The Lives of Others


The aging patriarch and matriarch of the Ghosh family preside over their large household, made up of their five adult children and their respective children, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting.

Each set of family members occupies a floor of the home, in accordance to their standing within the family.

Poisonous rivalries between sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business threaten to unravel bonds of kinship as social unrest brews in 1960s West Bengali society.

This is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider.

The eldest grandchild, Supratik, compelled by his idealism, becomes dangerously involved in extremist political activismβ€”an action that further catalyzes the decay of the Ghosh home.

~ Synopsis from goodreads

When I reviewed The Lowland, I received some responses (one from Booker Talk) saying that The Lives of Others, which also deals with some of the same subjects as The Lowland is the better book of the two.

So, of course I straight away added it to my TBR list where it sat for about a year till I got to it now.

Unfortunately, I found myself disagreeing with Booker Talk‘s opinion. I liked both books, but on the whole, I preferred The Lowland‘s strong focus on a small number of people than Mukherjee’s scattered family saga where there were a number of characters to keep track of, and not enough attention devoted to most of them.

My Thoughts

I started off this book on a very positive note when I saw a huge family tree on the first page, very much in the style of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I was expecting a dynasty-type joint family saga.

And it is, in a way. But I was a bit disappointed by the way various people’s character and story arcs were built and then just left hanging in the end. There were a lot of supporting characters just as interesting as the main ones, and I did want some resolution to their lives, or at least their reactions, or some information about how they evolve and grow and react to the events at the end of the book. That didn’t happen fully enough to my satisfaction.

I was also a tad disappointed with how the main character Supratik who breaks away from his family to become a violent Naxalite rebel was written. He’s not glamorized in any way, for which I am thankful, but he leaves so much violence and destruction and doom in his wake, it was just so difficult to read.

In my heart, I’ve always been sympathetic to the Naxalite cause; the various governing bodies in India have not been kind to the rural poor, but the violent means that Supratik and his comrades resort to leave a very bad aftertaste, especially because Supratik goes blundering in, spouting Mao, causing damage to the very people that he is supposed to be helping.

The character of the destructive Supratik is juxtaposed against his much-younger cousin Sona – the mathematical genius who also breaks away from the household but in a much more traditional way – going to Stanford, becoming a professor, winning medals, and brings his mother to stay with him. He is the ideal son that every Indian mom hopes and prays for.

He and Supratik come from the same household, yet their legacies were so very different. Supratik is remembered for developing a technique to derail trains:

Someone had come from Chhatitisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. Or was it West Bengal and Orissa?

While Sona is known for his contributions to prime numbers. It’s interesting that two children from the same household take such drastically different routes in their lives.

The real strengths of the novel are how it captures India (or more accurately West Bengal) from the early 20th century to the 1970s. Mukherjee chronicles West Bengal’s ups and downs beautifully. The prose was so visual and descriptive, I could just see the pictures of everything he was describing vividly in my mind. Another strength is how he captures the setting of the joint family, and all the family politics within.

At times though, it felt he got a bit carried away describing people’s quirks – one man’s sexual perversion is described in excruciating detail, as is another’s sadism. Considering that neither story line added much to the overall book, I felt one or both could have been easily skipped.

Overall, I felt this book could have done with some heavier editing for a stronger punch. There were tedious or irrelevant portions in between, which unnecessarily stretched the novel and brought down the intensity.

Still a good book that I am glad I read, and I highly recommend it if you are interested in novels that deal with tumultuous times in pre and post-independence India.

You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon.

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  • Whenever I read about books like these, I think of Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahi Thi. Yeah, the only similarity between them is probably that both are some kind of family sagas. This sounds like it talks about a lot of things and is probably ambitious. I bought this one two months back and would some day like to read it. Maybe not right away.

    • Nishita

      @athirac:disqus there is a good bit of saas bahu politics in this one too πŸ™‚ the thing is, the book talks a lot about sundry stuff to make up atmosphere or whatever, but a lot of it is really irrelevant (like for example, the saas bahu issues). I felt it was far too bloated with stuff.

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  • So torn! I am really interested in that period of Indian history, but I also have a lot of problems with multigenerational family sagas. I just tend to get bored and resentful of them, I’m afraid!

    • Nishita

      @readingtheend:disqus you should skip this one then. Three generations of family history to wade through πŸ™‚ .

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