Neel Mukherjee novels have been few and far between and it is only when you read them that you realize how being prolific can be such a tiresome quality for a writer. Imbuing into his writing wit, personality, knowledge, years of immersive research, and that drive to change the world that’s been missing in literature recently, Mukherjee works with daunting control over his subject.
In his new book, which has recently found a place on the Booker long-list, The Lives of Others, Mukherjee battles with questions of progress and the collateral damage in its wake—an issue only too familiar across the globe, but one that’s particularly heightened in a new India of the 21st-century that struggles to face the myriad challenges of rising up the international ladder. The Lives of Others is primarily set in Bengal of the 60s and early 70s, chronicling several historic moments such as the Naxalite movement, Partition, and the rise of the Left, but it is to Neel’s immense credit as a writer that it always feels immediate, urgent.
Interviewer: While mothers & sons and their relationship comprised the core of your previous book (A Life Apart), The Lives of Others seems to have at its heart the big question of “development” and “movement” in a country that’s been grappling with them intensely (that has now, in a way, become even more amplified with the recent electoral mandate). Would you agree?
Mukherjee: Yes, absolutely. At the heart of what you call “development” or “movement” lies change, or the wish for it. But what happens when the fundamental human wish to change one’s life for a better one is denied, or cannot be effected? Think of the Langston Hughes poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I wanted to look at all those states, including the explosion at the end, through the lens of a particular historical moment when a kind of change (or movement, if you will) was set in motion.
Interviewer: Could you share with us the beginnings of The Lives of Others—when you knew the stories in it would take the form of the novel?
Mukherjee: I began not at the beginning as it stands now, which is the prologue, but with the first chapter, in which most of the Ghosh family is introduced over the course of one day. Once I had those characters, I knew I could push on with their individual stories and I would have the skeleton of the novel; as you note below, ‘character is plot’ …
Interviewer: Did the impetus for the book stem from a certain character or characters you had in mind? Perhaps a historical personage you came across in your research?
Mukherjee: I think that the impetus came more from ideas rather than from characters. I was trying to think hard about the bourgeois realist novel and Mann’s Buddenbrooks (of which my book, to compare the very great with the very small, is a kind of rewriting; or a conversation with the German novel, if you will) and of Lukács’s Marxist essays on Mann’s work and thinking if I could attempt to bring all these to bear on form, and in a way which would be inseparable from the story it tells. This, of course, is informed by Hayden White’s theory of the inseparability of form and content. Which is why I’m a bit dismayed by how people keep talking about it as an “epic family saga.” It’s like mistaking the candy-wrapper for the candy itself. You won’t catch anyone calling Buddenbrooks a ‘family saga’ (it is); that term is reserved for books from the Subcontinent.
Interviewer: Would you say that a basic initiation into the Bengali cultural landscape and way of life would be akin to an added bonus for the reader?
Mukherjee: Well, I try to do that in the book—to immerse readers in the Bengali ways of life. Bengalis, a people who like to think that the world revolves around them, that their cultural and social landscapes are (or should be) instantly navigable to others, do not like this one bit. But they wouldn’t like it one bit if I didn’t do that either.
Interviewer: The truism ‘Character is plot’ is particularly relevant for this book – Who was the most difficult to form? Who would you want to spend more time with, now that (I assume) you’re not living with them every day?
Mukherjee: Do you know, I can’t actually remember who was most difficult to form. Maybe Adinath? Or bits of Charubala, his mother? As for who I want to spend more time with—Sona, of course.
Interviewer: Sona is, arguably, the only unblemished character in the book in that he finds his escape and purpose constructively so to speak—in Math. Could you tell us about how he came into being?
Mukherjee: I’ve always been drawn to this idea/image/figure of a character escaping a kind of hell through a combination of talent and good luck and the silent help of a few people around him/her. I find it affecting and it is a crucial piece of the soul of my first novel, A Life Apart. Maybe I was rewriting Ritwik, one of the protagonists of A Life Apart, in Sona? I don’t know.
Interviewer: You’ve spoken about your fascination with elderly people in the context of A Life Apart; The Lives of Others seems to be more fascinated with children and childhood as a state of mind or means of experiencing the world. You’ve portrayed its myriad aspects, also the cruelty inherent in it—not something one comes across too often. Could you please elaborate?
