Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘The Lives of Others’ by Neel Mukherjee tells the story of twenty-one year old Supratik Ghosh who has left his comfortable family home in Calcutta/Kolkata to join the Communist Party of India. Set primarily in 1967, the story alternates between Supratik’s new life as a Naxalite activist and guerilla fighter working in the rice fields of West Bengal and the everyday lives of the relatives he has left behind.
Mukherjee introduces the reader to a large cast of main characters where three generations of the Ghosh family occupy a four storey house in south Calcutta. Now in their sixties, Supratik’s grandparents, Prafullanath and Charubala, live with their sons, spinster daughter, daughters-in law and grandchildren. As well as the consequences of Supratik’s absence, the main backdrop of the story is the steady decline of Prafullanath’s once successful paper manufacturing business.
The setting, politics and themes of ‘The Lives of Others’ will inevitably draw comparisons with ‘The Lowland‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. However, whereas Lahiri’s prose is mostly quite spare, Mukherjee’s prose is very detailed and densely written. His portrayal of the rivalries between Supratik’s siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews and their interactions with each other is highly complex and nuanced. Overall, I thought the narrative which followed the Ghosh household was more compelling than Supratik’s story but the two strands complement each other well. The story is very well balanced between the more trivial aspects of domestic life and the heavier themes posing questions about poverty, the caste system, politics and how Indian society has changed over time although I think Mukherjee’s real strength lies in describing the former rather than the latter.
‘The Lives of Others’ is an ambitious and richly detailed family saga which thoroughly deserves its place on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist and, in my view, should be a strong contender for the overall prize. I have yet to be persuaded or inspired to read the other five novels although I plan to read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls, which reached the longlist but didn’t make the final cut.