I am not new to Neel Mukherjee’s work, having read his Lives of Others, a Bengali family saga. This month I picked up A Life Apart, and I was amazed at the talent this writer has. Weaving two stories into one, A Life Apart is a story that is true in its nature, unabashedly honest and the climax will not surprise you but leave you devastated in the end.
An award-winning story, A Life Apart begins with Ritwik, a young Oxford student who has recently arrived in England from Calcutta. Complaining about chilly rains and chilly hearts, running away from his past, Ritwik makes up for a perfect Neel Mukherjee character. The story then oscillates from Ritwik’s traumatic past in Calcutta to his new life in England.
Leaving behind a family that was worse than animals, consisting of four lazy uncles feeding of his parents, an abusive mother who wanted Ritwik and his brother Aritra to excel in studies and a father who gave Ritwik the best gift of his life, books. His mother’s death leaves the protagonist in shambles. His ticket to a new life arrives after he wins a scholarship to study in England, and from there on his life changes completely.
Read more on Book Review: The Lives of Others
Away from the gutters of Calcutta and the grotesque crowd of people, Ritwik lands into the world of dreams and hopes. But the ghosts of the past do not leave him. He starts feeling his mother around again, sitting on an armchair in his room, taunting him regarding his sexuality and lack of focus. Since his own life was never perfect from the beginning, he creates a story so perfect that acts like a soothing balm for the reader.
Enters Miss Gilby, the protagonist of Ritwik’s story set in turbulent Bengal of 1900’s and taken from Tagore’s famous book, Ghare Baire. She teaches English to Bengali women, who have recently started adopting new foreign ways and have started stepping out of their Andarmahal. She has got a new student now, Bimala, wife of Mr. Nikhlesh Roy Chowdhary whom Miss Gilby finds one of the rare species who could stand up to the standards of Raj, by having their own unique and mystifying aura. The story of Miss Gilby makes a fine story of its own and is a deep contrast of Ritwik’s life is in England. An outsider in a foreign land, trying to set his own little perfect world. Both Miss Gilby and Ritwik are alienated yet excited by new opportunities.
Then comes the part II and the real struggle begins. Ritwik faces expiry of his UK Visa. So with the help of his friend Gavin, he moves to London as a caretaker to an elderly lady, Anne Cameron in exchange for a room. The growing bond of affection between Ritwik and Anne is beautiful, yet sad in a strange way. Anne is the only companion Ritwik has had till now, but that companionship starts to break bit by bit when Ritwik is pulled into illegal work to survive in the country of his dreams.
The illegal work of Ritwik includes arms trades, sex workers, fruit picker and daily mails and in contrast, you see Miss Gilby dealing with policies of the Raj, communal violence and fragile relationships formed between Britishers and Indians. The growing tension, in the end, gives birth to a known climax, but with a devastating blow to your senses. By the end of A Life Apart, you just close the book and soak in its warmth and beauty.
What I really loved about A Life Apart was the two contrasting stories, both of them trying to find solace in each other. Where Ritwik’s world was upside down, he made sure that Miss Gilby had her own freedom, her own voice, and her own ideals to live by. He lived through her, making her travel places and do what she loved. On the other, the fragile relationship that Miss Gilby and Mr. Roy Chowdhry share with each other is something that you see between Ritwiik and Anne as well. Also, the most beautiful part of the book is the climax, which any reader would be able to predict once they are done with three-fourth of the book. But the climax is delivered in such a way that leaves you mesmerized, even surprised at the poise and grace of the Neel Mukherjee.
The only problem a reader might face from A Life Apart is the uneven tone of the first section. The constant oscillation from Ritwik’s traumatic past to his present may leave many confused, but for me, it was almost lyrical. All in all, Neel Mukherjee’s A Lie Apart is a beautiful book, something that you can devour into and fall in love with.