Terrifies and delights at once
A Booker Prize winner is gripped by a tale of political and family tensions in West Bengal.
NEEL Mukherjee’s very ambitious and very successful novel is set in Calcutta and the rice fields on the edge of the jungle in the west of West Bengal. It takes place in the second half of the 1960s and centres on the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family, whose head, Prafullanath, owns various paper mills.
The eldest grandson, Supratik, has left home and joined the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist), and is working secretly to mobilise the peasants against the landlords. Letters from him to an unnamed correspondent form one thread of narrative. The other is an intricate account of events and relationships on the various floors of the Ghosh house. There are tragedies and comedies, deaths and births, disasters and feasts.
The cast is huge and the reader spends time, at one point or another, with most of them. It takes a while to get to know all the men, women and children, but the story is always gripping, and there are various time-bombs that suddenly change the way we see the book’s whole world.
One of Mukherjee’s great gifts is precisely his capacity to imagine the lives of others. He can move from inside one head to inside another in a conversation or conflict and take the reader with him. He isn’t really an omniscient narrator, there is no authorial voice – just an imagination that is more than adequate to its task.
There is a scene in which Prafullanath goes in a large car to confront the massed and angry workers at a mill he has closed. Mukherjee sees this dangerous moment from every point of view – the workers who have not been paid for a year, the factory owner whose world has slipped out of his grip, Prafullanath’s anxious sons. One of these, a hopeful writer, nevertheless manages to think up an ornate metaphor of “a fully reared-up snake, hood engorged, waiting to strike” for the workers, and to wonder if he could use it. The reader does not lose sight of the moral rights of the workers, but must imagine so much more.
Supratik is possessed by a single-minded moral horror at the lives of the starving and helpless. Early in the book he attacks his mother about food. “Don’t you agree we eat too much?” She is baffled. “Everyone eats like this.” He attacks again: not the servants. Not the poor. The novel gives us not only Supratik’s revulsion but his mother’s sense of what has always been as it is. His departure will cause her to break down completely. And the novelist inhabits both worlds. Throughout, there are delicious descriptions of lovingly prepared food – as well as descriptions of the stale food eaten by the less favoured family members.
The whole of this world is brought to life with great skill. Flowers and trees, buildings and streets, saris and jewellery – we understand the importance to the women of their collections of formal jewels, which later play a part in the plot. One boy torments insects and later a cat, and all these creatures are vividly present for the reader.
Yet the writer never overdoes it – there are no longueurs, and no lingering on the text’s own cleverness, just extraordinary tact in knowing what we need to see and understand as we read. The heat underfoot on the roof terrace of the house. The weather in the rice fields. There is a wonderful description of the transformation of dry, red earth after the monsoon into a variety of greens. There are harsh and ruthless descriptions of killings and torture. Mukherjee is as good with flesh and blood – sex, sickness, murder – as he is with stems, flowers, rice.
Maybe the most sympathetic character is the head servant, Madan, who is part of the family, loves and cares for them, but remains separate from them. Towards the end of the book he has a significant conversation with Supratik. He tells Supratik how his mother took to her bed when he left, “shrivelling up like leather in the sun”.
“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.”
But communist Supratik feels “a surge of cold fury that he is being given a lesson in political morality by the family’s cook” – seeing Madan from his family’s viewpoint, “their” cook. And he lashes back at Madan, reminding him how Madan himself begged the family to “let loose the police” on Madan’s son, the leader of the striking workers.
British journalist, author and TV personality Will Self recently argued in an article that the novel is finished. I think there is a long way to go – an unimaginable way – before we can do without an art form that combines language and story.
There are other ways of thinking – one strand of this tale is about a mathematical boy who thinks with equations. The Internet is changing the nature of our language and the nature of the stories we tell, but we still tell stories, and we still think with language. The novel is an agnostic form – it can juxtapose incompatible ideas, beliefs and human beings, showing us impossibilities and disorder with the wonderful order of adequate language and vision. Neel Mukherjee terrifies and delights us simultaneously. – Guardian News & Media
Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, more well-known as A.S. Byatt, is an award-winning novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner (in 1990 for Possession: A Romance). In 2008, The Times newspaper in London named her on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.