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Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

I've tried to get to Neel Mukherjee's books for some time. I never could find them in Colombo and pounced on this one despite it being quite a chunkster.

The year is 1966 and the setting is an upper middle class Bengali extended family - The Ghosh's. It is quite a large family - three sons married with their respective wives and children and one unmarried daughter now reaching the dreaded age of 26 and no partner in sight, There are many similarities to a Sri Lankan system here but we do not get extended families living together - and if they do it is because of economic reasons not because they have to. Arranged marriages are on the decline and certainly young couples have a definite say on what they want or do not want,

I was however very comfortable with this book. It shows up the Marxist philosophies which have always existed in Calcutta and in the state of Bengal throughout and also indicated  how it crept into such an insular, rich family. That one of them was able to act out this philosophy, make a break and adapt to the philosophy was a rare occasion. The upper middle class seemed to live in their own little world and though they were aware of politics and unrest, these were things which happened elsewhere. As one of the mothers said, the family was the most important part of the whole scene and you did everything and anything to protect the family name and reputation, increase their wealth and add to it so there was something left for the next generation.

This era however sees slight splits coming into the family - there are envies and jealousies of the bitterest kind amongst the sisters in law and they do try to influence their husbands as much as they can, petty unkindness shown to the widowed sister in law and her two children, treating them as outcasts, the vicious mother in law is present throughout and the equally nasty and frustrated sister in law who knows that the all important color of her skin has doomed her to all prospects of any decent marriage and she is destined to remain a spinster despite increased dowry and lowered expectations.

Despite the thread of political unrest and simmering tension, the war that will erupt between the haves and the have nots, the story is a picturesque description of life in a household in Bengal at the time. The gradual erosion of power and presence receding from the middle class to the downtrodden masses is felt coming close and despite this this category of family continue, especially the women blissfully unaware of the changes happening in society. They only accept it when it comes slap bang in their faces but even at that time, they only acknowledge it for the moment and then lapse back into a period of time when their comfort and pleasure were the most important things in life. What unhappiness or misery existed in those around them were not for them to worry about.

Absolutely stunning characterization, very descriptive of the day to day workings of a household the book held me enthralled throughout.

My only grumble was the tiny print!

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