Short List Booker Prize 2014
It takes stamina to read and finish The Lives of Others. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted amongst us. In 550 pages Mukherjee confronts us with a world in which tradition and development clash. He takes us along in the intricate Grosh family and relates their world to that of India and a militant communistic party. He makes us see that a wealthy and supposedly important family that adheres to the strict rule of caste creates its own downfall by taking wrong decisions and clinging to the past. Their family business is destined to go bankrupt, because the patriarch has had eyes for growth only; the only daughter literally goes sour because she is rejected time and time again because of her brains and her looks (cross-eyed and dark-skinned); the youngest spoilt son was a rapist whose widow is – as tradition tells hem – moved to the smallest and worst room in the house, her brilliant son who is a born mathematician has to do with a state school providing hardly any education. He is saved from his destiny by one of his cousins, Supratik. This cousin has decided to take matters into his own hands. He arranges for his cousin to give remedial teaching in mathematics in return for English classes (which will eventually lead to him being discovered as a brilliant mathematician who is invited to a prestigious American university at the age of 15, and naturally takes his mother with him). Supratik also changes his own life: he leaves the family and joins the communist party. He is to live with poor workers and helps them work the land. While living there he gradually becomes more and more radical. Helping the poor becomes killing their oppressors.
Mukherjee describes the lives of the head of the family, their children and grandchildren. He does not restrict himself to chronology or a strict order, occasions seemingly lead to descriptions of someone’s life. This adds to the intricateness of family and society that I suppose Mukherjee sets out to describe. It also means that as a reader you are continually made to wonder whose story you are reading about. This is made even more explicit by having Supratik write letters to someone in the family in which he describes what he is doing. Only towards the end does the reader find out who the letters are meant for. Family and nation are linked by the letters. They are also the prelude to Mukherjee exposing Supratik’s weakness. In the end he is shown to sacrifice the family cook for the cause. He justifies this rationally. When he himself is caught and tortured he finds himself thinking ‘my important family will save me, won’t they? They cannot kill somebody for my caste, can they?’. Not realizing that times have indeed changed, though maybe not for the better.
Mukherjee concludes his novel by taking a jump to 2012 and a terrorist attacked planned. I can see why he added this chapter, I found it superfluous however and slightly jarring. Whilst reading the novel all I could think was: things have not changed that much in India. Mukherjee sends that message loud and clear. I feel that the chapter in which the cook takes his leave, which is written beautifully, would have made a perfect ending to the novel. It summons the essence of the novel perfectly. The Lives of Others is a beautiful novel, which requires some perseverance from its readers. They are rewarded for their stamina with a beautiful tale about a family, a nation and failing tradition. I can see why Mukherjee has made it to the short list.