A mother’s death opens up a can of worms for Rono and his brothers Sujoy—Bochka and Chotku as their mother calls them—in her last letter to Ronojoy. The letter reveals the secret behind why her marriage to their father Subir suddenly became a Cold War zone after Sujoy’s birth, resulting in their father’s suicide, a gruesome hanging that Rono discovered when he came home from school. The uncles, aunts and grandmothers and even the boy’s ayah were unable to factor in effective damage control. Mukherjee puts together the INS and outs of a Bengali family in Delhi, two brothers, Subir’s marriage to the vivacious Mala and an attractive younger brother called Apurva. Tolstoy wrote that unhappy families are unique, unlike happy ones. Mukherjee delves into the roots of this particular family’s problems. Ronojoy lives alone, with a house in Mukteswar and an apartment in Delhi, recovering from clinical depression; Sujoy is almost an alcoholic and the happiness of his wife and son is threatened.
At the heart of it is the fact that their mother kept a secret from them—actually, more than one secret, including the news that she had cancer. Her sons saw this as a lack of love and trust and it added to the metaphysical cancer destroying their lives. The chapters tackle different aspects of the story, introducing the different characters and their interactions with each other. The centre is of course Ronojoy and Sujoy and their reactions to their mother’s death. Mukherjee goes deep into both sons’ characters, why they are the way they are and how dysfunctionality spreads over the generations unintentionally.
Dark Circles is dark, as the title suggests, and the story is a study of the nature of forgiveness—how society and most families jump to conclusions about what people can accept and what they cannot. At one level, Mala’s inability to keep a secret resulted in her husband’s death. At another, her decision to hide her secret from her sons caused a rift in the family and alienated the younger boy, though the decisions were linked. Most social reformers insist that there are some secrets that need to be kept that way because sharing certain information can be harmful. However, a deeper study of what went wrong in Subir and Mala’s marriage is required—Subir is a failed writer, he seems to be depressive and he and his wife have had separate bedrooms for three years. Mukherjee switches the perspectives a little too quickly perhaps, because we are never really sure why what happened, though he has a ‘Robi Thakur’ undercurrent to the whole thing. In fact, this could quite easily have been a Tagore novel, barring the grown-up sons.
As a debut, Mukherjee’s novel is promising because of what Dark Circles tells us in an increasingly harsh and disconnected world. The author’s style is controlled and he tackles his subject with subtlety and the occasional arresting description. However, Mukherjee can see no happy ending ahead for his main character—the mind, once touched by sorrow, is infinitely hard to heal.