A Life Apart By Neel Mukherjee (2011). This review is by John Cook

A Life Apart

I seem to have read more books about Indian life in recent times and have not been disappointed. This, like many, directly or indirectly, looks at relationships between developing Indian culture and how it deals with older and more modern Western influences. Much of this was presaged by the dedicatory quotes.

 

Mukherjee has chosen to use the device of a young Indian man, Ritnik, who is born and bred in modern Kalkot in circumstances that propose, if not propel him into departing to England to study English literature at a great and traditional University. In this, not being commercially or technologically inclined, he is typical as a young Indian who sees all kinds of education as liberating and the one key bequest he has received from his parental home and ‘tiger’ mother. The book is not entirely clear on how the opportunity arose.

 

The novel opens with a detailed description of the Hindu cremation of his mother, at once informative and symbolic of his departure from the culture into which he was born but has a love/hate relationship.

 

We are transported to England where he slowly finds his partial way in an environment in which he has longed to participate. We are then introduced to the tale of Miss Gilby, the seed of which is taken from the dedicatory quote and developed into a parallel story. Miss Gilby is living in Kalkot pretty much at the height of the Raj, though, as a thinking person, she is very aware of the emerging tensions of the ‘new’ Indian nationalism and wants to go and live with a more modern Hindu household in a two-way cultural participation aimed particularly at women emerging from traditional seclusion. Through this, the reader regularly revisits her tale where she will have some success but eventually run into the very hard edge of the consequences of British ‘divide and rule’ political interference. There is a lot in her tale that is charming and informative – certainly the elements of a complete and satisfying novel in itself. As such it serves to highlight the notion of two people looking outward into different cultures.

 

The Ritfik tale, in its earlier stages, I found less satisfying. The period of his college life had an almost dream-like quality which, perhaps it was, especially when contrasted with the grittier nature of his gay sex life.

 

In due time, the dream (for both he and Miss Gilby) has to end and Ritfik has to find some way to stay in the UK illegally as he cannot see himself returning to India as the person he has become. At this point, his tale becomes much more closely steeped in the life of an illegal which provides a linkage with the worldwide phenomenon of those in that situation. He acquires a ‘job’ working to care for a very old lady in a decrepit house supplementing his income with ‘pick-up’ labouring including fruit picking in season. It turns out the old lady also has a very picturesque connection with India of the past

 

While I found this and interesting investigation of this limited world and its occupants, I found it to be still somewhat unengaging. Again, his sex life proved to be key to his progress and the perhaps inevitable denouement.

 

This is a very well written book with passages of clarity and beauty but, for me, the mixture failed to come together in a satisfying way despite some of the thematic links I was able to detect between the two story lines.

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