The writer’s moving camera: In conversation with Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee, whose second book, The Lives of Others, is on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, talks about writing his realistic novel, and about contemporary Indian writing in English, among other things.books Updated: Sep 27, 2014 15:08 IST
44-year-old Neel Mukherjee, author of the Lives of Others seems oddly relaxed for someone who is in the reckoning for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014. What if he wins, you ask. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” says the writer who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in London, when you meet him at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi.
But don’t be fooled by his self-deprecatory manner. His book, that follows the lives of the members of an upper middle class Bengali joint family in the Calcutta of the late Sixties, a time of political ferment, is an accomplished piece of writing. A realistic novel that, at different points, recalls Ian McEwan, Tolstoy and Mahasweta Devi, it rather miraculously lets the reader into the minds of its huge cast of characters, each with his or her own distinct voice.
The Lives of Others explores both, the private and the public, the personal and the political, the power struggles within the family, its festering secrets, and the larger class struggle in West Bengal. This is an enormously rewarding read but not an easy one. Some sections – especially those to do with the effect of Supratik’s desertion (he leaves home to foment revolution in the abjectly poor countryside) on his mother -- are so moving that the reader has to temporarily set the book aside.
If the mark of a superior work is that it draws the reader into an unfamiliar world while also making her think about the universality of the human condition, then the Lives of Others is one. Here, Mukherjee talks about the Bengali essence of this book, about writing in general, and about contemporary Indian writing in English, among other things.
When did you start working on the book?
It came about in an odd way. I had about 70 pages by 2010 which was when my first book (Past Continuous) came out in the UK, but those pages were not written in 2010; they were probably written in 2009. Then my agent sold those 70 pages to my UK publisher and my Indian publisher around September 2010. That was when I began writing the book properly. I wrote the remaining 580 pages between then and October 2012.
But this book can’t be the work of just two years.
No, no book is. But most writers don’t have access to that area of their mind when a book really begins or what their influences are. I get asked this question a lot. Who are the influences on you? I can tell you who I like reading and who I don’t like reading but influence? I do not know. It’s a bit of the brain to which you don’t have conscious access to. I chose to write about a world I know and grew up in; I was born into. In that sense, you can say that the book has been with me from the very beginning.
It’s a really intimate knowledge.
Well, yes, it’s a culture I was born into. (The hotel coffee machine lets out a hiss and Mukherjee jerks his head around) Is that a pressure cooker or a coffee maker?
It’s a very evocative sound for me… because on a Sunday, during the day time around lunch hour, if you walk down the streets of Kolkata -- not big roads, but residential streets -- you can hear the pressure cooker whistles going and the Sunday mutton curry lunch is being made. Makes me salivate!
But no! The Lives of Others is detailed and it’s intimate because I wanted to write a book very densely rendered and reproducing the texture of life. It’s a realist novel so I wanted it to be as realistic as possible. I wanted to write a densely wrought book. I wanted readers to have a sense that the moment they open the book to read, they’d instantly enter that world and be in it. It was very important for me that they should feel instantly launched into this world and to do that they have to render it in as much detail and texture as possible.
The Lives of Others. Author- Neel Mukherjee, Publisher- Random House India, Price- Rs.599; pp516
While I was reading it, I was thinking, ‘This is hard work!’
It didn’t feel like it.
It doesn't read like it!
Good, thank you. Most writers… I suppose it must be something like labour pain; you must forget it in order to have the next child or something. I don’t know. Maybe most writers forget how painful it is to write the book so that they can then go on to inflict that same pain on themselves and write the next one. It’s good to forget ones book so that one can write. You have to clear up space in your head to write the next one.
I thought you’d caught the quality of middle class life. I don’t know Bengali middle class life but general middle class life…
It’s not the class bracket that I grew up in but it seemed that that world was something I knew well about because it was in the culture that I inhabit. It was not that difficult for me to do the characters in the family side of the story.
All those petty jealousies!
Don’t you think Indian families are like that?
Yes, Very much. It isn’t just Bengali families.
I would imagine anybody Indian, not Bengali, but Maharashtrian or Malayali would identify with that notion of a joint family and petty jealousies and squabbles and jostling for power and hierarchy.
