Review: 'The Lives of Others' by Neel Mukherjee

I requested this novel on Netgalley after reading its synopsis and thinking to myself that it sounded like a sweeping historical novel. India's history is fascinating, especially in the last century in which it seems to have developed exponentially. I was right on one front, this novel is definitely sweeping and it is one of the most engrossing I have read in a very long time.

'Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It's time to find my own. Forgive me.' 
Calcutta, 1967. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind before disappearing is this note . 
The ageing patriarch and matriarch of his family, the Ghoshes, preside over their large household, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. More than poisonous rivalries among sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business, this is a family unravelling as the society around it fractures. For this is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider. 
Ambitious, rich and compassionate The Lives of Others anatomises the soul of a nation as it unfolds a family history. A novel about many things, including the limits of empathy and the nature of political action, it asks: how do we imagine our place amongst others in the world? Can that be reimagined? And at what cost? This is a novel of unflinching power and emotional force.
This novel is immense, encompassing generations and nation. Although Mukherjee hasn't written a historical fiction novel in the sense that the plot doesn't revolve around a historical event such as the Indian Independence in 1947 or the subsequent Partition between India, Pakistan and then Bangladesh, The Lives of Others still picks up on how all of these changes affected a family. I would, therefore, very much class it as a family saga in the way that Tolstoy's War and Peace is, for example. We have three different generations, we have social codes, we have change, uprisings etc. which makes for an incredibly interesting read. Although initially it is hard to get to know all the characters and care about them equally, Mukherjee manages to, throughout the novel, continually give the reader slips of information regarding everyone and how they stand in relation to each other. This means that at the end of the novel you feel like you might finally understand all of them and then the it ends. Of course you can't care about all characters equally, but there is such a variety of emotions and events in the Gosh family that there is bound to be something for everyone.

The two major storylines are those of the family house and the people there, contrasted with Supratik's Communists efforts to improve the lives of the poor. This immediately juxtaposes two different sides, that of the conservative, older members of the family, and that of the young Supratik and thereby shows the age-old battle between renovation and those holding onto their traditions with all they have. In a culture that is still very dictated by social laws regarding seniority and hierarchy, the idea of communism that levels all social difference is like a fox in a chicken coop. Although at times the political talk may seem extraneous, a similar thing happens with a different character's mathematical interest, it informs the characters and is therefore necessary.

Mukherjee's writing style is a marvel. Not only is he incredibly loquacious, but also very eloquent. He makes subtle changes in his style when narrating each character's thoughts and actions which means that each character takes shape in his or her own way as well. He uses words I have never heard of, yet each makes sense in its setting. He also introduces a lot of Indian words, mixing them into speech quite easily. Thankfully there's a dictionary in the back, alongside an explanation of how relational hierarchy works in India. Writing in English, Mukherjee masterfully manages to bring India to the reader. His descriptions of landscape and the city are beautiful, ranging from the disgustingly detailed, in the best way, to the ultra-romantically sweeping. Similarly his dialogue seems very true, allowing him to portray realistic family relationships. Just because they're family, doesn't mean you understand them or get along with them.

At his best, Mukherjee reminds me of Salman Rushdie. Although it seems easy to compare these two authors based on the fact they're Indian, their novels and styles actually share certain qualities. Looking at the 1983 novel Shame, Rushdie shows himself excelling at creating family patterns and showing traditions in an endearing and alienating light at the same time. He also writes without holding back, going to the extremes in his descriptions and characters and sometimes maybe even to far. Mukherjee does the same in The Lives of Others, although he replaces magical realism with a stronger sense of realism. Questionable behaviour is universal, not only in the Gosh family but in everyone, and Mukherjee doesn't shy back from alienating his characters from his readers, may it be temporarily. His world is, at times, ugly and because of that incredibly honest. Spreading across 528 pages, Mukherjee bravely describes the downfall of a family in a world that doesn't stop changing around them.

I give this novel...

5 Universes.

Although I usually save this rating for already established classics, I feel like it is only a matter of time till this novel will be ranked among them as well. Novels such as these don't simply come into existence, they are a labour of love and a result of a lot of social change. As such, The Lives of Others is a mark of its time and, as such, highly educative while sucking the reader in until the last page of the epilogue. I'd recommend this novel to people who aren't afraid to commit to a novel and want to be challenged by what they read. The experience you'll get is worth all the trouble the first few chapters might give you.


  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.


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