Book Review: A State of Freedom

“After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”

When a novel takes a line from V S Naipaul as its epigraph and when it opens with a chapter about a non-resident Indian harangued during his travel in India, an instant sense of foreboding grips this reader. What with the disdain Naipaul has for India, besides his fixation with its publicly defecating masses, another author setting his protagonist in an Indian heat and dust project and sticking scatological scenes in the reader’s face is simply too much to take. Shameful though our sanitary woes are, endlessly expounding on them hardly flushes the mess; eye-opening though the travelogues on India may seem, repetitively stating the obvious only benumbs the already dulled senses. So when Neel Mukherjee subjected his NRI character to pestering, pan-chewing hawkers and tour guides, all I waited for was — ready to close the volume — a page-length diatribe on a man piddling in public.

Thankfully, I was proven wrong, and am happy to report that Mukherjee’s new novel, A State of Freedom — while touching upon India’s many unsolvable problems and persistent prejudices — is not a reportage of India that’s fascinated by, um, shit.

The first chapter is in fact the first of five stories, each linked by common characters and theme to form a novel. This is a story about the aforementioned US-based Indian and his son, who are on a sightseeing trip to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. The young boy is in India, perhaps for the first time, and is utterly uninterested in the Mughal architecture his father is so zealously urging him to absorb. The trying car ride to the monuments and the trek about them in the late afternoon heat dizzies the child, and the father’s feeling no better. Added to this is a fox-faced guide haranguing the pair. This is a sensational hook, one intended to drag us in by our feet with its pace and spookiness. The overall atmosphere is hallucinating, the imagined and the real equally possible; it’s a macabre tale, with pulp oozing out of it. We gulp it one fervent swig, relishing the high that’s as good as country hooch. Appeased thus with this shot, we get the first scent of the theme A State of Freedom primarily focuses on when the father wonders if he’s “becoming a tourist in his own country.”

Homelessness is the common thorn that digs through these stories and their recurring characters. All that follows is because of this uprootedness: death, poverty, loneliness, hopelessness. The result is a book steeped in melancholy and despair. For a subject this sensitive, Mukherjee writes with sheer detachment. His approach is reporter-like, a camera lens that relays what it sees. This first line from Naipaul’s A Bend in the River never left me as I read about the misbegotten lives in A State of Freedom: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

For Mukherjee’s protagonists are men — and, more prominently, women — who are nothing — but they aspire to become something. And it’s in allowing themselves to do so that they face an uphill battle. The battle is modern India — with its modernity and development a farce roiling in the stinking mess of age-old patriarchy, militancy, dysfunctional health care and education system, inadequate judiciary, and an absent sanitation. Do they have a place in this India of now, then? Will they ever achieve a state of freedom? What is a state of freedom?

The title itself is no mere riff of Naipaul’s Booker Prize-winning novel, In a Free State. Like Mukherjee’s, it too was a novel made up of linked stories; and there too the book was populated with people struggling with alienation and class barriers. But where Naipaul’s book dealt with the conflicts that arise when colonial-bred people suddenly find themselves in the vastly different communities of first-world nations, Mukherjee, in dealing with India, is more local in his approach. But this being India — with its diversity and disparities — and hence all things good and bad that come with it — is no less challenging; and the lower-classed are no less alienated in their own homeland, ostracized in one way or the other to the margins of society.

It is quite impossible to summarize parts of this novel without giving away vital bits of plot or a crucial link. But then all the stories — except for the opener — have an ending that’s easy to foresee. Still this predictability, or the affirmation of our predictions, is not the point. It’s the journey, instead, the struggle of these hapless wretches to fashion a living, to creep out of their hellhole of an existence, often unsuccessfully, which demand our unwavering attention.

The story of two girls who’re born in the Maoist-controlled jungles of Chattisgarh and grow up to become entirely different adults is the most finely detailed of all. The girls have endured traumatic childhoods, a truncated education, and born into dysfunctional households. If one falls for the delusions sparked by vague ideologies (Soni), the other opts for an unspectacular but sensible path of toil and sustenance (Milly) as a housemaid in a city. Milly lives alone and far away from her home, yet she knows that there’s nothing to cherish amidst the forests and rivers of her village. “You can miss something without wanting to be reunited with it…” That Milly leans on love to escape the worst comes off as not surprising. The defiled and despondent Soni however meets a terrible end. Choices, made by self and others, enforced or chosen, decide their future.

The setting of derelict heartlands gives Mukherjee ideal opportunity to report on the neglected government schools, the hospitals without doctors, the bypassing of rules and the utter disregard for civility, and, above all, the desperation that drives people toward extreme measures. Either toward death or escape or the slow ruin that comes with time. If it doesn’t seem a caricature, it’s because of Mukherjee’s realistic, unsentimental rendering of his subject.

Another story of a life plucked and posited — this time out of choice — in an unfamiliar territory involves a Bengali who’s on a vacation from London at his parents’ home in Mumbai. Working on a cookbook about Indian culinary, he fussily instructs the cook into brewing his favorite recipes. His interactions with her grow with time and the maid’s personal matters, with its tall tales and worries and sacrifices, moves him enough to make him visit her village in West Bengal. His naïve quest for a firsthand feel of life in the village puts him uncomfortably too close to the poor family. The petty quarrels, the ticks of its occupants, the muddle of makeshift living, with its compromises and glaring laxity, make him squeamish, and, later, guilty for putting the family in a spot. It’s no surprise that we identify with him, with his fascination and innocence, his thoughts toward the underprivileged which though shaped by awareness and education are in practice not very different from that of his discriminating parents.

Mukherjee writes evocatively about the mechanics of class discrimination that happens in most urban households. The callous treatment meted out to the lower class, the ubiquity of it and its acceptance as the norm, find fresh voice in Mukherjee’s words. Yet they are never sympathetic or loaded with schmaltz. He only shows what we, from disgust or familiarity, have long unseen.

These are lives beyond the purview of our urban-dwelling eyes. One such is that of Lakshman, the sole breadwinner of a large family, who dreams of making a splash by training a baby cub to dance. He leaves his family and village in the hope of richer audiences in cities. Soon the bear becomes his source of tiny income and immense frustration, his only means of a living and his lone companion on road. They end up being a pair, each dependent on the other for survival. Anger boils throughout his story. Anger against his absconding brother, his luckless fate, the clumsy animal, the people and traffic; fury against the world at large.

The last story is similarly tragic. The syntax, like its narrator’s mental state, is maddeningly unhinged. The woebegone spirit of life reaches its peak. It’s an ending that augments the feel-bad tone of the book. The inimical world and its harsh ways of operation are always around the bend to ensnare the lowly, the lonely. There’s nothing here to cheer the heart. It’s a stark dose of reality Mukherjee administers.

To us, neatly ensconced in our blind routines, A Sate of Freedom arrives as an urgent reminder of the true state of our country, which, despite boasting of smart cities and connectivity, malls and metros, is as riven by poverty and disconnectedness as ever. And unseeing something this obvious is akin to foolish denial. Mukherjee — like Naipaul — calls shit shit. It’s the offended we who are in the wrong.