It’s also very claustrophobic
It’s the nature of family (laughs); it’s the nature of human beings.
But do you think the English, when they read this, they get it?
I don’t know actually what they get because they will probably think it’s a very melodramatic and hysterical world and I will always try and say to them, ‘No, that’s the way it is’. It is really what Indian families are like. No, they will certainly see it as a foreign world. But then one reads fiction to find out what other worlds are like. You know, fiction can either be a mirror reflecting you back to yourself or it can be a clean pane of glass looking on the outside. I think I prefer this to that, actually. I like seeing something else shown to me rather than myself. I’m bored of myself.
What about the rural bits.
Well, I had visited rural Bengal when I was growing up so part of it was memory. I also went to rural Bengal to Medinipur to do research for the book. Rural Bengal is not something I’ve lived with but I’ve read about it and I’ve visited so that was more research. I went and stayed there. I did it in the different seasons of the different stages of the rice cultivation so I had to go in the monsoon when the saplings are transplanted and I had to go in the autumn when the harvests are done. It was very difficult. No one harvests with a sickle anymore because it’s all mechanized. So I had to find elderly men and women of a previous generation who had done it by hand and they showed me, and they were baffled: ‘Why’s he doing this?’ One of the most enriching experiences writing a book is that you suddenly find yourself talking to or entering worlds which you never thought you would enter. It opened my mind and it extended my horizons and I saw a bit of life that I never thought I would ever see so that was good.
You know, I’m still reading the book and it’s difficult. There are bits when I have to stop reading and put it aside.
Oh, it gets worse.
People have told me that. Did you get affected while you were writing it?
These are not easy things to write but I am not a suffering-artist kind of person. Writing a book is as difficult or as easy as any other job. Everyone’s job is difficult. So to fetishize difficulties in writing as something extra difficult or something very privileged -- I don’t buy that at all. But yes, there are difficult bits in writing a book and there are easier bits as with any other thing. Writing certain scenes was difficult, especially the violent bits. You have to do it quickly; you don’t want to sit on; you have to write it quickly. There’s quite a protracted scene at the end of the book. You don’t want to take three months to write it because you go somewhere in your head, which is not a great place. You want to go there quickly and come out but while you’re in there, you can’t blink. You have to look at everything in a square way and not blink. I think that’s the trick.
It is very real. The scene with the older siblings being mean to Som reminded me of that Ian McEwan book.
Cement Garden? His first novel?
You thought of Cement Garden! Yeah, it must be sitting somewhere in my head.
What are the reactions you have been getting
The reviews in the UK have been very good, which surprised me a lot. It’s always good to get good reviews. I read my reviews. There are a lot of writers who don’t read their reviews at all. I read them; then I put them away because it’s not good to engage with them too much.
The Guardian review was glowing.
Yeah, AS Byatt. She wrote a wonderful review.
She had this great point about how you got into each character
Yeah, the points of view changed right throughout the book.
How did you manage that? Like she was saying, it’s not really an omniscient narrator; it’s many narrators.
When I first started writing the book I knew it was going to have a big cast of characters. I wanted each character to have equal weight on the page when they appeared. Some people are marginal like Jayanti’s daughter, Arunima; Jayanti herself is a very marginal character, but when she was on the page I wanted reader to feel that ‘Yes, I’m in this person’s head; I know what this person’s thinking.’ It was like having a camera moving around all the time rather than have a static camera. I wanted to cleave as close to the person’s point of view, who I was writing about. I think AS Byatt was talking about the scene later in the book -- there’s union trouble at the factory and Prafullanath and his sons go there. I try and see the scene from the point of view of Prafullanath, the car’s driver, his sons, and the factory workers, as well.
Someone like Henry James wouldn’t like this at all, that I shift point of view constantly within a scene. James, from whom I’ve learnt a lot of my craft, would have section breaks in order to indicate that he was going into someone else’s point of view. I thought, ‘No, let’s just keep the camera rolling around and move from head to head. That was the technical aspect of giving weight on the page equally to everyone. It’s a good thing that you change perspective all the time. I think it keeps readers on their toes. It shows things in a much more balanced and rounded way. Also, it keeps the writer entertained. It can get too easy to write from one person’s point of view. When you shift the point of view, you’re doing something else. You’ve changed the game a little bit. That’s interesting.
