The Real India

Magnum Photos
A shrine to the Hindu goddess Kali on the banks of the Ganges River, Calcutta, 1987; photograph by Raghu Rai

Such is the power of the image of Mahatma Gandhi as a saint of iconolatry, emaciated, half-naked, bent over a walking stick as he leads India’s masses to freedom from imperial power without ever raising a gun or a hand or even his voice, that the impression of India’s freedom movement having been a pacifist, nonviolent one is almost ineradicable. It is of course far from the truth. There was always a violent strain in that history as well, less unified, more contested.

Exactly a century ago Rabindranath Tagore wrote of the struggle between the two forms of revolution. In his 1915 novel The Home and the World, he has the noble and altruistic aristocrat Nikhil represent one camp (clearly the one he himself felt the most acceptable), and Sandip, the villainous revolutionary who stops at nothing, the other. Torn between the two is Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, who is portrayed as if she was Mother India herself, or the goddess Durga, beloved of Bengal (and of course Durga has a ferocious, blood-thirsty aspect as well, that of Kali).

Now a hundred years later, another Bengali writer, Neel Mukherjee, has addressed the same conflict in his novel The Lives of Others. Unlike Tagore’s novel, it is written in English, not Bengali, but an English not filtered through an English perspective or English sensibility and as profoundly indigenous in its tone, environment, characters, speech, and actions as is Tagore’s novel. Mukherjee makes few concessions to the foreign reader other than providing a map, a family tree, a note on names and relations (which are at least as complex as those in Russian literature), and a wonderfully informative and witty glossary that one can peruse with pleasure. One has the sense, in reading the book, of being in the presence of the real thing. In fact, the reader could be daunted by so much reality.

In the prologue, we see a peasant starving to death; his family has not eaten for days. When he goes to the landlord to beg for a cup of rice, he is ejected by guards who joke, “Where are you going to hit this dog? He is nothing but bones, we don’t even have to hit him. Blow on him and he’ll fall back.” Somehow Nitai Das gathers the strength to return home where he picks up his sickle and “with his practised farmer’s hand” beheads first his wife, then his children, and finally drinks from a jerrycan of pesticide and is “returned from the nothing in his life to nothing.” So, in the first three pages, Mukherjee establishes himself as a writer who will spare the reader nothing. Why should he? he seems to ask, this is how things are. Look.

He then…

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