Calcutta in books The Downfall of an Indian Joint Family

Neel Mukherjee: In anderen Herzen
© Nick Tucker/Literarischer Salon

Calcutta doesn’t have it easy in literature. Many of the most well-known, contemporary Indian writers were born there or were raised there – Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor and Amit Chaudhuri, to name a few. Rabindranath Tagore, who influenced a literary era, Aurobindo Ghose, the spiritual writer and mystic, Satyajit Ray, the film director and author – all of them hail from Calcutta and have found a creative hotbed here. Nevertheless, Calcutta isn’t considered to be a city of poets and thinkers, but more like “pile of God’s shit,” as Günter Grass expressed it contemptuously in his novel, The Flounder.

A book, sarcastically titled, City of Joy, by the Frenchman, Dominique Lapierre, also contributed to giving the former Indian colonial capital a bad name. The easy read made its way around the world and was followed by a Hollywood movie of the same name. The hand-drawn ricksha became an emblem of exploiting the poor, who are treated like cattle. Mother Teresa, who came to Calcutta to help ease suffering, gets some of the blame for the city being considered disreputable, even today. Instead of assisting her order, many local patriots want it banned from the city, because it reminds them and the global public of Calcutta’s poverty.

None of the aforementioned authors, who all have their roots in the city, have managed to write a Calcutta novel that depicts the social fabric of the Bengali people in an epic. Such a novel could perhaps present the metropolis as more complex, and therefore more just and positive, to a global audience. Now this kind of novel has been published by a newcomer to the literature scene. It was written by Neel Mukherjee, a Bengali who grew up in Calcutta and now lives in London. But did he improve the city’s reputation? By no means; he rather delivered the reasons why its reputation is so bad.
 
An industrial family of Calcutta’s middle class is portrayed over six-hundred pages. It’s a hell made up of strife, spying, vicious slander, poisonous fantasies, spite, bodily and psychological exploitation, greed, snobbery, envy, vindictiveness, inner languor – and all of this dressed up in middle-class respectability.
 
Neel Mukherjee is the new star of Indian literature in the English language. His new novel sucks the reader into this labyrinthian, miniature world stage and it doesn’t let them go until the last page. The book only spans the period from 1967 to 1970, a time when Calcutta was seething, both politically and socially. The Marxists were pushing for power, to displace the Indian National Congress party, which they saw as bourgeois. Dissatisfied with both parties, young idealists from the city began provoking a Maoist revolution in West Bengali villages, to disrupt the oppression of landowners, money lenders and the bureaucracy on the countryside with violence. The village of Naxalbari, the first place farmers started fighting for their rights, would lend its name to the guerrillas, who would go down in history as “Naxalites.”
 
The Ghosh family is portrayed in the middle of this political tinderbox. Three generations live together in one house. The story doesn’t unfold steadily; Mukherjee rather captures the reader’s imagination through the meticulous descriptions of the behaviors of a variety of characters. The novel is like a swarming tableaux, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, just as gruesome and bizarre. The slow, barely perceptible downfall of the family only becomes comprehensible through constant flashes into the remembered past. The company founder, Prafullanath Ghosh invested energy and a spirit of innovation into his business. He expanded and consolidated. His son, Adinath, the oldest of five children, reluctantly takes over the business without having a sense for it. Marxist inspired unions close the company down. The family fears they will loose their social status.
 
It’s as if the Ghoshs are imprisoned by their bourgeois customs, their sense of honor, their feudalistic demeanor and the prestige of being middle class. Only Supratik, Adinath’s oldest son, is able to escape, with terrible results. As a Maoist, he wishes to liberate the farmers. He returns only after his comrades perish in a hail of police bullets. But in Calcutta, he’s unmasked as a terrorist. Then he gets captured, tortured and offed.
 
The remaining family members freeze in fear; however, they don’t alter their mentality. Chhaya can’t marry, because her skin is too dark. Purba, a widow, has to atone for her fate with contempt. Priyonath, the second-oldest son, districts himself with sexual adventures. Madan, the long-serving cook, gets cast out after jewelry is discovered in his room. He is then left to the police’s gruesome methods. He’s not important enough for the family to step in. Released from prison, he jumps in front of a train. Another son escapes into the illusory world of drugs.
 
We aren’t spared any of the brutal details. When the Maoist son, Supratik, gets interrogated, his torture is recounted in detail over twenty pages. We experience exactly how to make bombs. The police’s insanity is analyzed down to the esoteric brain folds where evil resides. One police officer’s shrewd laughter is described as follows: “Hearing this laughter gives you the feeling of having a bucket of cold snot poured over your head; you want to scrub yourself for hours afterwards.” The effect of these prose is heightened by the amazing translation into German, done by the seasoned team, Giovanni and Ditte Bandini, whose countless competent translations have made an outstanding contribution to Indian literature in the German-speaking world.
 
There are a few glimmers of hope. Another son, Swarnendu, Sona for short, is discovered to be gifted by his teacher. The teacher says he has “an almost miraculous aptitude for math.” It’s typical, the youngest son is locked in his own mind and hardly realized the family’s poisonous aura. His mind resides in spaces of abstraction. His teacher helps him flee to America when he’s fifteen. There, he ends up becoming a lonely and much esteemed math professor. 
 
Neel Mukherjee’s linguistic precision and his inexhaustible verbosity is seasoned with irony and sarcasm. For example, a French nun at a school of the order pronounces the name “Ghosh” as “Gauche”  – and that’s exactly what the family is. Mukherjee lacks the hymnic momentum and the playfulness with language of someone like Salman Rushdie. However, Rushdie seems more conciliatory, even if he’s just as searing in his social analysis. Mukherjee isn’t about the magic of a sentence and a vision. Yet his descriptions are imbued with an explosive feeling of realness, which no reader can escape.
 
Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others was published in May 2014 by Chatto & Windus, and in the USA in October by W.W. Norton & Company.