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‘A State of Freedom’ review: Neel Mukherjee novel a multifaceted tale of desperate lives in India

Neel Mukjerjee, author of

Neel Mukjerjee, author of "A State of Freedom." Photo Credit: W.W. Norton

A STATE OF FREEDOM, by Neel Mukherjee. W.W. Norton & Co., 278 pp., $25.95.

“If you’re a novelist and born and raised in India, I think you are going to be in material for the rest of your life; it’s a great gift that country gives you,” commented Neel Mukherjee, Booker Prize finalist for “The Lives of Others,” in a recent interview. His point has certainly been borne out in 2017, with terrific novels from Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Salman Rushdie and Diksha Basu — and those are just the ones I’ve read and can recommend.

With the exception of Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” “A State of Freedom” is the darkest of the lot — and like Roy’s, its title appears to be ironic, given the misery and constriction of the lives it describes. Mukherjee explains that the title is a reference to a novel by V.S. Naipaul called “In a Free State.” He wrote “A State of Freedom” in conversation with Naipaul’s book, repeating the author’s experiment with eliminating as much plot, character and continuity as possible to see what is left of the realist novel. Perhaps the “freedom,” then, is the freedom of the novelist to make such bold aesthetic choices. From the characters’ point of view, a more appropriate title might be “A State of Desperation.”

In five sections of varying lengths and narrative styles, Mukherjee presents characters from all parts of Indian society. Part I is something of a ghost story, filled with eerie portents and a sit-up-and-scream ending. An Indian father is taking his 6-year-old son, who’s being raised in the United States, to visit the Taj Mahal. On the way there, they narrowly miss witnessing a gory death when a construction worker falls from a building. The further sights of the day — tombs, crippled beggars, a man with a filthy bear tapping on the window of their taxi — hardly add up to fun. And then there’s that ending.

Part II has no obvious connection to Part I, and is most like some of the other Indian novels I’ve read recently. It’s a story primarily about class told in first person by a man from America visiting his parents in Bombay. He’s very interested in food — in fact is developing an Indian cookbook for a U.S. publisher — so he spends a lot of time with the cook discussing and planning the family’s meals. While his mother is annoyed by this, as she believes in maintaining distance from the household help, the narrator is obsessed with learning the details of the cook’s life, as well as the back story of the hostilities between her and another servant in the house. Eventually he arranges to visit the cook’s hometown, where he is quite a burden to her impoverished family.

Part III brings back the bear. It’s the story of a luckless fellow whose brother has abandoned him with both of their wives and all their kids, supposedly to go off to the city and make money to send back to the family. When a baby bear wanders into town, he decides to train it to dance in order to make money. The first step is to knock out his teeth and run a ring through its snout, a ghastly procedure described in nauseating detail. He and the bear hit the road and gradually develop skills, both as vagrants and as entertainers. Despite his abuse of the animal, something blooms between them in their shared despair.

Part IV is a novella, divided into 10 chapters, focusing on the back story of the servant the cook hates so much in Part II. Once this girl was one of a pair of inseparable companions growing up in a rural village, but she was shipped into virtual domestic slavery, and her friend wound up in a Maoist militia. This section opens with the girl watching her brother’s hand being chopped off and tossed into the bushes, but closes with what might almost be called a happy ending.

Part V is an eight-page section with no punctuation at all — a stream of consciousness that returns to the scene of that construction accident in Part I.

Mukherjee’s formal experiment leads to something not so far from the collections of linked stories we’ve seen recently from Elizabeth Strout (“Anything Is Possible”) and Joan Silber (“Improvement”). It is a form uniquely suited to depicting the operation of fate and coincidence, and to showing relationships and characters from a variety of angles. Mukherjee’s version is unsparing in revealing just how far from free we are.

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