The Lives of Others: Neel Mukherjee in conversation with Patricia Duncker

by Katie Smith @katie_smith20

Patricia Duncker introduced Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Lives of Others as ‘a huge book for a huge country’. Mukherjee’s and Duncker’s personalities seemed to fill the Betjeman Marquee and, as audience members, we were completely immersed in their hour-long conversation that spanned themes including family, the changing face of India, forms of narrative in fiction-writing and women writers.

Duncker was a lively host, opening the event with a discussion about the novel’s depiction of class and economic inequality in India. Mukherjee gave a rousing anecdote about learning to use a sickle to cut wheat on a farm in India much to the disbelief of the farmworkers who asked him ‘why are you doing this?’. Mukherjee examined this question further, exploring the 1960’s trend for middle-class ‘Bourgeois revolutionaries’ to leave the cities and pursue manual work with the working-classes. He read a passage from his book that powerfully depicts the toil of working in the fields, likening humans to engines: ‘the machine was dead, or just a stopped machine.’

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Mukherjee went on to name George Eliot, Penelope Fitzgerald and Murial Spark as literary influences and Duncker pointed out how refreshing it was for a male writer to use women writers as his points of reference.

Family sits at the heart of the sprawling, epic The Lives of Others, a family, Mukherjee noted, that is built on ‘secrets, tensions and power struggles’. The idea of family was aptly described by an audience member at the end of the event, who summed up; ‘we’re cast as characters in a play with a plot we cannot change – we can, however, edit the outcome’.

The Lives of Others is published by Chatto & Windus.