To say that I love family sagas would be an understatement. Plantagenets, Pallisers, Cazalets, Yorkists, Stuarts (naturally!), Mehra, Princes of Gwynedd – name any surname you like, if there is a book about them then I have read it or have it on my pile or I am waiting to hear about it. I love the internecine squabbles, the paterfamilias, the matriarchs, the lot. So imagine my joy when I started to read The Lives of Others [not to be confused by the book of the film] by Neel Mukherjee.
Indian family sagas are a class apart, think of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, or any novel by Rohinton Mistry. This is largely because it is common for them all to live in the same house…wonderful (for the reader anyway), perhaps not so wonderful for the Bengali daughters-in-law; for the woman leaves her home and lives with her husband under the same roof, and in status, under her mother-in-law. Her sisters-in-law will also join her, and her status will depend on the status of her husband: boro, mejo, shejo, chhoto – eldest, middle, between middle and youngest, youngest. And since suttee was condemned by the British and made illegal, woe betide the one whose husband dies…
[name]suggested that if [name] sat beside her mother-in-law, the sight of her son’s widow might break her heart. [name], now in her widow’s white, the vermilion line in the parting of her hair permanently removed using the big toe of her husband’s corpse before it was taken away for cremation…
Woe to anyone who thinks that I skim read. This passage comes towards the end of the book and is seared into my brain. As is the equally unflinching description of police brutality. The novel is based in Bengal, in Calcutta between the years (roughly) 1923 to 1967, with a stretch backwards and forwards to encompass parts of the story that the reader needs to have to fill in the gaps. So this means before, during and after Partition, and more crucially before, during and after the Naxalite Rebellion. I will not go into details about Partition, since once the Ghosh family discover that Calcutta is to stay in India, their experience of it is material, but peripheral.
The Naxalite Rebellion is less familiar, though you may have done some background on it if you followed my suggestion last year and read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, another family saga. Neel Mukerjee‘s book is much more detailed and explicit. The main character in the book, Supratik, becomes a Naxalite, one of the many middle class intellectuals who went into the rural areas to spread the gospel of Chairman Mao, with his bible The Little Red Book. Contrary to all wisdom and practice Supratik keeps a notebook, written but never presented to a member of the Ghosh household, which is how the reader gets to know in some detail, what happened and how the rebellion was fomented and developed.
Naxal, Naxalite and Naksalvadi are the names of various guerrilla groups in India, mostly associated with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Naxal derives from the name of the village Naxalbari in West Bengal where the movement had its origin. Naxalites are far-left radicals, supportive of Maoist political sentiment and ideology. Initially the movement had its centre in West Bengal. In affected areas the poorer sharecroppers, displaced people living on a less-than-subsistence diet, harried from above by venial landowners, loan sharks and others (all exploiting the poor for their own ends) were persuaded to revolt.
This is the central theme of this book. In cities, it is the poor, the servant class that is the victim of massive, though normally benign, repression and in the rural areas, repression on a scale which almost beggars belief. Calcutta, and many other Indian cities, became choked with the desperate, starving immigrants from the rural areas; droughts, famines, dysentery and LANDGRAB drove thousands off the land, teeming into the city where cholera and unemployment and starvation greeted them – corpses lay unattended in the streets: food for cats, dogs and carrion crows.
This novel casts a steadfast eye over this hideous scene. It is this disparity of opportunity that drives Supratik away from his upper middle class home [another outsider] to the farms in Medinipur, with his cadres of intellectual supporters to teach the villagers that there is another way to live. He shares their lives, planting, harvesting rice, living on thin rations and spreading the word, and yet he remains an outsider, at first they are suspicious, then accepting and eventually sporadic rebellion does break out, but never enough to sweep away centuries of exploitation.
In the final chapter of the book we link back to our ‘hero’ in an action that takes place in 2012. Naxalite actions were still happening across approximately ten states in India, the Naxalite-related deaths were down 50% from 2010 to 2011. Largely now affecting displaced forest dwellers whose land is being taken from them for state-owned mining operations.
The dust jacket shows a full moon on the front and a thumbnail of a moon on the back, there are lunar symbols throughout; though the moon is not as integral to the story as it was in The Luminaries, last year’s winner.
Neel Mukerjee gives the reader two glossaries, one on family relationships and a useful vocabulary. This book is not all doom and gloom. I loved it and fully expect to see it on the short list, it is early days but I would back it as a winner, though reserve the right to change my mind later. At this stage last year I was backing Eleanor Catton – and look what happened!