Ten days ago I received a surprise email from a review digest called The Omnivore – I had won the entire 2014 Booker Prize long list. My plan is to read through the lot of them, including the ones that don’t immediately appeal, and report back with my impressions.
“Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?”
An idealistic young man deserts his wealthy family to join an extreme political movement intent on direct action. In the process, he breaks his mother’s heart. The scene is West Bengal in the 1960s, but the situation has a contemporary resonance in these days of much-feared British Jihadists. To his credit, Neel Muckherjee gives us both sides of the divide. His narrative, for the first 80% of this sprawling, colourful novel, is divided between the Marxist guerilla’s diary and the slow but steady implosion of the complex, upper middle-class family he leaves behind.
Towards the end of the book, two very different people challenge the young man’s simple idealism. The first, quoted above, is the much-loved, yet separately existing servant who has lived with the family for decades and virtually raised their children. The second is a police interrogator, who asks with genuine interest what motivates these privileged, well-educated boys to join the terrorists, and contrasts their readiness to sacrifice the individual to their perceived needs of the masses. In both cases, the question is valid and unsettling.
Muckherjee’s narrative is rescued from theoretical sloganeering by his ability to immerse the reader in a richly peopled and sensually detailed world. This is a book with the expansiveness and sweep of a Victorian “Condition of England” novel, such as Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” and “North and South.” The setting is exotic to Western readers, yet the themes seem universally familiar. How can we live well in a corrupt society? Does paternalism have its place? Do those who have sacrificed everything to build a business deserve our sympathy when their mistakes deprive workers of their livelihood and they protest?
The gilded cage of the Ghosh family, a multi-storied house where they live together, not always amicably, is surrounded by the most abject human misery. Yet their existence is far from straightforward; as their certainties crumble, eroded by a mixture of political and social change post-independence and their own numerous character flaws, we feel their pain as they turn to various crutches to help them navigate a frightening new social landscape. There’s enough rivalry, back-stabbing and drama to fill a whole series of Dallas, and the internal landscape of every character is thoroughly explored.
I didn’t expect to find so much that was familiar in a family saga set in modern India. The contrast of societies is fascinating, but perhaps what stays in the mind longest are the difficult questions and elusive solutions that are the same the world over.