A taste of things to come

Author Neel Mukherjee. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Neel Mukherjee is in town, and we have been informed that he is a vegetarian. Our search for an appropriate venue ends at Chutney in The Metropolitan Hotel, where we decide to meet for lunch.

The afternoon is heavy with languor, a feeling accentuated somewhat by the silence in the restaurant. Neel arrives, looking a little harried, and is a little uncomfortable with the staff's overtures to begin with. He protests gently when informed that the chef has prepared a special meal for us, but after tasting the first of the preparations, the tamatar tulsi shorba, he appears pacified.

It is only a couple of weeks until the winner of the Booker Prize is announced, but Neel is anything but nervous. His novel “The Lives of Others” is shortlisted alongside works by Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson, Karen Joy Fowler, Richard Flanagan and Joshua Ferris. “I think it’s just great to be on the shortlist because I’m only two books old. I am thrilled, delighted and I am shell-shocked. It’s like I’ve been hit in the back of my head and I’m still seeing the stars,” he says of his achievement.

The novel, his second after the Crossword Book Award winning “Past Continuous”, is set in the years between 1967 and 1970, when West Bengal was in the throes of Naxalism. The locus of its action, however, is 22/6 Basanta Bose Road, Calcutta, where the lives of three generations of the once-prosperous Ghosh family are slowly coming apart.

The novel unfolds in episodes that take the point of view of each of these characters (detailing in the process their secrets, perversions, jealousies and the larger, claustrophobic “opera of Bengali life”), as well as a series of letters from Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family, who has left unannounced to join the Naxal movement.

While it is tempting to call the novel a family saga, which it is, Neel’s intentions were of a different order. “I started thinking about the realist novel...And if you look at the novel form, its origins and its development are so tied up with a particular class — the bourgeoisie,” Neel says. “The realist novel throughout its history has held up a kind of mirror to this class to make the world either comprehensible or palatable to them.”

The novel emerged from this thinking, and as a consequence of Neel’s effort to bring it to bear on form. In this endeavour, the words of the writer M John Harrison – “start with a form, then ask what it's afraid of” – became his map. “I thought it could become the core of a writer’s project – asking of a genre what it is hiding, what it is colluding in, what it is not doing,” Neel explains. “I thought if one has to write a novel to lay bare the ideological foundations of the bourgeois realist novel, one has to do it dialectically. So therefore I thought it wouldn’t do just to write the story of a family, I would have to have an antithetical ideology.”

Apart from a political project, Neel also imagined the novel as a linguistic one. It was important to him, he says, to convey the habits of mind and patterns of speech of his Bengali characters, even if they did not make full sense to a non-Bengali reader. “It is my big Bengali novel,” he says proudly.

Conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the kabab platters, with a paneer dilnaaz tikka, a palak seekh, a mewe aur mawa ki galawat and a makai matar kabab each, and we resume with the subject of vegetarianism, to which the writer converted recently. Until he read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee, Neel had “no idea that there could be such a concept as the moral right and wrong of eating animals”. It took him a few more years to take the plunge into vegetarianism, though, because his “Bengali greed got in the way”. Perhaps for the same reason, he still hasn’t been able to give up fish – an inconsistency he hopes to correct soon.

Holding the note of regret a little longer (this time in Bengali, where it acquires a comic inflection), Neel says, “I am greedy. I think about food all the time, about lunch after breakfast, about dinner after lunch. My life seems to be structured around food.” The self-awareness doesn’t sully his appreciation of the main course, though, which features khumb makhana curry, soya bean ka khagina, khada palak makai and subz biryani. Neel is particularly appreciative of the biryani and the soya bean preparation. Sated with the meal, we decide to forego the dessert – the gulab jamun sandwich, which manages to sound forbidding and welcoming at once.

Being a vegetarian hasn’t been difficult for Neel, but “if one could eat like this every day it would become easier,” he chuckles, and we take leave of each other.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 9:11:00 PM |

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