The Naxalite movement in eastern India in the 1960s pitted farmworkers against landowners. Fittingly, the movement started and took shape in the Indian state of West Bengal, a state that has had a long embrace with communism. In
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri showed us the aftereffects of a family torn apart when one son becomes a Naxalite and the other is left picking up the pieces after the former’s fatal end. Neel Mukherjee simply expands the cast of characters, one of whom becomes a Naxalite, to show the devastating effect of this decision on the family. This book, which was shortlisted for the prestigious 2014 Man Booker Prize, uses the power of imagery and lapidary prose to go back and forth in time to reveal a family that is both torn apart and brought together by the many dark secrets that it shares.
The Ghosh clan is your typical 1960s Indian joint family. In a large, multistoried house, the patriarch lives with his wife on one floor while his married children occupy others. While each sub-family unit is independent in myriad little ways, they are joined at the hip in many others. Hanging over the Ghosh family is a family business that is on a downward spiral. Mukherjee astutely captures the tensions that eddy among the family members because of money and status issues. Lighting a fire to this family tension is the decision of Supratik, the eldest grandchild, to become a Naxalite and lead a life of stealth and lawbreaking to espouse the cause of indigent farmers. That this decision shatters the household is an understatement, as tensions rise to the surface among the Ghosh siblings.
Mukherjee knows his ground, although he is too young to have had firsthand knowledge of the Naxalite movement of the 1960s. He skillfully weaves family pathos with cultural history to mount the tension as Supratik’s decision impact the Ghoshes. In the sprawling middle section of the novel, he introduces new tensions and decisions to propel the story forward, although it meanders due to the headwind.
Mukherjee’s prose is precise, often using the right word and sentence length for maximum impact. His narrative structure, though, lacks the same precision
and somewhat undermines this fine novel. As such, it offers a bookend picture, along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s
The Lowland, of the impact of the Naxalite movement on ordinary families.