Such is the power of the image of Mahatma Gandhi as a saint of iconolatry, emaciated, half-naked, bent over a walking stick as he leads India’s masses to freedom from imperial power without ever raising a gun or a hand or even his voice, that the impression of India’s freedom movement having been a pacifist, nonviolent one is almost ineradicable. It is of course far from the truth. There was always a violent strain in that history as well, less unified, more contested.
Exactly a century ago Rabindranath Tagore wrote of the struggle between the two forms of revolution. In his 1915 novel The Home and the World, he has the noble and altruistic aristocrat Nikhil represent one camp (clearly the one he himself felt the most acceptable), and Sandip, the villainous revolutionary who stops at nothing, the other. Torn between the two is Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, who is portrayed as if she was Mother India herself, or the goddess Durga, beloved of Bengal (and of course Durga has a ferocious, blood-thirsty aspect as well, that of Kali).
Now a hundred years later, another Bengali writer, Neel Mukherjee, has addressed the same conflict in his novel The Lives of Others. Unlike Tagore’s novel, it is written in English, not Bengali, but an English not filtered through an English perspective or English sensibility and as profoundly indigenous in its tone, environment, characters, speech, and actions as is Tagore’s novel. Mukherjee makes few concessions to the foreign reader other than providing a map, a family tree, a note on names and relations (which are at least as complex as those in Russian literature), and a wonderfully informative and witty glossary that one can peruse with pleasure. One has the sense, in reading the book, of being in the presence of the real thing. In fact, the reader could be daunted by so much reality.
In the prologue, we see a peasant starving to death; his family has not eaten for days. When he goes to the landlord to beg for a cup of rice, he is ejected by guards who joke, “Where are you going to hit this dog? He is nothing but bones, we don’t even have to hit him. Blow on him and he’ll fall back.” Somehow Nitai Das gathers the strength to return home where he picks up his sickle and “with his practised farmer’s hand” beheads first his wife, then his children, and finally drinks from a jerrycan of pesticide and is “returned from the nothing in his life to nothing.” So, in the first three pages, Mukherjee establishes himself as a writer who will spare the reader nothing. Why should he? he seems to ask, this is how things are. Look.
He then opens up the scene to portray three generations of the well-fed, well-to-do Ghosh family of Calcutta by peeling aside the façade of their substantial house on Basanta Bose Road so we may observe them as if they were bees in a hive, ants in a hill. The technique may seem Victorian and, as in a Victorian novel, the accumulation of detail provides a texture that is dense and richly satisfying.
Like a pair of deities, the patriarch Prafullanath and his consort Charubala occupy the top floor. It is he who has lifted himself and his family to such heights by clever, if unscrupulous, deals in property and by acquiring and running, ruthlessly, a string of paper mills, Charu Paper & Sons (Pvt. Ltd), across Bengal.
The eldest son, Adinath, lives on the floor below with his pious wife Sandhya and is expected to carry on the family business—although as a young man he had yearned to be an engineer—and it is clear he will inherit the greater share of the family wealth. Priyonath, the second son, works harder and earns less—or so his congenitally jealous wife Purnima is convinced.
The third son, Bholanath, not considered fit for business, supposedly runs a publishing division called Charu Books, but he spends his time among a coterie of aspiring writers like himself. The youngest son, Somnath, a wastrel and a debauchee, becomes the neighborhood scandal. There is also a daughter, Chhaya, who failed to marry on account of her dark complexion and the squint in her eye: “her very name, which meant ‘shadow,’ was a backhanded acknowledgment by her parents of the undeniable.”
Then there is an assortment of grandchildren: Adinath’s two sons, Priyonath’s spoiled daughter, who is sent to an “English school” at great expense, Bholanath’s less indulged daughter Arunima, and Somnath’s two, the most unfortunate and ill-treated ones—all sharply aware of their place in the family hierarchy and never allowed to forget it. And of course the full contingent of servants without whom such a household could not be run. This lava bed of rivalries and jealousies seethes and simmers under the solid rock of what is known, in legal terms, as the “Hindu joint family.”
The scene could be claustrophobic but it is not because, although set chiefly in the 1960s and 1970s, there are chapters going back to World War II, the Japanese air raids on Calcutta, the great famine of 1942 and 1943, and the partition of India after Independence in 1947. The history of the Ghosh family is woven through these events. Mukherjee, one sees, is a writer of huge ambition who possesses the authority to handle that history.
