Learning from Literature - 'The Lives of Others' by Neel Mukherjee

Sorry for the arbitrary title, but I couldn't think of any other way of putting it. The other week I read and reviewed The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, an epically written Indian family saga. Apart from being a very good book, it was also quite complicated. At times Mukherjee used words that were unfamiliar to me and that really made this book a learning experience. Partially those words were simply Indian and therefore unfamiliar, but mostly they were simply new to me. While reading I highlighted all the worlds on my Kindle and that brought about the idea for this post.

Half of the words I know, I know because I read them in a book. I read at least two Jane Austen novels before deciding to look up what exactly a 'carriage' is. A lot of things made more sense afterwards. Although not every single word is crucial, sometimes understanding a word adds a lot of extra meaning.

Here is a list of some of the best new words I've learned from The Lives of Others.

  • Bathos: (in literature) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.
  • Intransigence: a stubborn refusal to change your views.
  • Naxalbari: a village in West Bengal, India, and the site of a left-wing poor peasant uprising in 1967. 
  • Naxalite: name for Communist guerrilla groups in India. Derived from Naxalbari.
  • Concertina: to collapse, to compress
  • Vivarium: an enclosure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation
  • Axiomatic: self-evident, unquestionable
  • Gherao: a protest in which workers prevent employers from leaving work until demands are met.
  • Nadir: the lowest, or most unsuccessful point in a situation
  • Detumesce: to lose one's sexual arousal
  • Logorrhoea: a tendency to extreme loquacity
  • Dyspepsia: indigestion
  • Factotum: an employee who does all kinds of work
  • Salubrious: healthy
  • Scion: a young shoot or twig of a plant
  • Uxorious: having/showing a great fondness for one's wife
  • Fulcrum: a thing that plays an essential role in an activity, event or situation
  • Suppuration: discharge of pus
  • Senescence: process of deterioration with age
  • Dendritic: having a branched form resembling a tree
  • Apparatchick: a member of a Communist Party apparat.
So, those are the new words I learned. I do think I suffer from logorrhoea sometimes, so it's good to now have a name for that affliction. I think I might do this for more of my reads, if they have interesting words!

Have you read a book that introduced you to a whole new vocabulary?


  1. Neel Mukherjee's novel, The Lives of Others, is overwhelming and powerful, it is a force, but however hard I tried to fall in love with it, I couldn't.

    It seemed very pleasant in the beginning. I saw the map at the beginning. Most of the places mentioned in the novel - Jhargram, Gidhni, Belpahari, Binpur - are within 40-50 km of my ancestral village. Somewhere in the novel, my hometown, Ghatshila, has been mentioned. Then there are Bali, Nalhati and Memari--places I travel through on my way to Pakur, the place where I work. Latehar, Chhipodohar, McCluskieganj--these are the other places I know. Nearly everything in this novel is familiar. Be it the term "munish" used for farm labourers, or the original Bengali terms for "fourteen forefathers" and the saying "sieve accusing the colander of having holes". The details the author has given regarding everything from the manufacturing of paper to the politics of West Bengal to a seemingly simple act of a mynah catching a centipede made my jaw drop. I was ready to embrace this novel as my new favourite.

    But then, I read the stereotypical, almost Aranyer Din Ratri-ish description of Santhals, and all my love for this novel vanished. On one hand, a drunk character is made to say, almost patronizingly, that tribals are pure and honest. On the other hand, a major character thinks that Santhal women are promiscuous because they drink homebrew. On top of that, there are scenes of Santhal men brutally killing non-Santhal moneylenders. And - I nearly choked at this - there is a line about "Santhal burial grounds". I am a Santhal. I know we don't bury our dead. We cremate them.

    Such a huge canvas, I had expected a lot from this novel. But now I am just relieved that it is over.

    1. That's such a shame :( Unfortunately I don't know as much about Indian history as I would like and I felt that Mukherjee was doing quite a good job. The passage you mention, I did think was a bit problematic, but I thought it was Mukherjee writing from a character's perspective, showing how wrong that attitude is, but I guess everyone reads a book differently!


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