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In Shades of Grey

Madhumita Chakraborty

By Neel Mukherjee
Random House, Delhi, India, 2014, pp. 526, Rs. 599.00


In The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, we are transported back to the Calcutta (Kolkata) of the 1960s—a world where the personal and the political combined together, a world that is still clinging on to the dregs of colonialism on the one hand, while on the other, capitalism is rearing its head, and the Naxal movement is beginning to take off the ground. While Mukherjee’s first novel was set in Kolkata, Oxford and London, in The Lives of Others¸ Mukherjee concentrates solely on the Kolkata landscape, and the landscape of West Bengal. It paints a broad canvas of Calcutta of the 1960s and 1970s—a world of idealism, Naxal history, juxtaposed with the everyday life of the middle class Ghosh family, with its own complexities and secrets.  At one level, the story is about the trials and tribulations, joys and jealousies of the Ghosh family of Bhowanipur. At another level, this family is a microcosm of the caste, hierarchical and other societal divisions that plague Indian society even today. Four generations of the family live under the same roof, something that is increasingly rare in a twenty-first century globalized society, where nuclear families are the norm. Not surprisingly perhaps, the top floor is reserved for the patriarch Prafullanath, who owns a paper mill, fast declining. His wife Charubala is a housewife, looking after the family, and Prafulla’s pillar of support through thick and thin. They have four children—each of whom, along with their respective spouses have their own individual struggles and desires—material, sexual (including a graphic description of one son’s sexual arousal through coprophilia, stemming from the time when he sees his sister indulge in the same), and personal. I must admit that the family map of the Ghosh family reminds me much of my own family—even my grandmother was called Charubala! Mukherjee delves into the minds of each of his characters and provides a microcosmic picture of the petty jealousies that are almost an integral part of every household—from petty things like pencil boxes and cosmetics, to boys and even jewellery and inheritance.  Each character living in the Bhowanipur house has his/her own story to tell, many of which are simply hinted at. It is also a family with clear caste divides—therefore, Madan, the old family retainer is one ...

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