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The Lives of Others Hardcover – International Edition, June 24, 2014
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An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta -- exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.
‘'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…’.'
It is 1967, Calcutta. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in student unrest, agitation, extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind 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, humane and striking, The Lives of Others unfolds a family history, and anatomises a social class in all its contradictions. It asks: can we escape what is in our blood? How do we imagine our place amongst others in the world? Can that be reimagined? And at what cost?
About the Author
NEEL MUKHERJEE was born in Calcutta. His first novel, A Life Apart (2010), won the Vodafone-Crossword Award in India, the Writers’ 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.
Top customer reviews
This is a novel of ascension after loss and gradual decline and fall. The Ghosh family is on the slippery slope as the political climate in India and indeed, Bengal brings storm clouds. Slip ups in parenting lead to children going astray and a tangled mess of relationships. The book soars elegantly through the magic of prime numbers and Euclidean mathematics and plunges into the extraordinary violence of beheading of people with sickles.
Readers who are familiar with Bengali culture will glide through this book. Others might find it a bit of a struggle because the author uses the Bengali form of address throughout the book and you'll need to quickly figure out who's who for a smooth sail. But investing a bit of effort will yield rich rewards because this is a big, heart stopping book.
One tip to future readers is to follow the family tree at the beginning of the book closely as there are numerous characters with unfamiliar Indian names. Although it takes a while to become familiar with them all, it's well worth the effort.
This is a richly rewarding novel on many levels and is a joy to read.
In a traditional sense, the protagonist of The Lives of Others is Supravit Ghosh, a third-generation scion of a once immensely wealthy Calcutta family who spurns the pampered comforts of home to take up arms in the Naxalite uprising that has roiled portions of Eastern India for more than four decades. However, more broadly speaking, the central character is Supravit’s family, a squabbling collection of twenty people — three generations of Ghoshes and their loyal servants — crammed into the four stories of a mansion in South Calcutta. It is the decline and disintegration of this once-proud family during the violent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s that provides the energy throughout much of the novel.
Mukherjee’s insight about violent revolution emerges in high relief. As Supravit muses, “one thought became steadily inescapable: we could only poke the government into a kind of low-grade irritability, but never scale that up to something life-changing, something that would bring the system crashing down. All this hurling of bombs, burning of trams, headlines in newspapers — to what avail? The condition of the people remained unchanged. Life carried on as before, restored to its status quo, like the skin of water after the ripples from a thrown pebble have died away, as if the surface retained no memory of it.”
Supravit’s grandfather, the aging patriarch, cast off by his family from his rightful inheritance as co-owner of a jewelry empire, has built a second fortune in the paper industry, establishing his own dynasty on the other side of Calcutta. Like his grandson, the old man is seeking to foster a sort of social change, but through capitalism rather than revolution. However, now the days of Ghosh wealth and influence are fading as the many paper mills in the old man’s grip slip away, shut by labor unrest, a gathering Communist movement, and the loss of East Bengal to the newly independent state of Bangladesh.
The Lives of Others follows Supravit from childhood through his career as a Naxalite terrorist in a vivid, first-person account. Others in the family are the subject of narration by an intrusive third person who gains access to their innermost fears and fantasies.
Not a single individual in the household, old or young, escapes the impact of India’s turbulent history. The pressures impinging on the family tear away at the bonds between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and offspring. This is a deeply disturbing story. Virtually no one emerges likable. In fact, it’s difficult not to conclude that Mukherjee doesn’t like any of his characters. He seems most deeply committed to exposing their faults.
Though it’s not an enjoyable experience to read this novel, it’s rewarding nonetheless, for its knowing portrait of life in India at a crucial turning-point in its history.