He also has the miniaturist’s eye for detail; he overlooks nothing, not “a tired cushion” or a glass-fronted book cupboard that houses the collected works of Tagore in “a uniform brown-spined army” that conceals a bottle of Johnnie Walker, or “the fawn-coloured lizard edging closer and closer, with utmost furtiveness, towards the cockroach perched under the tube-light on the wall.” He picks up every sound in the house, hears “the sparrows send up a chinkless wall of manic cheeping. The doleful remonstrations of the pigeons, shuffling about on windowsills,” and “the sound of water loops like a liquid thread through the other sounds.”
“We’ve all lived together happily in this home, sharing everything,” Priyonath says, trying to placate his restless and vengeful wife, “the question of dividing it into units for the use of one and not another does not arise. We’ll continue to live like this. Everything belongs to every one of us.” More hollow words were never spoken.
It is the 1960s. The Congress Party that has been in power for so long is attenuating and the CPI(M)—the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—is gaining in strength. Labor unrest and unionism are threatening industry. Charu Paper & Sons is no longer doing well and panic is circulating through the Ghosh house, raising its temperature to hysteria.
It is not that Calcutta, and the family, have not known bad times before, but they had managed to retain their comfort and security nonetheless. In fact Prafullanath has benefited from economic crisis, buying property and acquiring businesses abandoned or lost in areas emptied by the migration of the Muslim population. His reaction to Partition had been, “Well, we’ll be shot of the bloody Muslims for ever. Good riddance I say. They can leave for wherever they want, as long as they leave us Calcutta.” During the great famine when starving peasants flood into the city and are seen dying in the streets outside their door, he asserts:
“People like us don’t die of starvation.” …Really, death from hunger was such a remote possibility in their lives—no, impossible. It was not their situation, never would be; they were not in any danger; it was only a changeable backdrop to the drama of their lives.
When Independence is declared in 1947, the family stays up to listen to Nehru’s speech on the radio: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake…” Charubala growls, “Ufff, why they decide to do all this so late at night, don’t these people need to sleep?”
But now the insulated world of the family is showing its cracks; the volcano will not be silent for much longer. The business is so deeply in debt to the banks that Charubala is compelled to perform the symbolic act of giving up a part of her treasure chest—the gold jewelry that personifies the honor of a Bengali family. This is the ultimate shame and her sons’ “burning faces felt too heavy to lift up to look at their mother, or at each other.”
There are private acts of shame that cannot even be acknowledged. Priyonath furtively visits a brothel where he pays a prostitute to perform an act even the madam will not tolerate: “We’re seeing all this gentull-man stuff on the outside-outside and low dog on the inside-inside,” she screams, and has the bouncer beat him up so badly he fears having to explain his state to his family. Chhaya performs petty acts of vengeance, pouring nail polish over a sister-in-law’s splendid new silk saris, and tattling on a niece’s affair with a neighbor’s son. Somnath—who, as an evil child, found his pleasure in torturing insects, thrashing cats, and, during the famine when beggars came to the door for food, snatching bowls of gruel out of their hands and spilling them on the ground to watch them lick it—has been raping housemaids in the neighborhood, something the family deals with by arranging for him to marry a country girl from a poor family whom they can bully and intimidate and who will not complain—first as the wife of a brute and then as a traditional Hindu widow.
Through it all, Madan, the loyal manservant who came to work for the family when he was about ten years old—no one is quite sure of his age—is still with them thirty years later. He has practically raised the children of the family, carrying them about when he was scarcely bigger than they were, singing to them, and nursing them when they were sick. Charubala has appreciated his services, including his excellent cooking and his overseeing the work of the other servants, and has even given him a few lessons in Bengali and arithmetic although never the time in which to study. “I hear so many stories of people educating their servants and then the upstarts leave their homes and go and get a better job elsewhere.”
Mukherjee tells us in a rare authorial comment that there is “nothing new or unusual in all this; it runs along the well-ploughed furrows of middle-class Bengali life.” He appears to have taken an enormous risk of forfeiting the sympathy of his readers by creating a cast of characters almost uniformly odious, reprehensible, and amoral, but he has a reason and it is a good one: it creates a backdrop for the few characters who do not conform to this ugly pattern.
