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Unique look at universal

Neel Mukherjee's debut novel, A Life Apart, was set in England.

For his second, the London-based Indian returns to his home city of Calcutta for a sprawling saga taking in the lives of three generations of the Ghosh family. Beginning in 1967, it works forward to 1970, though as the stories of the various family members unspool there are frequent flashbacks to other eras.

Intercutting this are entries from a journal-cum-confession written by 21-year-old Supratik Ghosh, who has walked away from his comfortable middle-class life to join a group of Maoist revolutionaries.

The intended recipient of this document, another family member, remains unnamed, though there are clues enough for the reader to work it out.

Supratik's narrative and his journey - he leaves, foments revolution, kills class traitors, then returns to the city - serve as a neat framing device. But it's the ups and downs of life in the Ghosh household, a massive house in south Calcutta, that drive the story. This is a world where everybody plays the long game, where power shifts incrementally through alliance and appeasement, where coded (and not-so-coded) insults are traded at dinner, and face is everything. Or almost everything: jewellery and saris count for a lot too.

Queen of the poisonous put-down is Chhaya, only daughter of ailing Ghosh patriarch Prafullanath and his domineering wife Charabula. Chhaya has compounded the sin of being born dark-skinned and ugly by becoming highly educated and (worst of all) remaining unmarried, though any sympathies we have for her dissipate as the story progresses.

Among her four brothers she's closest to Priyonath - so close that she tries to commit suicide after he weds.

Meanwhile his visits to a prostitute who covers him in newspaper, squats on his chest and defecates for his masturbatory pleasure are a direct result of a vivid childhood memory: walking in on Chhaya on the toilet. She let him watch. Nothing was said. But something in the experience touched his dawning sexuality and fused with it. Such is life, Mukherjee seems to tells us. Everyone has their thing.

The other brothers are Adinath, Bholanath and Somnath. Adinath, the oldest and father of Supratik, wanted to be an engineer and build houses rather than go into the family business, which is paper, so now he drinks.

Somnath, the youngest, was spoilt as a child and became so "irrepressibly priapic" as a man that he's dead by the age of 24, his head bashed to "clotted black jam" after trying to rape a girl. There are wives and children and servants too, and we meet them all across the novel's 500-odd pages, entering their lives to taste their hopes, fears and disappointments.

With a narrative so deeply rooted in Bengali culture and the Indian politics of the first half of the 20th century, Mukherjee (or his publishers) have appended several pages of instruction.

It starts with a family tree - there are 17 members of the Ghosh family - and continues with a map of West Bengal, and offers a page on the complicated relational terms that are used in place of proper names. Even with these notes it isn't always easy to know who's being referred to.

Finally, there's a glossary, running from A for Aanchol (the bit of the sari which hangs over the shoulder) to U for Uff ("most commonly an expression of irritation").

The reader may also want to brush up on the Naxalite movement, a Communist insurgency born in the late 1960s and still active in parts of India today.

The phrase that gives the novel its title is woven into a moment in Supratik's narrative, but it features more prominently in one of the four epigraphs the author selects, a line from James Salter's Light Years: "How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?"

Mukherkee's novel is a colourful mosaic of these lives, human experiences which are both unique and universal - proof, if you like, that what we do and feel has been done and felt before, and will be again. Is there solace in that? Some. Maybe.

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