Huge potential obscured by the style

This is my review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Not to be confused with the brilliant film of the same time about life in Communist East Germany, “The Lives of Others” is an unsparing dissection of the Ghoshes, a wealthy but dysfunctional Bengali family whose paper business is falling apart under the social and economic upheavals of the 1960s, compounding the mismanagement of stubborn patriarch Prafullanath.

The family members often seem like considerably more than the seventeen included in the family tree at the front of the book, since they are also referred to by their relationships, explained and listed at the back. The often tedious need to flip back and forth is increased by the glossary of Indian terms also at the end, fascinating but frustratingly incomplete.

The kaleidoscope of scenes flitting between different characters forms a potentially endless soap opera with the use of frequent flashbacks to fill in the gaps: Chhaya, the embittered sister, too “dark” and ugly to be married off, who makes it her business to spy on the rest of the household and stir up trouble with her poisonous tongue; her twin brother Priyo whose wife Purnima resents her inferior status and nags him endlessly to claim a larger role in the business; Purba, the downtrodden widow of a younger brother, who is scapegoated unfairly for his death, and confined to a cramped ground floor room with her two children, dependent on the leftovers her relatives sometimes condescend to send down to her, and so on. At times, these mainly unappealing characters seem caricatures in their snobbery, insensitive treatment of servants and callousness to those less fortunate than themselves, yet they probably provide a very accurate insight into Indian culture and attitudes. A major contrasting thread is the journal-style letters written in the first person by eldest son Adinath, who has become a communist sympathiser, and disappeared to join the Naxalites, living amongst poverty-stricken villagers with the aim of stirring them up to revolt. The identity of the intended recipient (a lover?) is not revealed until near the end, and the letters are never sent.

Although I admired this book for its vivid portrayals of inequality in India, and the in-depth psychology of the characters, I found it hard going, mainly because of the style. Dialogues often struck me as very stilted and false, although they may accurately convey a sense of “Indian English” even when the characters are, I think, speaking Hindi. The prose is by turns drowned in detail, or inflated with windy pretentiousness. Dramatic scenes are scuppered by a distracting inappropriate choice of words. I was particularly irritated by the way a boy’s budding mathematical genius provides the cue for the inclusion of mathematical theories, even notation, which must be incomprehensible to most readers. Has the author dug out some old maths notes, or culled them from a student in this field? I was reminded by contrast of Vikram Seth’s ability in “An Equal Music” to convey a sense of musicality to someone unable to read a note.

Yet, Muckerjee is capable of writing. He describes a destitute farmer’s “blunt nail” of land. He captures the effect of moonlight: “The shadows it cast looked painted: they hugged their parent objects in such a way that their inkiness leaked, as if by capillary action, back into the buildings or shrubs or humans and cloaked them in that same unreality”. I was left wishing that he had written less and honed it more ruthlessly, to achieve a masterpiece on a par with “A Fine Balance” or “A Suitable Boy”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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