I’ll start by saying how much I love the cover of this book. The colours used, the simplicity of the design, the font – this is definitely a book I would have picked up if I saw it on the shelf in a bookstore.
Set in Calcutta, The Lives of Others is the story of one dysfunctional extended family, all living in the same four-storey house: Prafullanath and Charubala Ghosh, their three sons, four daughters-in-law, one daughter and six grandchildren. We also learn about Madan, their servant of thirty years.
The main thread of the story follows Supratick, the eldest grandchild, who has left university and joined the Naxalbari movement – a Maoist-inspired guerrilla group, fighting for the rights of the rural Indian farmers who are being exploited by landowners. Supratick, with two other members of the Naxalbari, leaves his comfortable home in Calcutta and moves to a small village, believing that an uprising can only happen if he immerses himself in the culture of the people he is fighting for. His story is told in a series of (unmailed) letters, and we don’t find out who he is writing to immediately.
In alternating chapters, we are introduced to the other characters in the household. Each of them has their own demons to battle. While I won’t go through them all, I will talk about the sons and daughter. Adinath, the eldest son, has been forced to run a business that he has no passion for and has turned to alcohol to cope. Priyo, the second son has an… unusual… sexual preference, described in all its gory detail. Chhaya, the only daughter was born dark-skinned and with a lazy eye. The combination, and her somewhat abrasive personality, meant that she was never matched successfully with a husband and her bitterness at this takes the form of her now seeking to cause as much disharmony within the household as she can.
Bhola, the third son, is lacking common-sense, but has an appetite for telling stories and tries to fund struggling writers with the publishing branch of the family business. Somnath, the youngest son, passed away before the novel opened. His widow lives on the ground floor of the house with her son and daughter, but for reasons we don’t learn about straight away, they are treated more like pariahs than members of the family.
I loved the descriptions of the everyday lives of the Ghosh family and their individual (and mostly petty) concerns, and those sections were the most ‘enjoyable’ to read. However, while not as easy to read, the meat of the novel, for me, lies in the story of Supratick and the actions he takes as part of the Naxalbari movement. It raises interesting questions about the lengths that one should go to in the fight for justice, whether the end can ever justify the means and most importantly, where your loyalties should lie. It also gave me a lot of information about class politics and their history in India and it cleverly shows how these issues are still relevant, and that the seeds sown in the 1960s continue to bear fruit today.
The strength of the novel is in the language used. Mukherjee makes no attempt to talk down to his readers – he uses words from the Bengali dialect and plenty of English words that … well, let’s just say the ‘look up’ function on my Kindle came in handy. He also has some incredible descriptive passages – there were a couple of scenes (one in particular near the end) in which I was almost reading through my fingers because I was so affected by what was on the page.
Do I think it will win the Booker? Out of the three longlisted novels I’ve read so far, this is definitely the one that strikes me as most traditionally ‘Booker-winning’ – it’s also the one I’d recommend most. I’ll just have to see what the other ten have in store.
Disclaimer: I received a free Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.