One is the youngest grandson, Sona, born an intuitive mathematician of genius, unrecognized by his family or his teachers so that he
becomes two persons, an outer one that goes through the motions required of him, and an inner one that is the true, pure he. The shell does the rote-learning, the core attends to his current obsession with even perfect numbers and how, and if, they relate to the universal set of his greater obsession: primes.
Only the eldest grandson, Supratik, recognizes his quality:
How detached he is from everything!… That resilience to the outside world, that capacity of not being damaged, even lightly scratched, by it—what wouldn’t I give to be blessed with that?
But he is not, and it is Supratik’s revolt against the world that he alone sees stripped of all its illusions that forms the core of Mukherjee’s book, conveyed chiefly in letters that he writes but never sends and that intersperse the chapters. It is he who will take us out of the suffocating Ghosh household and into the world outside.
The first non-Congress government in Bengal, dominated by the pro-Moscow CPI and CPI(M), has come to power. Presidency College, where Supratik is a student, has voted in the first Communist students’ union. Calcutta University has closed down for the first time in its history. There are food riots all over the state. Supratik has become a student activist, organizing class boycotts, going on marches, chanting “Your name, my name/Viet-nam, Viet-nam” and “Blood-bright Vietnam is Bengal’s other name.” (Aficionados of Satyajit Ray’s films may remember the scene in The Adversary where a young man in search of a job goes for an interview, is asked what he thinks is the most significant event of the decade, and replies, “Vietnam.” “What, not man’s walk on the moon?” “No,” he insists, “Vietnam.” He will not get the job.)
But Supratik has come to think of all such student activities as a sideshow, a diversion, that the strikes—student strike, bus strike, tram strike—changed nothing, “the condition of the people remained unchanged. Life carried on as before.” He now thinks of
all this ferment as boring and inconsequential compared with what I really had in mind—armed peasant rebellion, an entire and comprehensive rehauling of everything…. Placed beside this aim, all this student unrest was like flies buzzing around a horse…. It became clear to me that the last thing the CPI(M) was interested in was radical change…. All they wanted was power.
He finds it intolerable to stay in this situation when “something else was taking shape, something that was going to explode like a thousand suns in an unsuspecting sky—Naxalbari.” That word refers to the remote district in the north of Bengal, not far from the border with China, where the first clash between armed peasants and the police took place, giving its name to the revolution: Naxalite. Its leader was Charu Mazumdar, whose “electric” writings in Liberation had formed Supratik’s politics. He observes, “Being a Bengali, one is surprised when all the endless spume and froth of talk suddenly reveals itself to be the front of a gigantic wave of action.”
His mother watches him change—he has grown thin, cadaverous, bearded “like a starving mystic, a Naga sanyasi on the banks of the Ganga.” He hardly speaks to anyone but “there is an incandescence about him: the large, blazing black eyes are devouring in their intensity.” While she plies him with food, he protests:
“You give me so much…. Don’t you agree we eat too much?”
“…We have always been like this, what’s wrong with our way of eating? Everyone eats like this.”
“No, not everyone eats like this, Ma…. The other people who work for us, do they eat like us?”
“Tsk, but they are servants. They eat differently.”
“Can you explain to me why the servants eat differently while they live in the same house?”…
“This is the way it is. It has always been like this.”
But Supratik won’t have it and one day his mother finds a letter he has placed under the statuette of the goddess Lakshmi on their family altar:
Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe anymore. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own.
So he leaves the city “to work with landless peasants, the sharecroppers, wage-labourers and impoverished tenants.” Unsurprisingly, it proves difficult for the city-bred, college-educated idealists who join him to persuade the peasants that they are not party workers come for their votes but are committed to “real and radical land reforms.” One farmer tells them:
Twenty years we’ve been independent of foreign rule but things have remained the same for us. No, they’ve got much worse. At that time we used to be told that the sahebs are sucking our blood dry, the sahebs are taking our land away, our crops away, the sahebs have stolen all our possessions from us, but the sahebs have long gone now, why are things still the same? We’re foolish, illiterate people, we can’t read, we don’t understand much, but we understand at least this: the bloodsuckers are still there, their skin colour has changed. That’s the only change that has happened.
What I hadn’t reckoned with was that decades and decades of this slow-burning flame of resentment and deprivation had burned them, not the perpetrators. The embers of anger we had thought of fanning had burned down into the ashes of despair. They were already dead within their lives…. In other words, we had to kindle a fire with ashes. Have you ever tried doing that?
