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“Remaking the Homeland”  

(The New York Times Book Review, December 2014)  

Remaking the Homeland 
The New York Times Book Review—December 26, 2014 

On Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others 
516 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95 

By Hirsh Sawhney 

Technological innovation and economic development have brought great wealth to a few parts of India, but they have further marginalized the country’s adivasis, or tribals, the aboriginal communities of forest dwellers and farmers who live outside of mainstream society. These groups were systematically victimized under colonial rule, when the British Raj passed legislation that classified them as criminals. The British-Indian government subjected adivasis to police brutality, herded them into reformatory settlements and forced them to perform hard labor. 


Adivasis — whose fate resembles that of North America’s indigenous populations — have fared little better in independent India. Quasi-feudal agricultural systems have kept many of them in debt and poverty. Multinational corporations and government agencies have displaced them to build dams and extract valuable minerals, without providing adequate compensation. Their protests are often ignored, and in some cases have been met with violence. Frustrated, some tribals have embraced India’s Maoist uprising, which seeks to overthrow the government. 


The writers Mahasweta Devi and Arundhati Roy have written passionately about the suffering of the adivasis and the proliferation of Maoism in rural India. Their work has provided invaluable correctives to prevailing narratives that cast adivasis as simpletons or savages and the Maoists as ruthless killers. But Devi’s and Roy’s books contain their own 

simplicities: They can be Manichaean in their outlook, presenting landlords or the government as monolithic, cruel tyrants, and tribals as earnest, righteous victims. Neel Mukherjee attempts to inject more complexity into these issues in his haunting novel “The Lives of Others,” shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Mukherjee’s work has always spotlighted the connections between power, poverty and injustice. “A Life Apart,” his electrifying first book, follows an educated Bengali immigrant in London who descends into an abyss of male prostitution and human trafficking. 


“The Lives of Others,” primarily set in 1960s Bengal, hinges on Supratik Ghosh, the scion of an affluent paper manufacturing family, who abandons his cushy south Calcutta home to join the Maoist rebellion gaining ground. 


Supratik writes letters to a mysterious recipient — possibly a lover or a family member (it’s not immediately clear) — recounting his time toiling alongside the farmers and describing the overwhelming beauty and abysmal poverty of the countryside, where deceptive landlords and corrupt policemen have stolen land from adivasis and other peasants, reducing them to a “form of slavery.” 


Supratik and his comrades begin to educate the beleaguered farmers about organizing against exploitation, and he eventually teams up with them to murder oppressive landlords and destroy the paperwork trapping the farmers in debt. He vividly captures the violence in his letters, which also reveal his prejudices, especially his propensity to romanticize the “selflessness and generosity” of the adivasis, who are governed by “a kind of simplicity.” He isn’t “keen on talk” of “irrational” things like feelings, and his repression has definite consequences. It prevents him from dealing with the ethical implications of his actions, and it also inhibits readers from forming a deeper emotional connection with these first-person portions of the novel. The third-person sections form the bulk of the book and are far more affecting. They shift between pre-independence Calcutta, plagued by colonialism, famine and the aftershocks of World War II, and the Calcutta of the 1960s, where students are embracing Marx, the Grateful Dead and heroin. 


Mukherjee introduces Supratik’s affluent relatives, who live together in a multi-storied, joint family home. Prafullanath Ghosh, the family patriarch, was cheated out of his father’s jewelry business by his elder brother but has managed to build a lucrative paper empire through a combination of hard work and duplicity. Hurtling toward old age, he watches his family’s wealth disintegrate, thanks to his own ineptitude, his children’s apathy and the organizing laborers of Bengal, who are being spurred on by the Communist Party. Meanwhile the rest of the family grapple with their own woes, ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. 


Chhaya, Supratik’s spinster aunt, has been unable to marry thanks to her dark skin and cockeyes. She hurls insults at her sisters-in-law and pines for the affections of her brother, Priyo, who used to dote on her. Now married, Priyo patronizes a brothel, where he pays a prostitute to defecate on his stomach, but this routine comes to an end when an indignant band of prostitutes and pimps gives him a beating. 


Mukherjee’s roving character sketches highlight the cruelties and contradictions of middle-class Bengali life, in which the success of a downtrodden family member “swells and replenishes” the “poison sacs” of others, and people fear being shamed in front of a crowd that is always awaiting “the unexpected treat of a man’s supreme public humiliation.” These scenes can be dramatic, but overall, the pacing is measured, and the descriptions vibrant and leisurely: Mukherjee spends paragraphs on one character applying makeup, and pages on abstract mathematics. 


Like his previous novel, “The Lives of Others” features an old-fashioned syntax, packed with prepositions and laced with anachronisms, that feels surprisingly fresh and bold. Mukherjee can recall Tolstoy in his ability to bring to life a diverse and expansive set of characters and to sharply evoke their interior worlds. Here is Supratik’s mother contemplating her son’s absence: “At times a different light fell on the boulder weighing down on her and it blazed into a burden of outrage: She wished she had cracked open his skull to read his brains, riced with the maggots of his secret thoughts, and prevented everything that followed.” 


By the end of the book, none of Mukherjee’s characters fit into neat categories of saint or sinner. Rich or poor, they have all experienced some type of anguish, and they are all contributing to a ceaseless cycle of violence: the landlords who savagely oppress destitute villagers; the adivasis who brutally murder their oppressors; Supratik, who has killed many people and betrayed various loved ones; and the policemen who eventually apprehend and torture him. 


“The Lives of Others” is a sophisticated meditation on suffering that invites empathy for characters who embrace violent ideologies as a result of injustice without ever vindicating the horrific violence they commit. Likewise, it demonstrates how oppressive socio-economic structures brutalize people while showing that brutality can sometimes be random, and its causes ultimately elusive. 

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