Sunday, December 18, 2016

Neil Mukherjee's "A Life Apart"

Alienated from his new country, the literary immigrant wants to prove that he belongs, how else, but by credibly, and thus, creditably, narrating a story from the point of view of a native informant. In Mukherjee's debut novel, the protagonst Rikwit brings to life the bit character of Miss Gilby, an Englishwoman in Raj India, from the Rabindranath Tagore story "Bimala's autobiography." The story about how Miss Gilby becomes the tutor of Bimala, the wife of an enlightened zamindar, and subsequently falls victim to inter-religious conflict in Bengal is expertly told. The expertise is the point, for Rikwit who is anything but an expert in navigating the life of a queer Indian scholarship student at Oxford and then that of an undocumented immigrant. In fact, his life is a mess. He spends his Oxford career cruising for men in an underground public bathroom and goes down to prostitution in a very dark corner of London. He is most certainly not a model immigrant. I find most interesting the first part of the novel which depicts the growing-up years in Bengal and the last part which brings to the light the life and plight of "floating" workers looking for temporary farming or construction jobs. The middle part about Oxford I find rather tedious since I cannot bring myself to care for any of the students, not even Rikwit himself. Rikwit's realization at Oxford that his mother's harsh discipline is considered child abuse in the new country leads nowhere. It reinforces the motif of violence running through the novel but does not develop into fundamental insight into cultural relativism.

No comments: