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Pain chronicled - Deccan Herald
Pain chronicled
Shreekumar Varma,
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The last time I reviewed his book here, I was struck by how Neel Mukherjee described experiences we've all read about, and made us feel them, one excruciating moment after another. It was Naxalism then, young activists fleeing assured lives and the romance of revolutionary words, undergoing pain and uncertainty in the wilderness. Their back-breaking labour under the scorching sun had us sweating.

In this book, his descriptions are longer, painstakingly detailed and accurate. At some uneasy point, you realise you are ingesting all that discomfort. There are hardly any dramatics, or show-words. Just a narrative that describes, and catalogues, and details, until it gets to you.

Several stories are told. Finally, we see they are strands in a narrative of progress, and they all come to a point at the end, whether progress from poverty to a road towards realisation, or from pain to more pain, or from hope to death. "In the end it's not despair that kills you but hope."

The bleakness reminds you of Kamala Markandeya. She, as Neel Mukherjee did, left India to sit in London and write with ruthless authenticity, of the gritty, hungry, foraging lives of men, women and children struggling in rural corners of our country. Mukherjee etches his scenarios well. In villages on the borders of jungles or slopes of hills, dusty towns, aloof cities, dwellings at the mercy of nature. Apartments as prisons, memorials and abandoned buildings with their dark terrors, slums decaying in the big, fat city. If you thought reading a book was safe, sometimes it isn't.

What is it like to come face-to-face with the Other, then know what it is to be the Other and, voluntarily or not, feel what it's like, by entering that life? There are five characters who give us perspective, taking a chapter each, crisscrossing, appearing like shadows, motifs that define and colour their own, and other, worlds.

The first scenario. A man and his six- year-old son seeing the sights, Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, a few moments of poetry and surrealism. He's a US citizen, and has brought the boy to show him the country he left years ago. We're briefly introduced to a couple of characters who will occupy us later, and a ghost between. They hardly touch the father and son, their worlds are far removed, but there are common blights, like sickness and death.

The second one shows a son from London visiting his parents in Mumbai. Two maids who work in the house, one hostile to the other, trigger what happens in the rest of the book. This chapter is the launching pad for the reader's journey into unchartered, uncomfortable places in the pages to come. The son tries to bridge the gap, rather awkwardly, between their own lives and the drudgery of these women. He tries to make them feel comfortable and at home, but gestures have little impact on mindsets fashioned by centuries of social, economic and cultural alienation. He visits the chawl where they live. He even spends a night in the home of the older one, in a remote West Bengal village. That's where the cross-cultural experience begins. Just a brief, disconcerting outing.

The third chapter is about a man and a bear. We've already met them briefly when the man from the US finds the bear's nose glued to his car window. We've already sniffed his brother and their ghost in the first chapter. But this is probably the most painful section, the torturous taming of the animal where we feel the physical hurt, the despairing of man at his lowest. In a mood to chastise the man for ill-treating the animal, we fall back in horrific resignation at his plight, embodied in gut-wrenching cries as the chapter draws to a close. We emerge from it, wrung out, like its wretched characters.

The fourth chapter tells of the younger maid, her family and friends back in the village near the jungle, one maimed by insurgents, another takes her own life, a third is shot dead. But this is a story of escape, and the brief glimmer of hope we spot at the end of the tunnel is such a relief. It shows the point where a crossing-over can work, where a future generation can build a bridge. The final chapter is a gushing last gasp, spiralling down to a raw moment in the first chapter.

The elaborate network of lives and situations, the careful structuring, the philosophical positioning - all these stay in the background until after we've read the book, the grip of the present is so vice-like. The relentless build-up and reporting of each scene ensures that we never remain unaffected. It isn't a book for a reader with a small heart.

A State of Freedom

Neel Mukherjee


2017, pp 275,Rs 599