Acclaimed novelist Neel Mukherjee's masterful novel, The Lives of Others, takes us back into the past, to the year 1966.
The story begins with the chilling murder/suicide committed by Nitai Das, an impoverished daily-wage labourer. He kills his wife and children, who have been starving already from their acute poverty, then kills himself. This horrific tale is used to provide the stark contrast between such loss and degradation, with the Ghosh family, the main protagonists of Neel Mukherjee's story. The main point, arrived at multiple times, is how broken the British empire left our country, and the everyday struggles faced by so many in the aftermath.
The Ghoshes are a proud upper-middle class family, who live in southern Calcutta in a four storey house. Three generations of Ghoshes live here, sustained by a paper-manufacturing company (which is slowly declining, to the worry of the ageing patriarch and matriarch of the family). Are the members of the Ghosh family happier than their poorer compatriots? Naturally not, the Ghoshes face their own, petty problems like material desires (who gets the best Western music and cosmetics, or whose share of the family assets are larger) to the problems that arise from the deeply entrenched social customs including (but not limited to) case divisions.
The author clearly uses this one family, as a simplified example of all Indian people, a social commentary, disguised as a novel and each point clearly elucidated (sometimes bluntly and heartrendingly so) with his small host of characters. Mukherjee's deeply felt empathy for characters who have little control over their own fate as tradition and custom force them to behave in specific ways, and relegate them to unhappy, second-rate life-styles almost viciously means that the story unfolds in unpredictable ways as it progresses.
In the character of Chhaya, the cross-eyed unmarried daughter, Mukherjee explores the torturous jealousy of a higher caste woman, who has not met with the social expectation of marriage, towards her lower caste sister-in-law, Purnima. Chhaya's jealousy of Purnima, (who does not have the social stigma of being an unmarried woman still at her parent's house) torments her, and she reacts most childishly yet viciously, destroying Purnima's clothes, and attempting to get her niece, Buli, in trouble as often as possible as well.
Spinsterhood is not nearly as painful as widowhood, unfortunately, and we can see the fate of Purba, the widow of the youngest son Somnath is not much better than the starving, violent common masses that the Ghoshes remain safely cocooned away from. She occupies the lowest rung of the family hierarchy, and she and her two children must reside in the basement eating only dal and rice, and the occasional scraps from the upper floors. Since her husband Somnath's death, Purba is little more than an overworked servant, who receives no wages, and her children are not granted the same privileges as their other cousins.
In between the well written domestic scenes, one gets the story of Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family. Supratik runs away from home at the age of twenty one to join the Maoist Naxalite guerrillas. He is a classic example of a young bourgeois intellectual, who has been stirred to revolution. He remains well aware that his reasons for activism (which comes from books and conversations), is different from the ones who have lived through the pain and deprivation that life has thrown against them, but is a firm believer anyway. He travels often to rural areas to organise peasants and impoverished sharecroppers for armed struggle, and Mukherjee uses him to analyse and observe the myriad ways in which the British empire has left ugly remnants in India, perhaps forever.
The novel is a beautiful political commentary, (the politics, like real politics, visible only at the fringes but slowly seeping into daily life anyway). It is a thoughtfully real description of daily life and human nature, and the social structure of families. But most importantly, it is a story of people, of their hopes, dreams, and struggles to fit themselves and their dreams into a society, that doesn't even seem to know what it wants anymore.