Mukherjee: Yes, you’re right, I did consciously want to write about children and childhood in The Lives of Others. In a book that is, on one level, a family saga, the presence of children is inevitable. In the novels of, say, Penelope Fitzgerald or Elizabeth Taylor, one is immediately struck by the wonderfully intelligent and perspicacious ways children are written about. I thought I should try and teach myself a thing or two from their books. On the issue of cruelty: children are entirely cruel, don’t you think? The civilising process acting upon them is still incomplete, so they display human nature in a purer, more instinctive form.
Interviewer: How do you keep the writer & reviewer in you, separate? Doesn’t the reviewer in you admonish you for something you might have critiqued in a review, while writing, or during draft revisions?
Mukherjee: Do you know, I have no idea how I do it; I only know that I do. This is not an unwillingness or refusal to answer your question, but an inability, instead… They are two different people, the novelist and the reviewer, and they don’t talk to each other. Who knows, on a level of the mind that I’m not conscious of, perhaps they are one, but it’s useful to separate the two practices.
Interviewer: Was there something you deliberately set out to achieve with this novel?
Mukherjee: Well, this question could keep us here forever … I’m going to answer this as briefly as I can. I wanted to look at the moral foundations of fiction—of the novel, in particular—and attempt to infold it as a metaphorical foundation and as a theme in my book. The ability to think about and imagine other people’s lives and minds, to enter into their heads, is the beginning of empathy, of the moral imagination and sense. That is exactly what fiction does, too. I wanted to have that not only as the invisible and silent dynamo powering my book, but also to make The Lives of Others wear the morality of the novel form on its sleeve. The other thing I attempted was to shine a light on the political foundations of the realist novel. The rise of mercantile capitalism and the bourgeoisie is inextricable from the rise of the novel. The question I asked myself was: could the form be used to meditate on its relations with its originary politics?
Interviewer: What would you say to the suggestion that a novel like The Lives of Others should be one of the tools used by teachers in classrooms to teach their students the history of a state, or a nation?
Mukherjee: That’s going to be one hell of a tough sell, don’t you think? How will the Books Police ever get past all that sex?
Interviewer: Could you tell us about the research undertaken for this novel, the study of Math, in particular?
Mukherjee: A lot of it involved reading and, in some cases, rereading Bengali novels and memoirs. That is an inexhaustible resource. For the Supratik section, I spoke to and interviewed a lot of people, some of whom were involved in the Naxal movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. I read journals and private letters and Party—CPI(M-L)—magazines, such as Deshabrati and Liberation, from the period, and very useful later compilations, such as Jalarka and Ebong Jalarka. As for the mathematics, I started a Pure Mathematics degree in 2010—I’m still working my way through it; only two more years to go—because I wanted to do Sona’s proofs myself. I did all the number theory papers in the first year so that I could write the novel. I finished the book, then returned to the coursework for the degree, which I’m doing part-time, of course.
Interviewer: How long did it take you to write The Lives of Others? Were there other working titles? Did you have the 2006 German movie in mind at all?
Mukherjee: Not very long at all by my standards—slightly under three years, I think. No, there were no other working titles. It was The Lives of Others from the beginning. In the very early stages of thinking about my book, I was rereading James Salter’s extraordinary novel, Light Years, to teach a class, and the sentence, ‘How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?’ simply leaped out, giving me the ruling metaphor for my novel and its title. Then, of course, I had to go about explaining to everyone who asked me what my book was called that it was not about the Stasi … It was inevitable that people would be reminded of the German film (which is absolutely brilliant, by the way).
Interviewer: What are you currently working on? And what are you reading these days?
Mukherjee: I’m writing my next novel but I don’t like to talk about work-in-progress, so please forgive me. Reading: I’m reading Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat for the first time and rereading Patrick Flanery’s superb first novel, Absolution. I’m about to reread three terrific books by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavić—Portrait with Keys, The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative—because I’m chairing an event with him and Patrick Flanery towards the end of this month. I’ve never read George Eliot’s historical novel, Romola, set, amazingly, in fifteenth-century Italy, so that’s next, alongside a Bengali book, Bishad Briksha (The Tree of Sadness) by Mihir Sengupta.