First things first: The Lives of Others is a very good book. It is skilfully written, the imagery is vivid and the portrayals are, as far as I can tell from my limited experience with Indian culture, realistic and poignant. It is also, at times, an infuriating and frustrating read. Make no mistake: this is not a story about a quirky but essentially kind-hearted Indian Addams Family. If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, look elsewhere.
The Lives of Others focuses on the large Ghosh family, who all live under one roof in a large villa on Basanta Bose Road in Calcutta. There, the ageing patriarch and matriarch rule over their brood of five – four sons, one daughter – and their various spouses and offspring. They are a reasonably wealthy and upper-caste family; Prafullanath, the pater familias, hails from riches but is a self-made man, owner of a small empire of paper mills throughout the country. The book careens, somewhat unpredictably, through the rise and fall of his business and the family along with it. Then there’s a parallel story of grandson Supratik, a young, well-educated idealist who leaves his family behind to join the armed struggle of the communist Naxalite rebels in the Bengal countryside. Parallels are frequently drawn; one chapter has descriptions of deliriously extravagant family meals, the next about the meagre portions of rice and peppers that the rural poor subsist on.
I struggled for a while to see the main point of the novel, but the clue is in the title, which is highly ironic. The book begins with a description of an impoverished farmer gruesomely killing his starving family, then abruptly moves to the city and the lives of the Ghosh clan, who are, to put it mildly, unpleasant, their lives focused on quibbles and petty jealousies. Prafullanath is obstinate and runs his business into the ground, in bed after a series of heart attacks, unable to grasp that society is changing; his wife, Charubala, terrorises her subdued daughters-in-law and fights with the more animated ones; the eldest son, Adinath, stands by idly, spinelessly following his father’s whims and overlooking his respective sons’ communist and narcotic escapades. There’s sexual deviant Priyo, and his boorish, materialistic wife; vengeful and angry Chhaya, unmarriagable because of a lazy eye and a dark complexion; simplistic idiot Bhola; and spoilt, psychopathic Somnath, who enjoys taunting small animals as a child and, as an adult, is unable to tell the difference between the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. These people, all under one roof, are at best jealous of each other and, at their worst, hell-bent on destroying their relatives’ lives any way they can. Outside, the world roars as India transitions from a colony into an independent state still full of poverty, inequality, and armed struggle. It’s hard to sympathise with the Ghosh clan as they prattle on about who gets the most expensive sari or the most extravagant jewellery while bombs go off and people starve to death on their doorstep. The lives of others are irrelevant to them; when their long-lasting, loyal servant of forty years who practically raised their children is arrested, they worry about what the neighbours will think, and then about who will cook for them. At a certain point in the novel Supratik chastises his mother because of the extravagant meals they eat and asks her if she doesn’t care about the day labourers starving to death. She is confused and answers: “everybody eats like this.” She has no idea, nor does she care to find out.
I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book, at least not for the first two or three hundred pages, but after a while I felt myself drawn in. It’s a big book; depending on the edition, it’s between 500 and 800 pages. Its scope reminded me of The Luminaries, which I read last year, but The Luminaries had a central mystery, something to work towards. There is no objective here; the Ghoshes are who they are and they will always refuse to change the principles that have guided them for generations. The epilogue stipulates, too, that Supratik’s struggle for justice and equality continues, because not much changes there either. It’s unrewarding if that’s what you want in a book. But as a portrait of a dysfunctional family, a metaphor for larger Indian society and everything that is wrong with it, it succeeds beautifully.