Talk about buses, coming along in pairs.
Two books, published recently, both examined the Maoist uprising in India. Now, I didn’t even know that there had been a Maoist uprising in India, so two novels in close succession felt like more than coincidence. But it's probably no more than a good example of Jung's collective consciousness at work.
In both books, a young man is drawn into a radical far-left movement called Naxalism, its name derived from Naxalbari, a tiny village to the north of Calcutta where impoverished peasants rose up against the police and landlords in 1967, sparking off dreams of a nationwide insurgency that would replicate Mao’s earlier revolution in China.
I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland first, and this was my introduction the the Naxalites, a movement I’d never heard of before. I love learning new things from the fiction I read, however, at the end of the book, I still didn’t know anything about the uprising. That story is skirted and what is examined instead is disappearance, the not knowing.
Subhash’s younger brother, Udayan, has gone without trace, and he’s missed by all the people who care for very much for him in a multitude of different ways Lahiri explores these lives – lives lived with a blankness where a person should be. What Lahari is saying, it seems to me, is that disappearance is more poignant than death, for there is no closure when someone vanishes off the face of the earth. Udayan's family are trapped in the unkowning. How differently would have been their lives if that disappearance hadn’t happened? How different are their lives because of that mysterious gap appearing in the centre of the family.
As I was reading Lowlands, I fell in love, once again, with Lahari’s erratic, dancing prose and the power of her characters, who feel and believe and with such passion and depth. But her short stories are more lucid than this longer book. The writer is far better at getting under the skin of characters
like this, exploring their dreams, fears, failures and secrets, than she is describing settings or actions. Rather than demonstrating any overarching narrative drive, Lahari’s Indian family seem to live in the clouds, if not in the Cloud. But at the end of the book, I could truly say I'd loved it, because the ending is exqusiite. It both explains the beginning and takes us in a circle back to it. It’s because of this one little device, which I had to wait 432 pages for, that Lowlands stays with me,
In direct contrast, The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee does not try to
uprising. We learn how punishing was the regime the idealistic students set for themselves, in their attempts to emulate Chinese Communism, and we also see in graphic detail the way the police and state dealt with their beliefs.
The structure Muckherjee has chosen takes us alternately from the Ghosh Family (and their long-standing business empire) and their teenage son, Supratik. The family - or at least Supratik's mother - is struggling, as in Lowland, to come to terms with the disappearance. Their lives, in contrast to the starving peasants Supratik is now starving alongside, are rich and charmed, to the point they simply cannot imagine any other life. As with Lowlands, we watch several generations, this time mostly in flashback back from the starting point of 1967, to learn how much the family members truly hate each other.
While Lowlands had a problem with getting to grips with setting, this book seems to not bother with properly introducing characters. Constantly I got lost and frequently I was grateful for both the glossary and the Ghosh family tree, printed at the front of the book.
I found the chapters focused on Supratik grueling but easy to read. It was the Ghosh chapter I found troublesome. I seemed to constantly be waiting for characters and their situations to be introduced and explained, while trying to figure out what was happening and what had happened to this unpleasant family. I almost gave up several times, as I wondered where this book was going. But when the writer gets to grips with a scene, he's wonderfully colourful and imaginative.
The Lives of Others seemed to be telling and showing me far less than I thought I'd need to understand the story, yet, when when I’d finished it, and pondered upon it, I realized that somehow I’d gained a complete picture and could see the romance and direction of its narrative perfectly.
If you like to discover new information while reading fiction, or love books that tackle large issues, you'd probably enjoy either of these. Lowland was short-listed last year: The Lives of Others won the prize the year after. Why not read both and decide for yourself if the Booker judges made the right choices.