
The narrative then shifts to unravel a panorama of the large Ghosh family laden with vanity, insecurities, jealousy and fetishes. The family members’ problems and flaws are diverse. Everything must be done properly and honour must be upheld at all costs. Everyone is born into a role and must fulfill it, but the characters’ personal intentions conflict with the objective of the family unit and the needs of the family unit conflict with the outside world. Business is difficult and the society unraveling.
‘The Lives of Others’ makes a profound point about struggles for equality in the world’s largest democracy during the long aftermath of empire. It forces you to think and to question whether it is justifiable to ignore the inequality in society.
Neel Mukherjee’s ‘The Lives of Others’ brings serious and thought provoking issues to the forefront with finesse and subtlety. But the question remains – Does the novel deserve to win the Booker?