The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

“Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?”

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others begins with a brutal act. In the 1960s, a poor and starving Bengali peasant, unable to feed his wife and children, hacks them to death before drinking insecticide. Then the book shifts, and we meet the well-off, self-absorbed Ghosh family. Three generations live in the same house. Tensions simmer as family members vie for their own interests and torment each other. Much like the society it represents, the Ghosh household is strictly hierarchical, with the eldest daughter-in-law running the house, and the widowed daughter-in-law living in the basement with her children.  The house is weak thanks to the family’s crippling insecurities and shallow alliances. Petty squabbles permeate most of their days, until one of their sons run away. Sickened by the vast inequality he sees across India, Supratik leaves to become an activist and guerrilla/terrorist fighter for the outlaw communist group, the Naxalites.

The story switches back and forth from the Ghosh family’s every day struggles to Supratik’s. The Ghosh family made their fortune in paper production-now they’re steadily losing it thanks to India’s partition with Pakistan, union strikes and general mismanagement. The father blames his modernizing sons. The sons blame the father’s lack of foresight. One daughter-deemed unmarriageable thanks to her dark skin, lazy eye and over education, delights in causing everyone pain, while her mother looks on, unable to stop it. This is a family and an economy unable to deal with modernization.

I know that all I did was just rehash the plot. But I still don’t really know how I felt about this book. I appreciated it for sure, but I didn’t enjoy it. First of all, about 100 pages of the book felt redundant. Yeah the factory is in trouble, yeah Supratik is learning how to farm, what’s next.  My other big issue with the book is mostly my fault-there were just too many characters to keep straight. At a certain point, I started to make a chart, which I abandoned when I realized the book didn’t strictly go in chronological order(labeling someone as the heroin addict isn’t super helpful when we keep flashing back to when he’s 4). Having to constantly put down the book to remember which character was which took me out of the story. Not knowing a tremendous amount about India in the 60s, I think there were a lot of nuances I missed. I feel like I enjoyed the first 50 pages, and tolerated the next 350 pages. If I were the type of person who could stop reading a book before it’s over, I probably would have dropped this book. Having said that, I read the final hundred pages in one sitting, transfixed. Some characters had happy endings, others horrific ones. I felt like the writing flew off of the page in the end. I don’t know if that’s enough to recommend the book, but it made reading the book worthwhile to me.

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