on 7 November 2010
Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart is so assured and strong that it's difficult to believe that it's his debut novel.
This isn't the only surprise about it. The main protagonist, a young man called Ritwik Ghosh, who is twenty one when we first meet him in Calcutta, is inscrutable to the last - nothing is as it seems. At the start of the story, Ritwik is attending the cremation of his mother who has died only eleven days after his father. Her demise is re-lived, with Mukherjee painting the horror of the event with ghastly power, magnifying the breathless trepidation with the clamour of panic from shouting relatives, morbid curiosity of neighbours and chaos of negotiating packed roads to hospital. The reader is sucked into the turmoil of this frenetic world where the differences from our lives - major social disparity, the suffocating atmosphere of extended family - are juxtaposed with the similarities - the fundamentals of life and death.
We learn that Ritwik, dazed by grief, had refused to carry out the traditional fire to face ritual at his father's cremation but his determination to carry out this duty at his mother's helps us surmise that there was something very unique about his relationship with his mother. We later found out there was, but it's not what we assumed.
We next meet Ritwik at Oxford University a year later, where he has won a scholarship to study English. Naive and unsure of himself, he tries his best to fit in, though even his best friend Gavin relentlessly teases him - sometimes with genuine spite - about how unworldly he is. As he struggles to comprehend regional accents and fit into this new culture, the reader again jumps to conclusions - he will be a studious mouse with tame extra-curricular activities. Wrong again. Ritwik is discovering his sexuality and has learnt he is gay but, perhaps because of the culture he comes from and his harrowing experiences as a child, he is unable to consider forming gay relationships and explores this side of himself in the most cold and anonymous way.
Interspersed and entwined with Ritwik's story is one leading up to the Partition of Bengal in 1905. This story turns out to be something Ritwik is writing; he has based it on a minor character called Miss Gilby from a book and film he has seen. Miss Maud Gilby lives in India at the time of the British Empire where her brother has a government post. She works as a governess/English teacher, and, after living in Madras for some years, she moves to Calcutta where she makes a close friend. Both women are spirited and independent and outspoken in their enthusiastic urge to encourage teaching for Indian women. Miss Gilby is then offered a post by a gentle, progressive man named Roy Chowdhury, a job that involves teaching his shy young wife Bimala English. But within a short time of taking up this post, the Swadeshi movement gathers pace in Bengal. Hindu supporters of Swadeshi oppose the Partition of Bengal proposed by the Raj and the British Empire, and to show their displeasure, they boycott all English goods and the mood becomes ugly, with violence erupting and factions forming since many Pakistani residents of Bengal relish a chance of separation from the Hindus.
Events in both stories progress to their natural conclusions, one deeply personal, the other political. Ritwik's life as a child in Calcutta is untangled, and the way stress and poverty may precipitate the worst of human behaviour is portrayed in scenes that are viscerally wrenching. The chain that abuse sometimes creates is apparent as we learn that Ritwik's violent mother herself has a malevolent mother who takes sadistic pleasure from the beatings her grandson receives, and the seed is planted that Ritwik's mother may not have had much of a maternal role model. Ritwik's father is under intolerable financial stress, having to support his wife's four scrounging adult brothers and the rest of their family indefinitely, and releases his tension by shouting at his wife, who then beats her sons raw. Mukherjee also conveys beautifully the way extremely abnormal family dynamics are not questioned by small children, for whom they are the norm.
The descriptions of the family situation are compelling. Of Ritwik's mother, Mukherjee writes 'every inch of visible tenderness had been trimmed away like fat off meat.' Her frustration is animated in terms that will be recognisable universally: 'In the kitchen she could be heard handling utensils so noisily that they were afraid she was breaking half of them.'
Mukherjee is also painfully perceptive about the myopic brutality of children, recounting how Ritwik was ashamed to be seen with his kind and generous but elderly and shabby father as a schoolboy at the private school for which his father slaved to pay.
