Five diverse lives in India are traced and linked, exposing the aching gulfs in experience and opportunity that exist in a complex nation.
Particle physicists, Maoist terrorists, punitive employers, servants, and émigrés all have roles in Mukherjee’s (The Lives of Others, 2014, etc.) third novel, which is composed of interwoven short fictions moving between seething cities and rural life at its most impoverished. Themes of money, work, politics, survival, and women’s roles connect the characters. In Bombay, an elderly couple with a new cook welcomes home their liberal son, now living overseas, on his annual visit. His keen interest in food and research for a cookbook lead to awkward efforts to befriend the cook, resulting in a visit to her family’s home, a trip seamed with shame, pity, and wonder. Elsewhere, a poor villager, crushed under the burden of trying to provide not only for his own family, but his brother’s, too—the brother has gone to find work on construction sites in the cities—is relieved, perhaps, by the discovery of a bear cub. Having trained the bear to “dance”—an unbearably cruel process—man and animal begin a life together on the road and a kind of parallel existence, begging for food and money, debased and suffering. The fate of the absent brother is glimpsed in the sinister, haunting opening of the book and confirmed in its final section. The London-based Mukherjee surprises once again with the form of his storytelling while confirming anew the depth of his empathy. His characters’ life journeys are often painful while his descriptions of their circumstances are unsentimental, vivid, unsparing. Above all there is compassion here, alongside a focus that depicts gross inequities with a grim tenderness.
A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.