Neel Mukherjee’s 2014 Booker Prize nominated novel, The Lives of Others, is a wholly-absorbing work that is both ambitious and exhausting. The novel opens with a raw, heart-wrenching prologue set in 1966. A farmer, at the edge of desperation and starvation, kills his family and then himself. We are then tossed into 1967 and the daily goings-on in the Ghosh family household with prose that soothes and seduces, whisking the reader away from extreme tragedy and into the world of those who inhabit this great house.
Paper manufacturing had long provided wealth, status, and comfort for the Ghosh family, leaving them to want for nothing. However, times are changing, workers are organizing, and society as a whole is challenging the system. Hard times and bad management have contributed to the erosion of Charu Paper & Sons (Pvt. Ltd.), leaving not just the faded exterior but the crumbling foundation of their lives and relationships.
Trapped within the walls of the Ghosh mansion, three generations struggle to keep or gain a foothold not only in business but also between themselves, as family members play one against another. The elders reside on the top floor as do the oldest and favorite son and his family. Two other sons and their families plus one unmarriageable daughter live there as well. So it goes in all the way down to a storage room on the ground floor where the youngest son’s widow and her two children are relegated as castoffs, the widow treated like an unpaid servant without any kindnesses.
With three generations of Ghoshes living under one roof and rarely needing to venture outside, tempers rise and cool. Dreams inflate and collapse. Communication is as unnerving and sporadic as electrical outages. Mukherjee’s far-reaching narrative is filled with the dissonance of life and hyperbole of existence that is the Ghosh family. This is in stark contrast to the life that lies restively with one character, Supratik. The oldest grandson, Supratik is a college student activist who disappears with Marxist friends to indoctrinate the poorest farmers of Bengal.
Chapters and scenes focused on the inhabitants of the Ghosh mansion are offset by Supratik’s detailed, unsentimental letters that describe the work in which he is engaged alongside the poorest of farmer workers and their living conditions that are tragically accepted only because there is nothing more for them.
Early in the book and before disappearing into the rice paddies of Bengal, Supratik asks his mother, Sandhya, if she likes the life she is living.
Sandhya anxiously points out that these are bad times for the family: they had to sell two cars and some of her mother-in-law’s jewelry to pay a bank loan, and the business is about to go bust. In Supratik’s mind, it would be nothing more than what is referred to today as “a first world problem.” Supratik is more concerned with equality and about the plight of the worker whose choice between hopelessness and backbreaking work far outweighs materialistic and selfish desires for new saris, having servants, and enjoying the latest fads and trends.
Later in the conversation, Supratik challenges his mother, slapping their family squarely on the debate table:
“Are you happy with the inequalities of our family? Of the power-on-top-ruling-people-below kind of hierarchy? Do you think it’s right? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?”
This conversation sets the tone for both worlds the author presents in tandem—the Ghosh family as a unit, and Indian society as a whole at that time. Mukherjee’s scope is so vast yet compact while being caste-and-class conscious in a time of social, political, and economic upheaval that Downton Abbey aficionados will see a surplus of similarities despite the difference in the setting.
Mukherjee depicts the effects of changes across the spectrum from utter and complete despair and desperation to sharp jealousies and anger over petty things in such vivid detail that at times it becomes pleasantly uncomfortable. In this targeted look at Calcutta and India in the late 1960s, Mukherjee’s attention to one family and all of its members becomes an intimate and representative microcosm. By leveling a microscope on each character, he exposes everything, including horrific actions committed to the most innocent of souls. Supratik’s letters also bring a needed critical realism to the glaze of disappointed contentment.
The Lives of Others is many things. It is a portrait of a family of 1960s Calcutta, an historical rendering, and a treatise on how varying world views and personal actions affect or disaffect those around us. In creating this epic tale of survival and activism, Mukherjee has taken us to a place where we see more than a family on the brink of ruin and workers on the brink of hopelessness; we see a world that for all the change that has happened, very little has truly changed, even today.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.