The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99, 528 pages
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee’s second novel – is a portrait of 1960s Bengali society at war with itself.
On one side are the “haves”, represented by the Ghosh family – paper manufacturers facing ruin. On the other are the “have-nots”, peasants, ruined already. Yet ruin is relative: for the Ghoshes it means pawning the family jewels; for skeletal peasants it means death by starvation. The novel follows Supratik Ghosh, a young man who rejects his bourgeois family to become a militant revolutionary.
Mukherjee has written a long, complex novel about how cruel people are. It is a brilliant tirade: bilious aunts plotting for 500 pages; an uncle with a very dirty fetish; 10 pages of graphic torture. His sympathy lies firmly with the “have-nots”. My concern is one of balance: are the “haves” just too awful? In Mukherjee’s mind, most are so depraved they would make militant revolutionaries of us all.