Had you researched the Naxal movement before?
No, I came to the Naxal movement very late in my life. I came to it while doing research for my book. Well, you know growing up in Kolkata in the 1970s, it was there but very much in the background. We knew what the word ‘Naxal’ was; we knew they were frightening creatures. There was one point where children were told ‘Don’t go out; Naxals will get you’. They became the new kind of ghosts or bad spirits which would get you so we all knew that Naxals were figures of terror. To do the book, I had to properly revisit that time and I spoke to people who are still alive.
I had read a couple of books where the Naxal movement of Bengali books when I was growing up, the Naxal movement is part of the story like Mahasweta Devi’s Hajar Churashir Maa, some other Bengali books but then I threw myself into the thick of the research. I interviewed people, I spoke, emailed. They were all helpful. Some of them had been part of the movement. There was one woman in Kolkata, who is wheel chair bound because she had her kneecaps broken by the police. I spoke to a lot of people. Then, I traced all the Bengali journals from the time and helpfully, this man, who now works in an office job for the West Bengal government had made his own compilations of Deshabhakti, which was the CPI(ML) mouthpiece. I went to his office and bought them. He sold them to me for Rs 100-150, they were for sale.
Why was he selling them?
Because he thought this is a testament to those revolutionary times. And he felt the revolution was still alive.
And he was working with the government?
Yeah, yeah, these are the contradictions! (Laughs) He had them in a big pile in a rusting metal almirah. Wonderful compilations! Part of it was propaganda of course. Very much wishful thinking of what they were doing in the countryside; all this People’s War Liberation kind of stuff. There was one compilation, which was all about revolutionary songs from the time, that these Naxalite comrades sang. They’re lovely though I don’t know the tunes to them.
There’s a good non-fiction book there.
Yeah! But then, after a point, research only takes you up to the threshold of the door. Then, you have to open the door and go inside and that’s your imagination. I wish I had found someone’s journals printed somewhere cheaply in a revolutionary magazine where they would talk about ‘Oh, we went to the countryside and we did this, this, this and this’ and I would just have to sit and translate (laughs), but no such luck!
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So you created that.
Yeah, that’s what all novelists do. We imagine these things. I had some paradigms; I had some markers: this is where they went; this is what they did.
I found the part to do with the mother’s grieving very difficult
This is my homage to Mahasweta Devi’s Hajar Churashir Maa. This book is very allusive. I think Bengalis will get a little more out of it because there are a lot of Bengali novels and books stitched in the book. Later, you’ll find out there’s a bit about Aranyer Din Ratri, the Sunil Gangopadhyay novel which Ray filmed famously as Days and Nights in the Forest. It’s a very good film; it’s one of his best films actually. Then there’s the Manik Bandopadhyay story about the Bengal famine.
You think Bengalis will get more out of it? The allusions?
Yeah. But hopefully, in a way that will not alienate readers who are not Bengali.
I didn’t know all this.
Satyajit Ray films are like this. You see them as a Bengali you get certain references, certain allusions, but if you don’t get them it does not mean that the meanings are all lost. Just a little bit more out of it but that’s fine. I would imagine everything is like that. A footballer gets more out of watching a game of football than you and I would. I would never watch football. But that’s another thing altogether.
You don’t watch football? How very unBengali!
I hate sport. I hate cricket; I hate football; I hate all kinds of sport. Sport is my idea of hell. When I die and I’m given the boon of eternal life in hell it’ll be a football stadium or a cricket pitch.
What’s your daily life like?
Very boring, very ordinary and the writing regime is not a regime. To write, I think one must sit in one place and be bored. Boredom is a very good state for writers to be. Things cook away in your head when you’re bored and suddenly one day you have a book or a germ of a book.
