The Teen Murti Bhavan auditorium in Delhi is neither very big nor was it too crowded on Wednesday night-a niche audience had taken its seat well in time. Everyone was eager for the event to start, for Neel Mukherjee, the Man Booker shortlisted author of The Lives of Others, to take the stage and discuss his book.
What many in the audience perhaps didn't notice was that in the last row of the auditorium sat a middle-aged man--ruffled hair, wearing a crumpled striped shirt and carrying a black sling bag-chatting with two women. Those who didn't know this man personally or hadn't Googled him properly, risked mistaking him for one from the audience. However, after a few minutes past seven, this man was up on the stage with Nilanjana Roy, literary critic, discussing his second novel The Lives of Others, which on October 14, might win the coveted Booker prize worth £50,000. The event was organised by The Caravan Conversations and Random House India.
So, how does it feel to be on the shortlist, to be on the list of the six final competitors for the Man Booker?
"The cards have fallen down right for once in my life!" he says with a smile.
The Naxal movement and the novel
The Lives of Others, set in the Kolkata of 1966-70, centres around the Ghosh family of Bhawanipore, with the novel's most important character being Supratik Ghosh, a grandson of the Ghosh patriarch, who joins the Naxalite movement with a dream to change the world. The novel has been described as 'searing, savage and deeply moving' by Amitav Ghosh.
The Naxalite movement of the late 60s in Bengal and its portrayal in Mukherjee's novel fetched a lot of inquisitive questions at the event. In fact, Nilanjana Roy started off the conversation by asking him about his memories of the movement. Neel was, however, quick to point out that he has no memories of the Naxal Movement in Bengal. He said that the memories of the Naxal movement that he has is mostly anecdotal, a certain 'white noise in the background'.
Neel Mukherjee and Nilanjana Roy discuss The Lives of Others (Abhishek Saha/HT Photo)
Later, when the floor was thrown open for questions from the audience, someone wanted to know what Neel feels about the current Maoist movement in the country at a time when it has been declared as the greatest threat to internal security in the country.
"Oh! I'm not a Naxal revolutionary you know…," Neel answered, and crowd broke into a giggle.
But, going on to answer the question on a serious note, the author remarked that no state in the world is kind to its dissidents, and so the suppression is often quite forceful.
In response to another question on the ongoing Maoist movements in the country, Neel said that though he wouldn't support any one side in the resistance movements-the state or the rebels-but such movements intrigued him a lot intellectually. He added that he had been reading a lot on the ongoing extreme-Left struggles and looked forward to writing something on it.
Failed idealism and the death of the political novel
Neel said that he found the theme of 'failed idealism' quite effective-the idea of a bunch of people going around believing that they can change the world, and then waking up one fine day to find that their idealist fight was dying out.
The concept attracts Neel much because he feels that there isn't much to do in the world other than dream about changing it for the better.
"What else can you do with the world other than want to change it?" he asked his audience.
Another theme which Neel's conversation with Nilanjana Roy brought to the fore was the death of the political novel.
"I feel that the political novel, in the English speaking world, is dying a long slow death," he said.
He explained that this trend worries him because it indicates to a great extent the ugly rise of capitalism where everything else has been wiped out by it.
He added that perhaps the world needs a literary genre which will question where the world is headed with global capitalism and its hedonism.
Apart from the broad research, interviews and extensive travels through Bengal, what adds a notch more to Neel's depiction of troubled Bengal is the linguistic honesty with which it has been written.
"When I was reading the novel I felt as if it could have been written in Bengali. I was actually responding to it in Bangla," said Nilanjana Roy.
Responding to the point, Neel said that he was very conscious that The Lives of Others must be written incorporating the 'linguistic truth' of its characters. He said that he wanted the non-Bengali reader to get a sense of foreignness while reading the novel. Neel's sense of linguistic honesty was quite evident throughout the discussion when he specifically pronounced Naxal as Noxal and the character Sona-the mathematical genius in the novel-as Shona.
Nilanjana Roy told the audience that Neel, the Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and PhD from Cambridge, is completely bilingual--he is as proficient in Bengali as he is in English.