The Lives of Others

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Ratings: 4/5

Author: Neel Mukherjee

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (UK), W. W. Norton (US), Random House (India)

Publishing Date: 22 May 2014 (UK), 1 October 2014 (US), 8 June 2014 (India)

Language: English

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

ISBN-10: 818400379X

ISBN-13: 978-8184003796

Pages: 528 pages (Hardcover)

Cost: Kindle Edition - ₹ 300.31, Hardcover - ₹ 336.00, Paperback - ₹ 344.00, MP3 CD - ₹ 1,665.00

Description: ‘The Lives of Others’ is set in Calcutta (Kolkata) during 1960s in the years preceding the Naxalbari movement. It is about a wealthy family that owns affluent paper manufacturing business whose head, Prafullanath Ghosh is the owner of various paper mills. The eldest grandson of the family Supratik Ghosh abandons his home to join the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist), and is working secretly to mobilise the peasants against the landlords.

The novel deals with the chasm between generations and is set against a backdrop in which the gap between the poor and the rich was not wide. Letters from Supratik to an unnamed correspondent form one thread of narrative - possibly a lover or a family member (it’s not immediately clear) — recounting his time toiling alongside the farmers and describing the overwhelming beauty and abysmal poverty of the countryside, where deceptive landlords and corrupt policemen have stolen land from adivasis and other peasants, thus leading them into the world of slavery. While the other thread of narrative is an intricate account of events and relationships on the various floors of the Ghosh household.

The story is marked by marriages, and the failure of Chhayha Supratik’s spinster aunt, to marry since she is a dark-skinned woman and has cockeyes. The story is a conglomeration of tragedies, comedies, deaths, births, disasters and feasts.

Supratik is possessed by a moral horror at the lives of the starving and helpless people. On the other hand his contribution towards the movement seems almost negligible, until he is resurrected in the memory of a young Naxal as the hero that Supratik never felt he was. The legacy he leaves behind for the movement is less celebrated - a technique to derail trains and thus murder hundreds of unsuspecting people.

Ironically, the only positive legacy is what he does for a younger family member, his cousin Sona, a child prodigy and the son of the aunt Supratik loves. He arranges tuition classes for him and later even manages to convince his family matriarch to let the 15-year-old study in Stanford University, on a scholarship. Sona wins the Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize" of mathematics.

The most sympathetic character is Madan, the head servant who is part of the family. Madan loves and cares for all family members but remains separated from them.

Review: The cast of the story is huge, and hence the reader takes a while to get to know all the men, women and children. The story is throughout gripping, and there are various points in the story that suddenly change the way we see the book's whole world.

While the novel is an agnostic form as it can juxtapose incompatible ideas, beliefs and human beings, it displays impossibilities and disorder with the wonderful order of adequate language and vision. Neel Mukherjee manages to simultaneously terrify and delight the readers.

Mukherjee seems to be gifted with the capacity to imagine the lives of others. He can effortlessly move from inside one head to inside another in a conversation or conflict and take the reader with him.

The novel gives us not only Supratik's revulsion but his mother's sense of what has always been as it is. His departure causes her to break down completely. Neel inhabits both worlds beautifully. On the way there are delicious descriptions of lovingly prepared food – as well as descriptions of the stale food eaten by the less favoured family members. There are also precise descriptions of the diet that Supratik is barely able to subsist on among the peasants, who do not have meals that can satisfy their hunger.

The whole of this world is brought to life with great skill including flowers and trees, buildings and streets, sarees and jewellery.

The heat underfoot on the roof terrace of the house or be it the weather in the rice fields - author manages to deliver a wonderful description of the transformation of dry, red earth after the monsoon into a variety of greens. He is equally good in describing the harsh and ruthless killings and torture.

By the end of the book, none of Mukherjee’s characters fit into neat categories of saint or sinner. Rich or poor, they have all experienced some type of anguish.

The novel intelligently demonstrates how oppressive socio-economic structures brutalize people while showing that brutality can sometimes be random, and its causes ultimately elusive.

Milestones of Book:

  • 2014 Encore Award winner
  • Shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize on 9 September 2014
  • Shortlist for the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

About the Author: Neel Mukherjee was born in Calcutta. His first novel, A Life Apart (2010), won the Vodafone-Crossword Award in India, the Writer's 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.


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