Book Club: The Lives of Others

Posted on 22nd February 2015 by Neel Mukherjee
Our Waterstones Book Club choice is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Here he explores why a writer writes and the role of empathy in the success of the novel.

Our moral sense begins with our capacity to think about and imagine other lives and minds...

Why does one write a novel? There can be many, often conflicting, answers to this apparently simple question. My answer is short: because one wants to say something about the world. Storytelling is all very well but without the soul or spirit of meaning story can be a bit like a zombie – seemingly animated but really without life. In The Lives of Others, I did not want so much to write about the appalling inequalities that obtain in India – the theme has long been a staple in Indian fiction in the vernacular languages and in English – as to turn my gaze on how people within their own worlds, of both the haves and the have-nots, think about their respective positions and about the world of others. If I’m allowed to slip into jargon for a very brief moment, I wanted to infold a meta-meditation of one of the most important underpinnings of the realist novel within the story itself. In other words, I wanted to make the drama of The Lives of Others think about and enact what the author of a realist novel does in terms of imagining characters, their thoughts and interiorities, their thinking about their own lives and the lives of others.

Our moral sense begins with our capacity to think about and imagine other lives and minds, with what we can call empathy. This is one of the unique strengths of the novel form. (In fact, it may be one of the most important reasons behind the enduring popularity of the form.) I thought of letting this become the central spine of meaning around which I’d build the book.

The character who makes this possible in The Lives of Others is the young Naxalite (a militant Maoist revolutionary), Supratik, who goes missing at the end of the first chapter of the novel. The Naxalite uprising was over, just, in West Bengal when I was born but I grew up in its narrative shadow. These young men and women, impelled by the unbridgeable inequalities of Indian society, had taken up arms and terrorism to bring about change and had struck fear into the hearts of the middle-classes. I grew up with fear-laced tales and rumours about these Naxalites but didn’t pay much attention to the political movement until I decided to write about the late 1960s in Bengal, a time which demanded a head-on reckoning with Naxalism.

My research brought me in contact with some of the ideologues and activists of the time. Some of them are establishment figures now, others part of the academe in the USA and elsewhere, some have nine-to-five jobs (in both the public and the private sectors). But I met two or three who are broken people, their dreams of a fairer, more just, more equal society turned to ashes, their ideology derided and consigned to the dustbin of history. What is sadder than living out the larger part of your life knowing that you have lost? Aristotle talks of tragedy as inspiring "pity and terror" in its audience. The Naxalites inspired terror once; the survivors from that era now fill one with compassion. Little did they know then what kind of fruits their failed revolution would bear.

From the Vintage Books podcast.


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