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The neo-orientalist agenda

Somdatta Mandal |

In spite of being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014 and getting high praises from novelists like Amitav Ghosh, AS Byatt, Anita Desai, Patrick Flannery and others, he missed it by a whisker. Neel Mukherjee, the new kid on the British South Asian (read Bengali from Kolkata) Diaspora block had really toiled very hard to impress his readers with a story set in Kolkata and simultaneously in the different districts of West Bengal and spanning a timeline of three years, 1967 to 1970 to be exact.

Beginning with a family history of the Ghoshes who reside in a big four-storey mansion in Basanta Bose Road, Mukherjee gives us ample information about how apparently this joint family of twenty (including the servants) begin to live their lives without hiccups or mishaps but soon subterranean conflicts, differences, etc. keep on cropping up. This is nothing exceptional as questions like if all the brothers contribute equally, why should the eldest brother be getting preferential treatment in the family probably occurs in the minds of many members living in a joint family set-up. In this Ghosh family, we have the eldest brother performing the role of the traditional patriarch, and the ups and downs in the different businesses they own determine the fate and fortune of the family. Discrimination within the members occur when the widow of the younger brother is forced to live miserably with her children in a damp, ground floor room while the other wives enjoy prosperous lives. Among the other members we find a young college-going girl having a secret love affair with a local boy not of their own caste, a young unmarried aunt whose dark skin prevented her from getting married at the prime time of her life and now lives with all her occasional mood swings and tantrums, the sisters-in-law vying with each other in their possession of saris and jewellery, a faithful servant who knows no other home and who has to pay a very heavy price in the end when he is wrongly dismissed and jailed for theft of the family jewels. There are even secret sexual trysts among a couple of members. The ageing patriarch and matriarch of the family remain unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. The plot and the characters are so true to life that any middle class Bengali reader who has grown up in a joint family or witnessed one at close quarters will be able to identify themselves with.

Apart from the stereotypical characters, we have two young college-going young brothers called Supratik and Suranjan and their lives flow in absolutely opposite directions. Whereas Suranjan becomes a drug addict and leads a wasted life, the novelist develops an alternative narrative within the novel when the chapters alternate in a different font and gives us a first person narration by Supratik,  the other brother. As a Communist activist from his very first year at Presidency College, Supratik, like many other young students who got inspired after reading The Little Red Book, became part of the movement that rocked Presidency and genteel Bengali society in those six months in 1966 and 1967. Aware of the wide chasm that exists between those who have and those who have not, and wanting to become an activist and not only follow the idealism that comes from books, he leaves home secretly and goes to the villages to organise the landless peasants, sharecroppers, wage-labourers and impoverished tenants into armed struggle. He even does not hesitate to steal his aunt’s jewellery to finance his terrorism and lets the honest servant Madan bear the brunt of it. Through his diary-like narrative we get a detailed description of how the Naxalite movement functioned and how in the end it fizzled out when a lot of the young members lost their lives in police encounters.

The novel is about many things, including the limits of empathy and the nature of political action. It asks how we imagine our place among others in the world. Can that be re-imagined? And at what cost? There are two epilogues that occur at the end of the main story which try to retain a sort of optimism and suggest that everything is not over. The first one locates Swarnendu Ghosh (who was a shy school-going kid in the novel) as a recluse Indian mathematics professor at Stanford University who has won several prizes but nevertheless radiating with an innocence which the world has not been able to touch. He still lives with his mother, who came out to join him shortly after he was offered his teaching position in the Faculty at a very young age. Epilogue II is set in September 2012 which narrates the proliferation of the Naxalite movement throughout eastern India and young Maoist activists, both men and women, are still busy carrying subversive activities to suggest that their fight against the authoritarian regime is far from over.

All said and done, the neo-orientalist agenda of the author is very clearly revealed in this book. As the new avatar of Orientalism the discursive practices about the Orient by the people from the Orient and located in the non-Orient is a recent trend in Indian English writing. The West determines the agenda and camouflages the discourse about the Orient as ‘rethinking’ or ‘reconstruction’ and attracts and persuades Oriental scholars to be part of it. When Jhumpa Lahiri published The Lowland in 2013 devoting a major part of the novel to Kolkata of the 1960’s and the Naxalite movement, she had received criticism from several quarters for giving us a watered down version of the actual movement and though she mentioned several reference books, she was labelled as an outsider not conversant with the actual state of affairs. In Neel Mukherjee&’s case, as someone who grew up in Kolkata but presently residing in London, the situation is a little different. Though he has done his homework better than Lahiri and given much more elaborate details of the Naxalite movement, especially through the diary entries of the character called Supratik, reading through the details of those sections in the book also reminds us of the deliberate neo-Orientalist effort he has made to give his readers the history of the movement (something which he too did not witness first hand as he was probably not even born then or was too young to remember anything). The result is that the book with more than five hundred pages sometimes hangs under its own weight of too many details losing the ‘what-happened-next’ spirit to sustain the readers’ interest.

Mukherjee&’s  narrative style is engrossing and one is amazed how he managed to pay so much attention to intricate details of middle class Bengali life. Like many contemporary Indian writers in English his text is also full of Bangla words and phrases and the extensive glossary at the end of the book points out his aim at capturing the hearts of non-Bengali, pan-Indian and western readers. But one cannot pardon him for explaining the word jaa’ as husband&’s older sister in the note especially provided on names and relations. As someone who grew up in a joint family in Kolkata during these turbulent years and witnessed the Naxalite movement first-hand,  this reviewer found a lot of the descriptions too well known and it seems many of the readers of the novel will feel the same. But it is worth the read nevertheless.

(The reviewer is professor of English, Visva-Bharati University)