Both the story set in India at the beginning of the 20th century and the contemporary one concern themes of personal and national identity and fulfilment. Ritwik wishes to stay in England after his degree and finds a post as a live-in carer of an old woman named Anne Cameron. Mrs Cameron is frail and befuddled by personal loss, but she has lucid moments where she reminisces about her past. Ritwik learns that she lived in India many years previously, and he becomes bewitched by her tragic story, and tenuously weaves her long-dead husband Christopher, who died of malaria in India, into the tale he is writing.
The book is not without faults. However gripping Ritwik's downward spiral is, there are aspects of it that are implausible: why would a brilliant young Oxford English graduate choose to shift into the shadows and try and earn a living as an illegal immigrant rather than applying for a job and resident's work permit which he would be most likely to have granted? In addition, the ensuing sections about the dismal existence of illegal immigrants - hanging around on cold street corners for hours, waiting for vans to transport them like cattle to low-paid jobs, absence of basic provisions such as safety, warmth and water at work - are savagely potent, but these plights have been covered by other authors.
It is the transfixing majesty of Mukherjee's prose that elevates this novel to the very special category. His writing is quite simply dazzling. Whether he is describing a bumpy ride in an old car along poorly asphalted roads or the shifty transactions effected in the shadowy London underworld, his words are riveting and startlingly evocative, conjuring up haunting visual images and a sense of nervy anticipation that keeps your eyes glued to the page. Here is the tense taxi journey in which Ritwik's semi-conscious mother is rushed to hospital:
'The taxi ...made its way to Kalighat, its wheels sending up a dense cottony billow of yellow-grey dust that, mingled with the exhaust fumes, kept blowing into the vehicle through the open windows...The roads on either side of the tram tracks were dug up in places and it was a bumpy, convoluted ride...With each jerk, Ritwik feared the clot in his mother's head was oozing out more blood, or her frangible brain-lobes juddering with the impact and disintegrating like some delicate pudding that could barely hold its shape...It was one of the busiest crossroads in the city. Pedestrians and traffic flowed into each other like indiscriminate waters; there were no demarcated spaces for either, no rules about their separation. A cow stood, calm and transcendent, in the middle of this barely moving, lawless sea of people, bicycles, autorickshaws, lorries, cars, buses, stray dogs and trams. A woman with stainless steel kitchen utensils balanced on her head shouted out her wares and tried to cross over to the other side...All these registered in Ritwik's head like separate photographs, without syntax. And above all this incessant noise of traffic and horns and human living, he could hear, as an abiding bass-line, the raucous cry of crows. He just had to shift the focus of his ears, from foreground to background, to hear the harsh, continuous cawing welling out over everything, like the slow, silent beginnings of a flood.'
And here he is on poverty:
'In Ritwik's mind, there were two types of poverty. One, the un-experienced sub-Saharan type, some sort of a shrine for the western media, with images of devoring eyes; fly-encrusted lips of children; women and men and offspring reduced to bare, forked animals, a cage of awkward stubborn bones barely sheathed in polished skin. The other was the slow drip drip drip which did not decimate populations in one fell swoop but hounded you every fraction of your time, got under your skin, into every space in your head and made you a lesser person, an edgy, jittery animal because, you see, it never finished you off but gnawed at you here and there just to remind you it was there and that you were powerless in its half-grip. Gloating and victorious, but sleazily so, poverty not as Death triumphant in a Bosch nightmare but instead, one of his low, seedy, taunting thieves.'
Mukherjee's novel is an astonishingly vivid account of a young man whose childhood abuse stains his self worth and propels him into a destructive lifestyle. His depiction of a man who is simultaneously a gentle and considerate carer of a vulnerable old woman and someone who enjoys fast, risky, anonymous sex with strangers subverts black and white tabloid morality. It may be disturbing, but his ability to convey devastating experiences in ways that make the reader feel they're experiencing them first hand make it a spectacular and breathtaking work.