There are some debuts which serve to announce a writer's promise, glimmering brightly between the
A Life Apart
by Neel Mukherjee
320pp, Constable, £12.99
flaws and missteps; and there are some follow-ups which more than confirm that promise as they make their way through increasing levels of complexity. It is rare, though, to find a debut which displays that promise amid flaws in the first half, and then soars into finely nuanced achievement in the second.
A Life Apart has already won an award in India. The first part follows a young Oxford student, Ritwik, recently arrived in England from Calcutta. Neel Mukherjee's deftness with moments that could easily be clichéd announces itself early on, as Ritwik fulfils that primary requirement of all fictional Indian characters who arrive in England contemplating the rain: "For most of the time it is not the actual physical thing, the element of water, which he experiences, but the intent to rain, a sort of pervasive threat in the dead gunmetal skies."
But this first section is uneven in tone and control. The story moves between Ritwik's life in Oxford, which consists of studying and cruising, and memories of his traumatic childhood in Calcutta. A great deal of explaining goes on, whether of social rules in Bengal or the rituals of cottaging in Oxford's public loos, and while the intention may be to show Ritwik's outsider status, the actual effect is distancing. If we were simply dropped into Ritwik's world and made to understand it through observation it would make for far more engaged reading. As it is, Calcutta in particular seems merely a collection of grotesque people and incidents.
But there is one storyline that works from the start: that of the novel Ritwik is writing about Miss Gilby, a minor English character in a Tagore novel. Interspersed with Ritwik's past and present we are given, chapter by chapter, his version of Miss Gilby's story, set in Bengal in the politically turbulent early 1900s as she teaches English in a Bengali household. It makes for fine reading on its own and works even better as an insight into Ritwik's inverted position as an Indian outsider in an English world, alienated yet excited by new possibilities, with a dawning awareness of the larger political context.
The shift in the novel from uneven to assured takes place at the start of Part II when Ritwik, faced with the expiry of his UK visa, moves to London and becomes caretaker to the elderly Anne Cameron in exchange for a room. The growing affection between Anne and Ritwik is moving, surprising and entirely believable. She is the only real relationship he has as his growing penury and illegal status push him into a terrifying world of illegal work. The growing shadows and his new friendship are both given voice in Ritwik's continued reworking of Tagore's story, which takes in the partition of Bengal and simmering tensions between British and Indians as well as Hindus and Muslims.
There is a large coincidence dropped into the novel when Ritwik's contact in the black economy turns out also to be employed by the creepy Zafar, who is paying Ritwik for sex, but the coincidence is effective, heightening the sense of Ritwik's world collapsing in on itself. Mukherjee deftly interweaves the worlds of the arms trade, sex workers, fruit pickers and the Daily Mail, while also casting a light on the economic policies of the Raj, communal violence and the fragility of relationships conducted under the glare of history. But he never loses sight of his characters and their emotional upheaval. The growing tension is expertly handled; the ending unsurprising yet completely devastating.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010