Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee's debut novel "A Life Apart" (first published in India in 2008) is a young man's picaresque. Beginning with the funerals of his parents in Calcutta it tells the story of Ritwik, a young Hindu, who then moves to England in the 1990s, but can't shake his past from him. Told in the localised third person, it has the feel of a first person narrative, for except in a couple of places, the novel takes place in the moment, with the future closed. Arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, Ritwik thinks his fellow students are conversing in German (its a Liverpool accent he hears). The English title "A Life Apart" describes the novel well, but so does its original title "Past Continuous", for the novel includes extracts from a parallel story, a novel that Ritwik is writing about an English woman in India at the start of the 20th century.

The various strands of the novel create the book's forward movement - and the sense of the picaresque. Everything is connected in Ritwik's life, even though he does not easily see the connections. In Oxford, his confusion in the seminar room is interspersed with his incessant cottaging, having sex with strangers in toilets and elsewhere. This too is a life apart, but when a friend at university talks to him about child abuse, he realises that he too was abused, and just about picks up the courage to ring a help line. Yet Oxford is a staging post, not a destination, and the heart of the book is in another parallel story, when he comes to London to work as a carer for an old lady in Brixton, Anne Cameron. In the dusty twilight gloom of her large house he finds secrets to match his own, and another connection with India, where her and her family once lived. As the door opens on Ritwik's own life - and, like an unreliable narrator, he's curious about the world, whilst in denial about much of his own life - reality closes in on him. After his Student visa runs out, he becomes one of the invisible, and is drawn to an underworld of prostitution and rent boys.

In a long book, we are constantly engaged in the minutiae of Ritwik's world, often shockingly - with Mukherjee being as forensic about the cottaging rituals in Oxford, as he is about sponging down Anne Cameron in Ritwik's role as carer. In the end it is the novel's sheer abundance which is its real strength. Ignoring the tropes of magic realism that post-Rushdie writers have often used, it feels like a different approach to writing about the "innocent abroad" - literary in parts, (both in the story Ritwik is writing, and the way he sees the world through his learning) - yet earthy, deliberate and detailed, particularly in the sex scenes. Some first novels seem to be a brisk run-through of life at the time of writing, breathless but transitory; "A Life Apart" crams everything in - perhaps too much at times - yet is also somewhat sedate in its pacing. I read the book fast, but over a period of several weeks, and the novel's various episodes seemed to allow me this luxury; for the style of the writing breaks up the narrative, so that it sometimes feels like a series of connected vignettes - closer to Henry Fielding than to Henry James in other words (or at least in terms of the sexual content!) In the end it isMukherjee's delight in every aspect of Ritwik's life and world that comes through. I'm reminded a little of one of the book's blurb writers, Rose Tremain, for isn't Ritwik as conflicted in contemporary life as Robert Merivel is by 17th Century England in "Restoration"? Yet, Ritwik seems another of those contemporary characters who could only be written about today - for life happens to him, rather than by him. If the young hero of the twenties and thirties influenced the world he was part of, and the hero of the fifties and sixties ran way from that world "on the road" or wherever, the contemporary hero seems hardly able to exist in the world, without being crushed by it. By the end of the novel the echoes that Mukherjee sees with the early 20th century Swadeshi movement have faded away into nothing. Its a downbeat novel in many ways, but far from sombre. I'd heard Mukherjee read from the latter part of the book in Norwich last year, and was surprised, on reading it, how that section - looking after the ageing Anne Cameron - came so late in the book; yet its clearly the key that brings the various episodes together.


Essay Help said...

A good writer has to have a good mind to see things that aren't there, things that are different from his or her reality, but also able to convince the readers that those things are true or relatively true.

Neha Shayar said...

Neel Mukherjee's novel, The Lives of Others, is overwhelming and powerful, it is a force, but however hard I tried to fall in love with it, I couldn't.

It seemed very pleasant in the beginning. I saw the map at the beginning. Most of the places mentioned in the novel - Jhargram, Gidhni, Belpahari, Binpur - are within 40-50 km of my ancestral village. Somewhere in the novel, my hometown, Ghatshila, has been mentioned. Then there are Bali, Nalhati and Memari--places I travel through on my way to Pakur, the place where I work. Latehar, Chhipodohar, McCluskieganj--these are the other places I know. Nearly everything in this novel is familiar. Be it the term "munish" used for farm labourers, or the original Bengali terms for "fourteen forefathers" and the saying "sieve accusing the colander of having holes". The details the author has given regarding everything from the manufacturing of paper to the politics of West Bengal to a seemingly simple act of a mynah catching a centipede made my jaw drop. I was ready to embrace this novel as my new favourite.

But then, I read the stereotypical, almost Aranyer Din Ratri-ish description of Santhals, and all my love for this novel vanished. On one hand, a drunk character is made to say, almost patronizingly, that tribals are pure and honest. On the other hand, a major character thinks that Santhal women are promiscuous because they drink homebrew. On top of that, there are scenes of Santhal men brutally killing non-Santhal moneylenders. And - I nearly choked at this - there is a line about "Santhal burial grounds". I am a Santhal. I know we don't bury our dead. We cremate them.

Such a huge canvas, I had expected a lot from this novel. But now I am just relieved that it is over.