Neel Mukherjee’s Man Booker shortlisted, The Lives of Others is a study in skeletons. Those bony frameworks that support the human organism grinning all the while, irritatingly smug about the knowledge they have accreted about the terrifying things that lurk beyond the grave from rotting flesh and squirming maggots to the solitary journey of the soul along an unlit passage. Mukherjee concerns himself particularly with those skeletons that have been banished to the deep recesses of the closet by the Ghoshes, as bourgeois a family as they come, where the sceptre of the painful secrets they harbour need not pose a threat to the living who would rather concern themselves with the fripperies and fopperies of a superficial existence. If that were not ambitious in itself, he also ferrets out the bony remnants of the corpses that a nation released from the iron grip of the British Empire has made it a habit to relegate to the hidden chamber of wilful ignorance by slavishly catering to the demands of the very rich at the expense of those who languish below the poverty line.
Three generations of Ghoshes live together in a four – storey house in South Calcutta feeding off the short – lived prosperity that was made possible by the patriarch, Prafullanath who built his business empire on the foundation of great personal loss, its subsequent pain and a ruthless desire to get ahead at all costs even if it meant hoodwinking a grieving widow or riding roughshod over those weaker than him. Evil omens stalk the family that is already splintering from within as the Ghosh siblings, daughters – in – law and children endlessly slug it out, incessantly jockeying for a bigger share of the family assets and increased leverage in their airless corner of the world, causing the old man to remark morosely, “I feel I have just been a conducting pipe between the bad in the past and the bad in the future.”
Even as his family remains locked in their infernal squabbling, neck-deep in the juices of base inequities such as incestuous bonds, substance abuse, the relentless pursuit of taboo pleasure, furtive practices of forbidden sexual peccadilloes, and casual cruelty, Supratik, a young college student with his head well and truly turned by misguided idealism supplemented by his obstinate impracticality leaves home hoping to change the world by redressing the wrongs meted out to the have-nots using brute force and bloody insurrection if need be.
Mukherjee strips his colourful array of diverse characters to the bare bones affording his readers a voyeuristic glimpse into the intimate secrets contained therein triggering shock, amazement and often, shame. For, he extends the same unflinching treatment to a country that has gone mad with greed, divesting it off the layers of hypocrisy and pretentiousness which continue to cloak it, long after the fictional events this novel chronicles from the 1960s, even as the rift widens increasingly between those who are insulated by extreme wealth and the rest who are left out in the cold. None can remain untouched by guilt for having contributed in infinitesimal ways to the class divide that has made victims out of too many to count, trapped in the knowledge “that the world is as it is, and knocking your head against its hard shell is only going to break you, not dent the world.”
The narrative forges ahead into the thorny terrain that Supratik has chosen to traverse, to the assorted variables that led to the rise of the Maoist Naxalite guerrillas, taking the time to meander into the heart of the turmoil that is always rocking this particular household throwing into sharp focus, their petty foibles that mirrors the rot in the society that birthed them. As Supratik and his family hurtle towards their fate, melodrama rears its head and saturates the proceedings with a curious mixture of horror and disbelief, striking a few discordant notes regarding the logic underlying some of the pre - climactic events that see the inexplicable return of the prodigal son who is a wanted man bringing predictable disaster in his wake. This aside the intense action culminates in an explosive finale that will leave a chill in the heart which will not be easily dispelled.
An edited version of this review appeared in the New Indian Express, which you can check out here.