Sunday, July 27, 2014

Neel Mukherjee for Man Booker

....Supratik attacks his mother about food. "Don't you agree we eat too much?"...."Everyone eats like this."....He attacks again: "not the servants, not the poor"........the head servant, Madan, who is part of the family, but remains separated from them....."Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it...Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?".......Communist Supratik feels "a surge of cold fury that he is being given a lesson in political morality by the family's cook"....
We know that the Bong bhadaralok class (genteel folks) are a mighty sentimental lot. Many of them were up-rooted from erstwhile East Bengal in 1947. Then in the 1960s-1970s Bengal experienced extreme violence first from the left and then on the left (the most intriguing part of that story was left-on-left violence). Finally a bunch of super-castes migrated to the West with its attendant identity loss problems etc.

The literary output seems focused on these extreme events and that is only to be expected. However after what seems to be a million stories and plays and movies, we find the scope to be limiting (and exhausting). Is it too much to ask the writer class to pick up a wider lens?

There is a good story (we presume) to be written about the ups and downs of an unprecedented three decades of a popular vote backed communist rule which began with police torturing communists (1975-1977) and ended with communists (and police) torturing common people (2006-2011). The middle class essentially had to move out of Bengal to cities of opportunity to the north, west and south (Gurgaon, Pune, Bangalore).

How about the daring idea to divorce Kolkata (where only 20% people live) from the dialog?
You have the timeless culture of the Sunderbans, where Hindus and Muslims both pray to snake and tiger gods and where unique forms of agriculture and pisci-culture are in place and which has also experienced thunder-bolts via Force-10 cyclones? Then there is the Himalayan belt where the world-famous Darjeeling tea gardens have been devastated by mismanagement and where Hindus (Gorkhas/Nepalis, Bengalis, Tribals like Koch, Rajbonshi) are murdering other Hindus as part of a campaign for (or against) partition?
Speaking of larger than life personalities, why not put to pen the astonishing rise and fall of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy? He was born in (present day) West Bengal, he was the Premier of Bengal when the massive riots happened post Direct Action Day (1946), he became the (5th) Prime Minister of (unified) Pakistan (1956), forced to resign by Iskandar Mirza (1957), exiled by Ayub Khan and finally died in exile in Beirut (1963), never to see his homeland again. From the stand-point of Bengali Hindus HSS was a veritable monster (like one Great Leader today) who was fiddling while Kolkata was burning. By the same token he was a hero second to none for Bengali Muslims. But then to his credit (and to the confusion of extremists on both sides) he proposed (along with Hindu leader Sarat Bose) an United Bengal as one nation!! After all the madness, Bengali leaders still hoped to hold hands, the idea itself is madness, or was it??

Re: HSS there is a popular anecdote which concerns Gandhi. Legend has it that the mob had managed to corner HSS in Gandhi's presence. The mob asked Gandhi to step aside so that they can finish him off. Gandhi kept his calm and told them that they would have to kill him first. The mob went away but the grievances were building up.

Ranting aside, we wish Neel Mukherjee all the best in his quest for Booker for "The Lives of Others". The book (in our opinion) is very different in flavor to Jhumpa Lahiri's 2013 "The Lowland" which covers the same ground (and lost the race for Booker). Strongly recommended.
It begins in 1966 with a profoundly shocking sequence, emblematic of the novel's purpose, in which a starving Bengali peasant slaughters his wife and children before killing himself by drinking corrosive insecticide. We are then whisked off into a seemingly unrelated double narrative.

In one strand of this we meet three generations of the upper-middle-class Ghosh family, who made their fortune in paper production and are steadily losing it through the effects of Partition, mismanagement, union trouble and domestic discord. In the other we follow the story of one of the family's eldest grandsons, who has dropped out of his life of privilege to train and work as an activist and guerilla fighter for the outlawed communist Naxalites.

The Ghoshes are a big family. (Mukherjee provides both a family tree and a guide to the Bengali relational terms). Though their empire spreads across the continent, they all live in the one, old Kolkata house, the patriarch and his wife on the top floor and the spoilt youngest's outcast widow and children on the gloomy bottom one.

