The evolution of an upper-class Bengali family in the late 1960s reflects India’s political turbulence in this confidently expansive second novel from Mukherjee (A Life Apart, 2010), which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Like a rolling stone, Mukherjee’s nonostentatious epic accrues its weight and mass gradually; it's a three-generational family saga that embraces tensions both micro- and macro-cosmic. The majestic Ghosh family mansion in Calcutta reflects the nation’s entrenched economic hierarchy, with the wealthy patriarch, Prafullanath, and his wife, Charubala, on the top floor and the servant classes and spurned family members at the bottom. Prafullanath, once an entrepreneurial genius who built a fortune in the paper-making industry, is now a broken reed, his health ruined, his empire failing after bad investments. On the middle floors of the house live the second and third Ghosh generations, three married sons with their children and a sour spinster daughter, and below them, the disgraced widow of a bad-seed fourth son. The family’s history is intricately, nonchronologically narrated in brief episodes that point up the power struggles, petty jealousies, cruelties and sexual attractions among the individual members. Mingled with these episodes are extracts from a diary written by Prafullanath’s eldest grandson, Supratik, who has absconded to become a Communist Naxalite guerrilla among the rural poor. Supratik’s chapters offer glimpses of the extremes of poverty and corruption in Bengal and of its essential beauties too—the green velvet of the rice paddies, the monsoon rains. But political violence emerges in Supratik’s story, matched by union troubles at the Ghosh paper mills. After Supratik’s eventual return to the Calcutta household, its unraveling gains pace. Mukherjee closes with two epilogues that offer contrasting views of the consequences.
This is an immensely accomplished, steady-handed achievement, Victorian in its solidity, quietly enthralling in its insightful observation of the ties that bind.