I picked up Neel Mukherjee’s novel with much anticipation…well, perhaps it is wrong to use the term “picked up” because it was the first book I had downloaded on my Kindle Paperwhite and it may be more correct to say, “I swiped on to page one of…”.
In any case, I was looking forward to reading it for a couple of reasons. One, I tend to learn about history and society through the novel, and I knew next to nothing about the aftermath of the great Bengal famine. Two, Mukherjee’s book too had been in the Man Booker short list–not that this always leads to rewarding reading, but the odds do tend to be better.
The period in India’s history that the novel foregrounds encompasses the years soon after independence, just following the infamous Naxalbari episode involving a vicious crackdown on Maoist militants in rural West Bengal. The story is set (no prizes for guessing this) in a middle-class Bengali household, driven as much by a sense of internal politics as the larger social and political milieu of the times. The Ghoshes are a family of four sons and a daughter, all living in a multi-tiered home on Basanta Bose Road in Kolkata, each caught up in a complex web of ambition, desire, resentment, shame and all the other emotions that spice familial relationships. The receding fortunes of the once-prosperous paper manufacturers are mirrored in the gradual fragmentation of the domestic structure, what was held together by the joint commitment of the matriarch, Charubala and the faithful cook, Madan, comes slowly undone as the sons, one dead and three pulling in different directions, lose themselves in various ways.
The other strand in the book is narrated by the oldest grandson of the family, Supratik, a caricature of middle-class guilt put to the use of the fledgling left movement in Bengal. Supratik’s journey through campus politics and his radicalisation paints a familiar trope, echoed as it is in Maoist inspired student politics on campuses even today.
Between the two grand narratives are hidden smaller stories, which in some ways, offer the more poignant vignettes of life on Basanta Bose Road. There is the young widow and her son, a mathematical genius waiting to be discovered by western academia. The vitriolic spinster sister who poisons every relationship under that shaky roof. The middle son who, in attempting to escape both family and work, finds himself in darker and darker mazes where he loses both sense and sensibility.
Some of the story gets lost in the telling–a surfeit of detail that works well in an ethnographic account of the Naxal movement in West Bengal tends to slow down the narrative. A number of loose ends leave one just a bit dissatisfied in the end, while others get tied up much too easily, even if not neatly.
But I must say both my motivations in reading the book were fulfilled. I do have a picture of post-independence Bengal that goes beyond partition stories. And I understand why the novel was passed over by the judges in the race to the final.