Many (guilty) readers, and not a few Indian novelists, would have contented themselves with focusing on this household. It provides a tidy microcosm of Hindu society, rigidly hierarchical, borne up by cheap labour, yet shot through with destabilising insecurities and alliances.

As in an equivalent dynasty imagined by Galsworthy or Mann, the company founder supposes his commercial achievements can only be undone by his modernising sons, while the sons despair of the father's lack of foresight. His wife retains a blind fondness for the family's oldest retainer, in effect a slave procured as a child to raise her children and cook the delicious dishes of his impoverished background, a situation that will bring about a tragedy of injustice and misplaced loyalty worthy of Conrad at his darkest.

The house is riven with conflicts born of marriage. One son has married the perfect, peacekeeping wife, one, harbouring profound sexual shame (arising from incestuous coprophilia, since you ask) has married a vulgarian. The latter delights in a state of constant warfare with the family's unmarried daughter. This character, the most richly portrayed in Mukherjee's family album, rendered unmarriageable by too much education and unfortunate looks, consoles herself with inventive spite while her mother looks on, aware of the part she has played in creating such a monster but powerless to intervene.

Another character who could arguably have taken a whole novel to himself is Sona. Shy and wordless to the point of autism, raised on scraps by his outcast mother, in the household's cruel scheme he is in effect an Untouchable. And yet, as the great Ghosh boat moves inexorably towards the rocks of its social and economic ruin, he proves to be its quietly triumphant survivor, saved by a genius for pure mathematics.

The Ghosh household serves a Sethian narrative feast with dishes to spare, and yet it is arguably the novel's much harsher second strand which matters most to Mukherjee. Pursuing the rebel son, Supratik, on a career from 1960s Maoist idealism through brutal murders in the jungle, to scenes of police torture that had this reader sitting protectively on his hands, it is a graphic reminder that the bourgeois Indian culture Western readers so readily idealise is sustained at terrible human cost.

Supratik is possessed by a single-minded moral horror at the lives of the starving and helpless. Early in the book he attacks his mother about food. "Don't you agree we eat too much?" She is baffled. "Everyone eats like this." He attacks again: not the servants. Not the poor. The novel gives us not only Supratik's revulsion but his mother's sense of what has always been as it is. His departure will cause her to break down completely.

Maybe the most sympathetic character is the head servant, Madan, who is part of the family, loves and cares for them, but remains separated from them. Towards the end of the book he has a significant conversation with Supratik. He tells Supratik how his mother took to her bed when he left, "shrivelling up like leather in the sun". "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?"

Communist Supratik feels "a surge of cold fury that he is being given a lesson in political morality by the family's cook" – seeing Madan from his family's viewpoint, "their" cook. And he lashes back at Madan, reminding him how Madan himself begged the family to "let loose the police" on Madan's son, the leader of the striking workers.
The novel’s second glimmer of light relates to Supratik, the Naxalite. At the very end of the book we find out that while living in Medinipur he had invented a means of derailing trains: this technique has been passed on to present-day Maoists in central and eastern India who are now using it to devastating effect. 

‘Someone had come from Chhatitisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. Or was it West Bengal and Orissa?’
This then is the legacy that Neel ascribes to Supratik: a method of derailing trains and killing unwary passengers: ‘his gift to his future comrades survived and for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest.’
In other words, what Neel chooses to celebrate about Supratik’s life is not the transmission of a spirit of resistance – something that is more than ever necessary at a time when the environment and the poor are being subjected to devastating violence in the name of ‘growth’ – but rather a particular means of resisting: in this instance a technique of mass murder. 

This is troubling, for it was precisely the means adopted by the student-Naxals of the 1970s that doomed their movement. Violence and bloodletting became so essential to their methods as to suggest that the movement was not, in its essence, a social program at all but rather a cult of ritualistic killing, like thuggee. 

This is why the movement aroused widespread revulsion, even among those who sympathized with its professed social aims. Its trajectory was a perfect illustration of that deadly elision that often occurs when violence is embraced as a means to an end: ultimately the one displaces the other and the means becomes the end.



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