When it’s going well, I try and write 500 words a day. But it’s 500 words written throughout the day. I picked this up from reading somewhere as a child that Graham Greene used to do all his work in the morning. Graham Greene used to write 500 words every day, every day! But he used to do it before 12 O’ clock and then he used to hit his bottle of whisky and live his life. I don’t hit the bottle of whiskey and I don’t finish at 12; I’d probably have just begun by then, but I try and write 500 words every day, five or six days a week. Sometimes, when it’s going really well, towards the end stages of the book when you know you have to finish it off, otherwise it will finish you, I write slightly more. It’s different for each book that you write. They set the pattern. It’s different for different writers and different books as well.
Also read: Neel Mukherjee shortlisted for 2014 Man Booker prize
Which writers have influenced you?
Such a big question! Influences happen in the bit of the brain that you don’t have any access to so that is for other people to say but I don’t know myself. I like Samuel Beckett; I like an Australian novelist, who’s not much read nowadays, called Patrick White -- he won the Nobel Prize in 1972 or 73; I like Naipaul very, very much, I think Naipaul would even be an influence on me. I like Penelope Fitzgerald; I like George Eliot; I like Henry James; I like Tolstoy, Turgenev.
I’m not surprised you’re throwing in these 19th century names.
I grew up with the Russians so I like Dostoevsky a lot, but in the 20th century, a great Russian novelist is Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote The Master and Margarita, which is one of the towering novels of the 20th century. These are people I keep revisiting. I read them over and over again. There are a lot of contemporary writers I like too. I like a lot of stuff that’s going on in India now. All my contemporaries are wonderful writers I feel. I will name names – Anuradha Roy, Arundhati Roy too, though she’s only one novel old. I like Anjali Joseph, Aatish Taseer, Rahul Bhattacharya. I like Jeet Thayil’s first novel, Narcopolis. Mahesh Rao has written a beautiful book set in Mysore called The Smoke is Rising. I think my generation of Indian writers is doing wonderful now. It’s good to be part of this. Wonderful things are happening in Indian writing and they are all getting away from what people understand what Indian fiction should or shouldn’t be doing whether in India or abroad and they’re just doing their own thing. And the things that they are doing are quite marvelous. It’s a good time to be an Indian writer.
Although I kind of slightly feel that the West has lost interest in Indian writing. Maybe it’s because things follow trends and fashions. The Pakistani thing came and now the Pakistani thing has gone; there was a very brief moment of Arab Spring. It’s almost like cuisines that come into fashion. “Oh yeah, let’s try Vietnamese this evening.’ And then, ‘Oh no, Vietnamese is so passé; the great thing is now Lebanese. There’s a new Lebanese restaurant in town!” But it’s OK; an equilibrium establishes itself regardless of whether anyone’s interested in it or not. The fact that the West has lost interest in Indian writing is neither here nor there. Look at the energy of Indian writing now! It’s simply irrelevant whether the West is interested. I mean it’s good to have the interest but the work carries on nevertheless.
Where did you grow up?
Calcutta. I was born there. I went to Don Bosco School; I did my first degree there at Jadhavpur University. I read English. I left the city when I was 22 years old. I was fully formed and at exactly what now is the halfway point of my life. At the age of 22, I left Calcutta, which is why all the Bengali things come naturally to me. I didn’t have to read books to find out what they tell their cooks to cook or something!
Do you find memories of that time easier to access because you live outside?
I think it’s the biggest gift that a novelist can have -- memory. I don’t know whether it’s easier to access because I live abroad but it is certainly the fact that a lot of these things are written from memory and it’s an invaluable tool for a novelist to have a good memory. Everything is filed away in the head and they come out at some point. It is true, though, what someone had recently said of me in a newspaper piece: ‘Neel doesn’t visit Kolkata very often but that is very good because he has not allowed what Kolkata has become to become superimposed on his memory of the city from the 1970s and ‘80s’. Although I don’t write about the 1970s and ‘80s, Kolkata did not change that massively as it has in the last 20 years. Kolkata is a city that is very slow to change but India has changed so massively over the last 20 years that Kolkata has been caught up in that wave too. WG Sebald used to say that he refused to go to a place, which he had visited in his past because he did not allow the current configuration of the city and the places to wash out the memory of the place in his head. No, memory is invaluable.
What if you win the Booker?
Oh no, I try not to think about that. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I don’t think I’ll come to it, but one mustn’t think like that. That way madness lies.