Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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Day 793: The Lives of Others

Cover for The Lives of OthersI probably haven’t read enough contemporary Indian novels, or maybe I wouldn’t be surprised that two of them are partially about the Naxilite rebellion of the 60’s and 70’s. Apparently, a good deal has been written about it without my being aware of it before.

The Lives of Others deals with the rebellion on the one hand and the lives of an upper-class family, the Ghoshes, on the other. Prafullanath Ghosh is a member of the wealthy Ghosh family, owners of an expensive jewelry store in Calcutta. But Prafullanath was robbed of his inheritance by his older brother when he was a young man. So, he has worked his way up to become the owner of several paper factories.

His family, however, is not so much interested in the business as in the benefits that accrue from it. His two oldest sons are dilatorily employed by the business while the third son wastes money through a publishing concern. The poor economic climate and Prafullanath’s ill-advised business decisions as an old man threaten the business, and then a strike shuts down the most productive factory.

But the family’s floundering fortunes aren’t so much the focus of the novel as the decadence of the family itself. With nothing much to occupy themselves, some of the wives and the sister bicker endlessly. The four-floor house is occupied according to prestige, with the more important family members living higher, away from the noise and dust. Purba, the widow of the youngest son, and her two children have one room on the ground floor while each other family has a whole floor. Purba is treated worse than the servants.

Although Prafullanath has been ill since his youngest son’s death, his other sons have their vices. Adinath is alcoholic, Priyo is subject to sexual obsessions, and Bhola practically throws money away. At first, Adinath’s son Supratik seems to have escaped the family decadence. He has left home and school without warning to work among the poor farmers and instruct them in Mao’s teachings. He is a Naxilite.

About a third of the novel consists of Supratik’s letters, written to someone who for a long time is not identified. He writes about the plight of the farmers, who are being plundered by large landowners in league with the police. He also writes about the activities of his small cadre.

Even though his deeds eventually become savage, for a long time Supratik seems to be the only Ghosh with praiseworthy motives, but this account is more nuanced than to paint anyone as simply good or evil. Almost all the adults in the novel are in some way corrupt.

Although set mostly in the 60’s and early 70’s with flashbacks to earlier times, an epilogue shows that the same kind of corruption is going on today. The Lives of Others is a novel that is powerful but difficult to read. It is an indictment of class and caste divides, corruption, and the imbalance between the rich and the poor.

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