Neel Mukherjee’s third novel is made up of five narratives and the book’s architecture is revealed gradually: the odd-numbered sections are linked to each other, as are the even-numbered ones. Any connection to the novel sequences of V S Naipaul – A Way in the World and In a Free State – is, as the title indicates, no coincidence, and the connection goes beyond form.
But Mukherjee is a very different writer and A State of Freedom modifies and repurposes Naipaul’s form to very different ends. This is not a sequence of narratives; it is a coherent novel, unified by its characters’ pursuit of what Mukherjee calls freedom. Freedom, as they understand it, connotes economic security, an escape from the tyranny of the family and, above all, dignity – the ability to transmute imagination into lived reality, to achieve and hold a dignified place in the world. For each of his characters, this pursuit necessarily involves migration: true freedom can only be achieved far away from home. Mukherjee lays bare the material and psychological traumas that this kind of dislocation can cause, but his characters hold firm to its emancipatory power.
The opening section is narrated by an expatriate Bengali academic who has taken his son to see the Mughal monuments of Agra. This holiday is in turn anguished – the narrator becomes aware of the unbridgeable distance between himself and his US-raised son – and terrifying. Around Agra he encounters two men with fox-like faces; these ‘fox twins’, Lakshman and Ramlal, emerge as the protagonists of the third and fifth sections respectively. Born in a village in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, they are orphaned early. They have few prospects and are mocked endlessly for their looks. Ramlal leaves first and becomes a construction worker in the city. Lakshman’s life changes when he discovers a bear cub. He sees in the bear, which he names Raju, the possibility of a life as an itinerant entertainer.
Section two is presented entirely through the eyes of another Bengali expatriate, a designer who lives in London and is writing a book on Indian food. On visits to his parents in Mumbai, he attempts to form a friendship with the cook, Renu, and, less successfully, with the cleaner, Milly. The fourth and longest section tells the story of Milly’s life, from her childhood in a tribal village in the heart of Maoist country to a series of jobs as a domestic servant in different parts of India. Throughout the book, Mukherjee is devastatingly acute on the nature of Indian employer–servant relationships, which are feudal at best and abusive much of the time.
Mukherjee’s novels emphasise the casual inhumanity and everyday tragedy of Indian life. On this score, A State of Freedom might even outdo its predecessors. The first half of section four, in fewer than fifty pages, includes a boy’s hand being chopped off with an axe, the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl by government officials, the appearance of an abusive, alcoholic husband and an account of Milly being sent off to work as a servant at the age of eight. All this is delivered with immaculate narrative control, in prose all the more affecting for being unaffected. This fourth section manages the rare feat of being difficult to read and impossible to turn away from. At first I balked at how briefly Mukherjee lingers over each tragedy, but Milly’s circumstances do not afford her the luxury of lingering.
In a review of Mukherjee’s second novel, The Lives of Others, Amitav Ghosh noted that he ignores ‘the redeeming features of Bengali family life: the fun, the laughter, the conviviality’. This is just as true of A State of Freedom. I have never encountered an Indian novel in which comedy, even of a dark kind, is so absent. As for conviviality, other people in this novel can never truly be a source of dignity or sustenance. Freedom means freedom from other people, one’s relations above all. The only true relationship in A State of Freedom is between Lakshman and Raju. The few moments of lightness in familial relations arrive with heavy caveats.
A more serious objection to Mukherjee’s vision, one specific to this novel, is his failure to reckon with the past quarter-century of Indian history, a period of near-unprecedented social and economic change. For most Indians, life continues to be inhumane and undignified, their aspirations thwarted daily, but the nature of the inhumanity and of the aspirations has changed in ways that A State of Freedom, which is set in the late 2000s and the present decade, does not reflect.
Mukherjee suggests that girls are routinely withdrawn from primary school to work, not only in rural Jharkhand but also in Mumbai. However, virtually all Indian children now make it to secondary school, and in cities education is the primary vehicle of aspiration. The real tragedy is not the failure to attend school, but how little is learnt there. Mukherjee’s conception of freedom underplays the extent to which, thanks to the spread of mobile phones and television, Indians crave the trappings of modernity. This is why, to an Indian reader, Lakshman’s dream of achieving prosperity by taking a dancing bear on tour feels so anachronistic. On the other hand, Mukherjee’s depictions of the horrific inadequacy of India’s public health system and of the Maoists are as subtle and accurate as his critique of domestic employment.
In The Lives of Others, Mukherjee pulled off Indian fiction’s most elusive trick: he produced a convincing English marked by the vernacular, both in tone and through the use of Bengali phrases. A State of Freedom is less successful on this count. Hindi phrases are often thrown in, followed by an English translation, for no seeming purpose other than to remind us that the characters are speaking Hindi. Mukherjee’s latest novel never achieves the same perfection of pitch as his previous one, but its ambition, humanity and narrative skill are undeniable.