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Novel "Life in one breath": Being Indian on the test bench

Neel Mukherjee's novel “Life in One Breath” is a great, multi-perspective criticism of Indian society.

Mukherjee's novel is socially critical and pessimistic reading Photo: imago / Leemage

Indians abroad look at India differently: somehow more merciless. This also applies to the Indian writer Neel Mukherjee, who lives in London and who attracted a lot of attention in this country with his second novel “In Another Hearts”, published in 2016. A lush book, more than 600 pages in length, a family history spanning generations, the decline of a system, Bengali Buddenbrooks, if you will.

Now, his latest novel, “Life in one breath”, has been published in German, and first you want to know who comes up with such strange titles: “Life in one breath”. Om Shanti. In the original, the book is called simply and aptly “A State of Freedom”, just as the previous novel bears the worthy title “The Lives of Others”, which then became “In other hearts”.

This is not only annoying on the edge, because in this case it is contrary to the content of the novels. Mukherjee does not expect his readers to indulge in Indian epics indulging in the scent of curry, but rather hard, realistic social studies: he literally reads the riot act on the Indian nation, doesn’t paint anything beautiful, but says what it is like, which promptly leads him to reproach that he only poses them the negative sides of the country.

Tourist tour to the Taj Mahal

His new novel is divided into five very disparate chapters that approach life in India from very different angles. In the first chapter, Mukherjee accompanies an Indian father and his son, who was born and living in America, on a tourist tour through Agra, first to the Taj Mahal, then to Fatehpur Sikri, a palace complex that is part of the world cultural heritage, and which some people find because of its crowds and the many beggars scurrying around goes mad.

Mukherjee describes what you can experience there and gives hints of the very special experience of being a tourist in your own country. It reads on the first few pages as if he were intent on offending. Again and again he puts the Indian national character to the test and cunningly questions the idea of ​​being Indian properly.

Suddenly, tragically, he ends his introductory chapter in order to accompany a man who flies from London to his parents in Bombay once a year from London (those who lived there when it was still called Bombay continue to call it that and not Mumbai, as it is officially called today).

role: "Copines". Golden Press, Bremen 2018, 128 pages, 35 euros

They are a well-off family who even afford to treat their servants properly. Mukherjee makes the crass relationship between masters and their servants, as it is part of everyday life in India, clear by capturing the contradictions of the man, whose liberal view from outside clashes with the strict hierarchies of his homeland.

For example, the man reacts to a strict no from the cook as follows: “A deep-seated cultural mechanism, almost inscribed in the genome, caused outrage - a servant replied! - free in my organism. But no sooner had it manifested itself than the enlightened-liberal reaction to the retrograde nature of the initial impulse snapped and suppressed it immediately. I had found the cause of my discomfort. ”How do you deal with the inequality in the world and in your own little life? The novel spells out this question without pursuing a clear mission.

The third chapter is devoted to a poor man who goes on a journey with the dancing bears. A pleasure steeped in tradition in India, which is now being outlawed because of animal welfare. This is less of interest here than the man's desperate struggle to secure his livelihood and the brutalization of a society that likes to stick to hierarchies, be it that between rich and poor, women and men, animals and humans, or children and parents. These principles of order, in which it is always clear who is at the top and who is at the bottom, at least mentally upsets the novel by looking through their arbitrariness.

Finally women and girls

In the fourth chapter, which is divided into ten smaller ones, Mukherjee finally tells about women and girls: about Milly and her brilliant friend Soni. Both are good at school, but not determined by their families and the society in which they live. One will soon allow herself to be treated badly as a housemaid, while the other will join an underground movement.

This time, Mukherjee asks the class question persistently and relentlessly

The chapter begins with a sentence that one reads twice because of its splintering nature: “The first image that came to her mind when she thought of that day was the sparkling arc that the blood had written on her right hand threw her brother into the bushes. "

Mukherjee's tendency to be drastic sometimes comes along too much hence, but that also applies to the reality of life in India in general. The grievances in the country are simply too great, which is why it would be wrong to accuse the author of reducing the country's performance by hiding positive developments.

With the last, very short chapter, he ties in with the first and once again lends his voice to someone who is marginalized. The novel captivates more with its changes of perspective than with its stylistic sophistication. Mukherjee is a descriptive artist who succeeds in creating really great pictures here and there, although this time one can get the impression that he is utilizing what was still slumbering in his drawers. Although he leads individual characters through different chapters, so that one could speak of an episode novel, it seems more wooden than smooth.

The real theme of the novel: contempt for human beings

This was translated by the married couple Giovanni and Ditte Bandini, who are familiar with India and who also translated the previous novel into German without any problems. At this point we would like to point out the exemplary glossary and the extremely loving design of the volume.

The actual theme of the novel seems to be more central: contempt for human beings. In every chapter there are those who are despised because of their gender, their origin, their behavior, their social rank. Mukherjee names this precisely, following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and his socially critical novels. Like “In Other Hearts”, “Life in One Breath” is a socially critical and pessimistic book.

This time, Mukherjee asks the class question persistently and relentlessly. He borrowed one of the mottos for his novel from the writer VS Naipaul: "After all, we shape ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities." begins: “The world is what it is; People who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it. "