Neel Mukherjee’s Choice tackles economics, identity, and the burden of morality

This beautifully written novel strikes a significant blow for the novel as a genre, to begin with, retrieving it from plastic pundits.

Published : Jun 12, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Part III of Choice, set in a very impoverished family on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, features a mother who works as a house help.

Part III of Choice, set in a very impoverished family on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, features a mother who works as a house help. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Really, I should hate Neel Mukherjee’s Choice. I strongly dislike fiction set in sophisticated literary circles and academia and usually feel dissatisfied with incursions in English into the lives of the hugely deprived in India. Choice contains three long stories, each presenting a crucial choice: the first story is set in literary circles in London, the second in academic ones, and the third in a nameless hamlet on the Indian side of the Bangladesh-India border. However, such is the power of Mukherjee’s observations and the precision of his writing that I love the first two stories and, despite slight reservations, find the third one highly pertinent and readable.

By Neel Mukherjee
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 320
Price: Rs.699

Three sections

But first a generic matter: Is Choice a novel? Many of the blurbs from reviews that the book flourishes describe it as a novel. Is it one? While “choice” connects all three parts—they are numbered, not titled—of the book, there is nothing else in common between them, except the stony backdrop of “economics” and some slight echoes, the latter especially between I and II. Despite this, I incline towards the “novel” designation as the three parts are held together by a fierce act of concentration on the matter of choice. And, after all, as the name suggests in English, a novel is by definition something “new”—not the Lego-block-like compilations so often celebrated by creative writing teachers, commissioning editors, and publicity people. Hence, Choice strikes a significant blow for the genre to begin with, retrieving it from plastic pundits.

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Part I, probably the novel’s strongest segment, revolves around Ayush, the Indian half of a gay couple, and his partner, Luke, their two children, and an ageing dog. The children are biologically Luke’s as Ayush did not want to opt for a “cocktail” when the two decided—very reluctantly on the part of the latter—to have children. Ayush is the necessary colour in the higher editorial echelons of a London publishing house, with its focus on the right thing: profit. This is a world that “requires them to change nothing, do nothing, except the thing they have always been extremely good at: signalling”. Luke is an economist, born into affluence, who earns much more than Ayush and lives with the calm discipline of the pragmatic and the entitled: an unshakeable belief in the efficiency of economic thinking.

Cover of Choice.

Cover of Choice. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

From this complacent world, Ayush feels increasingly alienated, and his alienation seeps into even the kind of literature that he has to (mostly) commission. This is what he imagines telling a talented coloured writer, out with her first book, about the Western (white) publishing and literary world: “They go in already prepared to find range, intelligence, allusion, formal innovativeness, Marx this, Agamben that, in any number of white writers, because they think it all belongs to them, but that won’t obtain with you. You could signal the whole world in your text, but in your case, they either won’t see it or they’ll call it extraneous….” Of course, Ayush never actually says all this. But one morning, he makes his choice, and I will let readers discover the choice for themselves.

Part II revolves around Emily, a white academic. Returning from a party at the flat of a gay couple one night, having called an app-taxi, Emily experiences what, in her slightly inebriated state, seems to be a hit-and-run. She also suffers from a concussion. Later on, uncertain about what happened, she traces down the driver: Salim, an illegal migrant from Eritrea, who was actually filling in for his older brother, Karim, on that night. Confused about what to do, especially once a hit-and-run matching her memory is reported, not even always certain about Salim’s narrative, Emily nevertheless discovers that Karim, now in England legally, is not only the sole bread earner of the family but is also suffering from acute kidney failure. Should she go to the police about the hit-and-run, or does she have other choices to make?

“Part III is distinguished by Mukherjee’s beautiful and precise style of writing—which one would call realism, except that it is obviously not the realism of the past. This style is one of the strengths of this book.”

Part III, set in a very impoverished family on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, features Mira, a mother who works as a house help, her two children, and the father-husband, who is a migrant worker in the city. When they are gifted a cow by a non-profit in an experiment to improve their lives—obviously based on experiments said to have worked in some places—it adds to their pressures. Part III is also distinguished by Mukherjee’s beautiful and precise style of writing, which one would call realism except that it is obviously not the realism of the past. This style is one of the strengths of this book, as it was of earlier novels by Mukherjee, including the Booker shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014). Mukherjee is very good not just at evoking the atmosphere but also at conveying the tones and shades of relationships, not the least those between Mira and her employers.

Delights and provokes

However, unlike the first two parts, the narrative of this part did not fully convince me. The total inability of Mira and her rural family to cope with a cow struck me as an urban note as did Mira’s repulsion at the act of handling cow dung and the family’s ignorance of the monetary value of a cow. Finally, given that Bangladesh had already been signposted by Mira’s neighbours as a place where they kill cows, the final choice, when it came, was far easier to predict than in parts I and II. Nevertheless, even part III grips the reader, and delights and provokes much of the time.

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The book as a whole is a joy to read: observant, intelligent, beautifully written. It will confirm Neel Mukherjee’s reputation as a remarkable writer of his generation.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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