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Business News/ Lounge / Art And Culture/  Review of ‘Choice’ by Neel Mukherjee: A three-act novel

Review of ‘Choice’ by Neel Mukherjee: A three-act novel

Neel Mukherjee’s ‘Choice’ is a satirical commentary on the belief that ‘life is economics’

Author Neel Mukherjee. Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan TimesPremium
Author Neel Mukherjee. Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times

The opening chapter of Neel Mukherjee’s new novel, Choice, features a near-perfect bait-and-switch: It begins with the kind of warm fuzzies generated by a James Herriot story and ends like a slasher movie’s blood-soaked climax. London-based publisher Ayush is about to read his twin toddlers, Masha and Sasha, a bedtime story—a short film, as it turns out. Masha and Sasha are excited because the video opens with shots of pigs (“Will Miss Piggy be there?"). Soon, the action shifts to scenes of butchery and bloodshed, for this is a vegan promotional video highlighting the poor living conditions and large-scale slaughter at a cattle farm.

The adjectives to describe the butchery are carefully chosen—“fudgy", “gleeful", “merry" —to evoke images of toddler gaiety, thereby heightening the dissonance between the children and the scenes unfolding before their eyes. No parent willingly traumatizes their children and it’s not like Ayush is deriving any pleasure from this exercise. He is showing his children this video because they eat meat. Later when his children still insist on eating meat, Ayush takes £200,000 from their education fund and donates it to various climate action charities. Ayush is a man with a heightened sense of social conscience and Mukherjee’s genius is to depict this simultaneously as a tragic flaw and perhaps the only real kind of heroism left in this world.

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‘Economics is life and life is economics’, says Ayush’s husband Luke, a very well-paid economist who truly believes that “the market" will solve all of the world’s problems. At its heart, this is the hypothesis that the triptych-narrative in Choice interrogates through a series of thought experiments. The first story is of Ayush and Luke as they quarrel over Ayush’s escalating save-the-planet measures. The second story is from a manuscript Ayush is hoping to acquire, a short story collection called Yes, the World by the anonymous “M.N. Opie". Here, a guilt-ridden academic becomes too close to her Eritrean taxi driver’s family after she, inebriated in the back seat, witnesses him running over a pedestrian. 

The third story is the expansion of a throwaway anecdote Ayush hears about a rural Bengali family who is gifted a cow only to realize that they’ve in fact been handed a curse. The family, living hand to mouth for much of the year, struggles to provide food and straw for the cow. When the milk eventually arrives, it tastes funny and ends up making the family quite ill. In Premchand’s classic Hindi novel Godaan, the monomaniacal pursuit of a cow becomes the catalyst for issues of systemic caste-and-class-based oppression to surface. With Mukherjee, the cow itself symbolizes the problem with the hypothesis ‘life is economics’ when decoupled from socio-political realities, a philosophy like that brings nothing but misery.

Choice, by Neel Mukherjee, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
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Choice, by Neel Mukherjee, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages, 699

Together, the three stories depict the collision of political and economic forces, when individual needs collide with the collective good. There are no real villains here, simply because of the empathy with which Mukherjee develops his characters. Luke is a hawkish, somewhat short-sighted neoliberal in his professional life, but inarguably a more thoughtful husband and father than Ayush. Ayush is well-read and well-intentioned, and strives to leave the world a better place, but he cannot seem to grasp the fact that he is punishing his children for the ecological damage that his generation has brought about. The triptych is a staple of early and medieval Christian art, generally used to display interconnected panels of a story. Similarly, in Choice, Ayush and Luke’s story can be considered the central panel, while the other two narratives flank the main story and enhance the reader’s understanding of the central panel’s conflicts and triggers. To an extent, this technique works-the story of the cow highlights Luke’s naivete ideological position, for example, while Ayush’s guilt-by-complicity at his consumption choices, and the amoral publishing industry he is a part of, nestle within the guilt of the drunk academic.

The novel is also a merciless satire of the publishing industry. Mukherjee clearly has strong views on the subject. In Ayush’s reading (and by extension, Mukherjee’s) the ‘life is economics’ dictum has polluted the publishing industry irrevocably and “the performance of literariness is important and does vital cultural work (i.e., economic work): it pushes the definition of literary towards whatever sells".

Late in the book, Ayush corresponds with the mysterious M.N. Opie and they discuss the works of authors like J.M. Coetzee, where Big Ideas are centred, not tucked away in the interstices of the book. “Can ideas be discussed openly as ideas, or do they always need to be disguised under drama and action and emotional development and all that rubbish, like vegetables smuggled into food for children?" As Mukherjee’s writing proves resoundingly, idea-veggies need not be smuggled into the meat of the novel at all.

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Published: 15 May 2024, 05:19 PM IST
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