Millennium Post

Their Name was Red

Even before you have reached Chapter One, The Lives of Others hits you right in the gut. Nitai Das, farmer, failed by fate, feudalism and bad monsoon, has returned to his hut after begging unsuccessfully for food from the village landlord.

It is a hot May day and his throat is parched, his body bruised from the beatings inflicted on him by the landlord’s men, but Das can only think of the family, the wife, the son and the daughters who haven’t eaten for five days, their bodies emaciated, their eyes hollowed out. There is worse in store as the landlord has spelled out what he would do to Nitai’s family if he cannot pay up the interest on his loan. Nitai knows he can make them suffer no more.

He picks up the sickle and with a movement practiced many times over during harvest, Nitai hacks first the wife and then the children to death. He then drinks up a can of Folidol and ‘thrashes and writhes, a pink foam emerging from his mouth, until he too is returned from the nothing in his life to nothing.’

Miles away from Nitai’s village, having grown up in every creature comfort imaginable, and after passing out of the prestigious Presidency College, Supratik Ghosh, the eldest son of Adinath Ghosh, heir to the Ghosh paper mills, has taken up the cause of men like Nitai and taken to arms. From a faraway hamlet he writes letters to his mother, which he never posts, telling her why he has fallen for extreme Left ideology and walked the talk of Charu Mazumdar.

‘Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe anymore. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own...’  

The year is 1967.

West Bengal’s politics is changing, turning deep red. Feeble-limbed Bengali boys are no longer content quoting Marx, they have turned to Mao to shake up the status quo, albeit through armed rebellion. The communists have split, the ‘revisionist’ CPI(M) has embraced parliamentary democracy while Charu’s men have turned violent. Farmers, egged on by the Naxalite city boys, have turned against landlords and moneylenders, while bombings have scarred Calcutta.    

Untouched by the upheavals, save for the disappearance of Supratik, the Ghosh household carries on as before. Women bicker and burn at the happiness of others, men oil the machines to make more money. Years of hard work, skill upgrade and manipulations have given the Ghoshs enough wealth to gloat and go on— the daily hypocrisies, the hint of incest with one brother displaying a not-so-healthy interest in the unmarried sister, the pleasure trips to the red light district and the facade of upper middle class normalcy. But the sands are shifting. There is labour unrest in the mills. The plant modernisation plan has gone horribly wrong. And the once trusted are now turning against the very hands that fed them.

Neel Mukherjee has done a novel before, the critically well received A Life Apart. But in The Lives of Others the maturity of his craft is in full display. The Calcutta of the early 70s with its violent politics that resulted in, though was not wholly responsible for, the gradual death of the Bengali entrepreneurial spirit has been deftly captured in the book. Adinath Ghosh, the patriarch, sees his business and the wealth he has amassed peter away by the indifference of his sons, and the connivance of the trade unions with the new political dispensation in the state.

And the sense of being done in by one’s own, whether within the family in the fight among the sisters-in-law, in the mill by the trusted servant’s son who becomes a union leader or within the Left parties where the CPI(M) betrays the Naxals, becomes the dominant theme of the book.

This is a violent book, beautifully written. It will make you cringe with its graphic description of torture scenes and also make you rely on the goodness of others as Sona, Supratik’s nephew and a mathematical genius, relegated to a store room of the massive Ghosh mansion after his father’s untimely death is ‘discovered’ by a teacher and sent abroad on scholarship. This is a book that tells you of the viciousness we carry in our hearts and also gives you a glimmer of hope when you feel resigned to fate. Read it.      
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