(Published in the Business Standard, July 28, 2014)
It is often forgotten these days that the history of Indian writing in English was built on memories of rebellion, the hope of revolution and a deep anger at the ways in which Indians were their own oppressors. This summer, two novelists – Meena Kandasamy and Neel Mukherjee – revive that history in different but equally skilled ways.
Mr Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others starts in a familiar landscape – decaying families in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the time of the Naxalites. “The opera of Bengali life, already pitched so high, had begun ….” The world he describes is already violent – The Lives of Others gets a crop of unnatural deaths out of the way in its opening chapters – and the family life he unravels with such intimacy is one of “overheated reactions and hysteria”.
But the urgency of these dramas dwindle when they are placed in context with the world explored by Supratik, a revolutionary embarrassed by the many privileges of a cushioned life. “How could he ever have imagined that ideology, revolution, the needs of others, abstraction … could have been weightier than the simple business of self-preservation, of the sheer physicality of pain?” Mr Mukherjee’s great gift as a novelist is his ability to unsettle the reader’s perspective on history; his protagonists are often, usefully, outsiders to the worlds that he explores.
The Lives of Others is on the Booker long-list this year; its title is taken from James Salter’s Light Years, a beautiful novel, often praised for the clean cadences of Mr Salter’s prose. The quote that Mr Mukherjee borrows is taken from a passage of sudden revelation – a woman, reading, comes across sentences that have the power to change her life. “How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?”
The Indian novel in all languages, as well as in English, has had to tackle this problem. How does the writer imagine the lives of others in a cultural and social setting where the barriers to knowing each other – caste, class, language, regional differences – are so high, the frontiers between lives that can be disrupted by violence and lives unscarred by riots and massacres so heavily guarded?
The first whispers of rebellion and mutiny were heard early enough in Indian writing in English. Two pioneering works of fiction – Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945 (1835), and Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s The Republic of Orissa (1845) – dealt with the hope that “the contagion of rebellion” would spread across the land.
Over a century later, Raja Rao set down the history of Kanthapura, where women, satyagrahis and anti-caste activists struggle against police and upper-caste brutality. In the literary journals of the 18th and 19th century, anger against the British was often only rivalled by the anger against the indifference of many Indians to the atrocities. From the famines of India to the brutal crushing of revolts by landless labourers, the Bombay, Bengal and Madras papers had debates every bit as heated as we do in our time.
Ms Kandasamy doesn’t just inherit this history of writing about the unspeakable and the forgotten, in The Gypsy Goddess, she rewrites the novel of violence, and questions every accepted way of turning violence into literature. The Kilvenmani massacre of 44 Dalit labourers took place in 1968; trapped in a hut, they were burnt alive. In a chapter that is one long, searing sentence, Kandasamy sets down the facts of what happened that night but also what has been deliberately, repeatedly forgotten or pushed to the side of collective memory, as with so many other massacres and riots in contemporary India.
In the first half of The Gypsy Goddess, which was recently longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, Ms Kandasamy plays with the form of the novel itself: there are petitions, lists, authorial interventions, translated songs of protest and a reminder that these songs do not work in translation. “They are here only to remind the reader that the historical events of this novel did not take place in any English-speaking country. Don’t you even try to get familiar with what goes on around here, for it is not only the sounds of my native land that you will find staggering.”
Ms Kandasamy includes lists of caste hierarchies, and she leavens the grimness of her material with satire: “We knew that everyone came to our village because of death. We knew this because they never came when we struggled or when we starved or when we silently waited for death. The death was the climax. The death was like the moment in the movies that no one wanted to miss and where everyone cried.” Nor does she spare journalists, armed with notebooks and compassion, or writers such as herself: “You have courage, dear reader, your words will never cost you a career.”
Both The Lives of Others and The Gypsy Goddess should be widely read – not just because Mr Mukherjee and Ms Kandasamy can write about the violence embedded in families, communities and our everyday lives without voyeurism, but because they are both stunning storytellers. “This novel has only to fill in the blanks,” Ms Kandasamy says in one of her asides. The blanks she fills in and that Mr Mukherjee explores are large spaces, the deliberate absences, as unmistakeable as bullet holes, as wide as a mass grave, in India’s memory of itself.