Book: “The Middleman”


The Middleman was recommended to me by a writer I admire. I am grateful to him: without his recommendation I was likely to miss it completely.

The book is set in Calcutta in the 1970s, but it might well have been another world. The book highlights the widespread unemployment of the times with outrage and sensitivity. (Millions are unemployed in Calcutta at the time, a character informs us.)

What I didn’t like so much about the book is that it seemed to be overcome by pity for the unemployed protagonist and others like him. It is a difficult perspective to understand for us who have found work when we looked for it. Moreover, the protagonist Somnath and his friend Sukumar seem to be trying only for jobs that are suitable to their education and ‘status’ and don’t consider trying out a menial job or a small business that might give them something to do and a little pay. Circumstances at the time may have been such that this course of action would have proved unfruitful: but the fact that they don’t even try holds you back from really feeling sorry for them.

Those were more prejudiced times, but the fact that the protagonist refuses to move outside of the narrow stereotypes of class and gender precludes much of the sympathy you might have felt. Somnath feels humiliated when his girlfriend pays for lunch, and refuses to marry her even though she’s facing pressure from her home to get married soon. His friend Sukumar is worse:  he gets offended when, responding to his criticism of her cooking, his sister asks him to help in the kitchen.

The author does provide us with an educated, somewhat independent heroine who is probably ahead of her time. So it seems reasonable to think that the author himself does not agree with the prejudices of his hero.

The book ends with a melodramatic coincidence. Yet how do I object to coincidence when such distinguished writers as Charlotte Bronte have used them?

The book is undeniably well-written – in spite of the difference in culture it draws you in and makes you want to know how Somnath fares. It draws a faithful picture of its time, and is worth reading if for that reason only. What was the most impactful part of the book for me was its afterword: much of the story that I had felt melodramatic was, the author reveals, actually drawn from reality.

4 Replies to “Book: “The Middleman””

  1. Hi Unmana. Liked your review of a well-loved book. I watched the movie (the title was changed to Jana Aranya) as a teenager at a Bengali film festival and fell in love with the narrative of the film. Satyajit Ray did a marvellous job and called it one of his bleakest movies. The book is also gripping but ass you say, full of coincidences. What I noticed more was the submission to chance and circumstance that signified the era and its compulsions.

    Sucharita Dutta-Asane

  2. So I did read the review finally – Thanks to your bullying!
    Can’t help wonder this story sounds like so many Malayalam Movies of the late ’80s. The reluctance to business is somewhat of a common trait between Keralites and Bengalis.. There are so many things in common between these two people you think the states were connected at one time.. It’s weird.

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