Try they must and they do: living with the peasants in their huts, learning to use the sickle, working in the fields but aware that this is only a phase as they move toward their true goal: militant action. Waylaying a rich landlord—the one who had caused the death of Nitai Das in the prologue—on his way home from a fair in the dark and stabbing him to death is a beginning, but it is when they succeed in engaging the peasants themselves in robbing a landlord’s house and granary, murdering him, and distributing the grain that Supratik wants “to shout and embrace everyone and tell the whole world that revolting against oppressors was the natural state of man.”
The euphoria does not last. They had not realized that it would not be they but the peasants who would bear the brunt of the police action that followed. Their villages are raided, the men taken away, and the presence of the outsiders is no longer welcome. Admitting that their “ignorance and amateurish planning and laughable resources” had brought about not triumph but failure, they take refuge in the forest. There is no safety to be found there; the police and the military are everywhere; the “notorious Naxalite purges of 1970 and ’71” have begun. The time has come to make a tactical retreat to the city and enter into the next phase of the revolution, which “boils down to a bare economics: if they cannot find enough money to finance their defence, they will be wiped out.”
So Supratik finds himself back at the house on Basanta Bose Road and what is known as “the bosom of the family.” It proves a hard one: no one treats him as a returning hero. His father tells him, “You’ve blackened our face. You’ve brought so much shame upon us that we cannot show our face to the outside world any more.” When he discovers that his brother Suranjan has descended into a life of drug addiction and upbraids him, Suranjan sneers:
Big words about the poisons of our generation don’t suit you. Your terrorism, your poison, is not without its side-effects…. What have you been doing all these years? Playing at revolutionaries, terrorism, killings, bombings…. What you do is revolution, of course, what others do is idleness and wastage…. You are unable to understand anyone unless they fit into the standard-issue mould you have made for them. Chairman Mao! My cock!
Even the forbearing servant Madan tells Supratik, “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.”
The reader might think that all the energy and momentum of Mukherjee’s extraordinary epic has come to an end; it is now deflated, moribund. But the final act of the drama is still to come and it is the more potent for being unforeseen.
A theft takes place: Purnima’s jewelry is stolen. As is usual, the servants are the first suspects. The police are called in to question them, even Madan, who has worked for them since childhood and is considered a part of the family. Purnima’s gold and ruby ring has been found in his room. Everyone is shocked; the chorus of “No, this must be a mistake” is unanimous. Only Supratik’s reaction is different: “If Madan-da has really taken Boro-kaki’s jewellry, all power to him. They are poor people, the stuff is going to be useful to them. Your lot have more than enough already.” It is known that Madan has set up his son with an electric goods shop, motive enough for the police to haul him away. But then, stunningly, they return for Supratik: they are aware of his role in the debacle and it provides the book with its final and most devastating shock—of a terrible betrayal, or is it of a terrible sacrifice? Can they be the same? And does the end ever justify the means? Can it? Rarely has the conundrum been more powerfully presented.
Mukherjee attaches two short epilogues that give the reader some sense—certainly not of “closure” but a conclusion of sorts, perhaps even of justice in a uniformly unjust world.
The first is a newspaper report from 1986 of the award of the Fields Medal, the highest honor given to a mathematician under the age of forty, to the Indian mathematician Professor Swarnendu Ghosh, followed by an account of his brilliant career and his reclusive life with his widowed mother on the campus of Stanford University. The medal bears the inscription in Latin: “To rise above oneself and to master the world.”
The second is a scene set in a Bengal forest in September 2012:
They came out of the forest as if spawned by the night itself; the trees sending out their new kind of children…. They are silent like the scrub that surrounds them, or the red, dry earth out of which they have sprung.
In the darkness they go to work on a railway track running through an area so remote no one would venture there at night for “fear of Maoists,” dislodging the fish plates that hold the track in alignment. It is a technique ascribed to one known to them not as Supratik but as “Pratik-da,” who operated in the area in the 1960s; he was no longer alive but “his gift to his future comrades survived and, for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest.”
When Mukherjee writes that “the night needs watching…the darkness skitters and slides between being a friend and an enemy with alarming unpredictability,” it could be of himself he is writing as he follows the lives of others, immersing himself in their darkness.