It is difficult for most writers to say what the originating idea behind a novel is, especially after the book has been finished, since one sails farther and farther away from that very first germ of the idea that grows into a fully-formed creature, unrecognisable from its beginnings. Most writers tend to make up retrospective stories about the originary moment which may not be accurate but are truthful in other ways.
Mine came with the desire to write not only about how we think of our place among others in the world we inhabit, but also about how we imagine those other people think about their own places, and ours. It’s not as confusing as I realise that sentence may sound. The key words are ‘empathy’ and ‘imagination’. What do we do when we read a novel? We enter into an imaginative understanding of fictional lives, lives of people who do not exist except on the page, and extend to them our sympathies, approbation, fears, dislikes. We enter those other lives in our imagination. This could be a good working definition of empathy, which is the beginning of the moral sense. We are moral creatures because we have the capacity to step outside the boundaries of our own needs and thoughts and think about what others might feel, need, want, think, imagine; putting ourselves in others’ shoes, in other words.
I wanted to take those notions of empathy and morality – always at the heart of the realist novel – and put them centre-stage in The Lives of Others, to make the story be about those ideas rather than leaving them unnoticed in the general matrix in which the majority of realist novels is embedded, imperceptibly, almost unthinkingly, informing the books’ souls. To do this, I needed to bring several contrasting, even downright clashing, worlds together. The book cuts through several such worlds at a given point in Indian history, the late 1960s, a time of immense political ferment, of unrest and idealism, of hope for change and the end of that hope. The Ghosh family lies at the centre of one narrative of the novel. Their well-heeled lives rest on the foundation of their ownership of paper-manufacturing factories. The other narrative, set in rural Bengal, features landlords, famers and wage-labourers. The lives of landlords in the Bengal countryside rest on ownership of arable land in which rice is cultivated, while the lives of rice-farmers and labourers depend on selling their labour.
History offered a readymade template for the collision of these wildly differing worlds. One strand of the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s, a Maoist revolution that attempted to end India’s appalling inequalities and iniquities by ‘armed struggle’, involved the participation of members of the ‘urban intelligentsia’, city-bred, university-attending women and men who spread out to the countryside – and did a fair amount of city ‘activism’, too – to help bring about the change they desired. In the novel, Supratik is the perfect amphibian: he is a scion of the Ghosh family, the eldest grandson of the patriarch and matriarch, but also a Naxalite revolutionary who wants to change the world. The challenge was to render each of these worlds, each of these lives, as truthfully as possible, with as much density of detail and three-dimensionality so that each time a reader opened the book, she or he was transported instantly into another time and other places.