This week started with two fresh books – the Neel Mukherjee book in hard bound original and the Graham Greene ebook. ‘The lives of others’ of course had its recommendation, as it was a on the Booker short list this year. I had read his earlier book “Past Continuous” earlier in the year. I really liked that one. The protagonist, Ritwick Ghosh, was a finely sketched character, a very believable product of the hypocritical, deprived lower middle class Indian society. His present is dominated by his past in which his mother dominates the script. Other characters were incidental to the plot. I did find the ending a little lame though!
The new book is, in contrast to the earlier one, a sweeping family drama with many characters and multiple plots and sub-plots. There are two parallel narratives in the story – a linear narrative in the first person, of the son who disappears from his middle class home to become a Naxalite and a more complex one of the travails and tribulations of his joint family which pans back and forth over seven decades or so. The main story is set in the late 1960s and early 70s – at the time of the ascent of the Communists in Bengal. The Ghoshes are a typical middle class business family and the cast of members are typical of middle class India and could be part off any such family, even today. Their aspirations or lack of them, their priorities, social ambitions and hang ups, insecurities are all what is familiar to an Indian reader. The story is not complex, but the play of characters keeps your interest and it is fairly well written. In the book one of the characters (a writer buddy of the publisher brother) responds in defense of the criticism to the lack of originality in a book that they are discussing “It maybe familiar to us, but maybe it’s not familiar to a lot of people who have no first-hand or even second hand experience of all this stuff. It’s new stuff to them.” I think that sums it up well – an ordinary story competently told that may impress the western readership who are not familiar with the milieu we know too well. This may also explain its Booker recognition. I had the similar feelings about the western response to another book – Adiga’s ‘White tiger’ which won the Booker. I did like the link of the Naxal movement to the modern day Maoists through an Appendix – that although so much has changed in 30+years, so much is still the same!!
Graham Greene, of course, is a re-read after a gap of 4 decades. I have been a great fan of Greene – and as with many of the earlier authors, my early reading was influenced by my father. His favorites were on our shelves, to which I had an uncensored access from a very early age. I remember many of Greene’s stories, some in detail, others more sketchily! The End of the Affair, (ebook and hence no picture) I did not remember much of, but knew from reputation as one of his more acclaimed books. And now I understand why the memory was flaky, because it really has no story! In sharp contrast to Mukherjee’s tale, it is a short, intense and focused book with only four characters, the heroine and her husband, her lover (who is also the protagonist) and the mysterious other lover. It is an analysis of love, loss and human failings in the background of the Second World War. While Sarah and the 2 men are clearly etched characters, the minor roles are are also finely brought out. But the significant fourth ultimately turns out to be God – an all pervading Catholic God, who is the lover that the other 2 cannot hope to compete with. The issues related to faith, in the context of Catholicism is a strong thread that runs through Greene’s fiction. It is an aspect that did not make any impact on me at a younger age. Now I find the discussions compelling – human fraility, the desire to believe, the fear of not believing……
TO sum up, Mukherjee’s book (I bought this one, so anyone is welcome to borrow it) would be enjoyed by those who like a good tale, although it cannot be called an easy read. Greene on the other hand is for the more serious reader.