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The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee - Shortlist author interview

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee - Shortlist author interview

Our interview with shortlisted author Neel Mukherjee about The Lives of Others

Robert Frost said: “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” Does this apply to fiction too and, if so, what have you discovered?

Oh, yes. Often a narrative will lead you into places where you didn’t imagine you would, or could, go. Sometimes these are areas you didn’t even think existed. There’s a wonderful sentence by Léon Bloy: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” In the case of this book, here is a short list, randomly selected, of what entered the non-existent places: number theory; rice cultivation as it was done in the late-Sixties in West Bengal; action scenes; scenes involving the manipulation of a large cast of people; the business of manufacturing paper.

Have you ever written anything you wouldn't change a word of?

Perhaps the occasional review but never fiction. The thought of my fiction not being edited is terrifying.

One could argue that the family is the foundation of all literature but it seems to hold a special place in Indian literature – A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things, The Lowland. Is that a correct perception?

Yes and no. An equal number of examples, if not more, of Indian books could be given to argue that this is not the case. However, the perception you mention exists because it is very true on one level. Long after the West, especially under the current reign of late-capitalism, has dismantled the notion of family, it still continues to be the foundation, the sine qua non even, of Indian society and culture. While there does seem to be a trend in contemporary Indian literature in English to move away, consciously or not, from writing about family, it has transpired that in the West it is one of those civilisational units that will simply not lie dead. Two examples: I’ve just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Lila. How can one not read it as a novel about family? Colm Tóibín, too, has kept returning to the family in his work.