Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliffhanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated gives them depth, and makes them appear real.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to stop but I urge you to read on (and not be put off by big words).

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, live in Mumbai and their son, a young writer, lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu, who works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu because of her surly manner and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds, old and new, and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way things continue to be done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother leaves home to find work. This section follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a living. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He names it Raju. With his brother gone, the responsibility of feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’. It makes you question who is really savage, man or beast?

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime one could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train Raju to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making him dance. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware that he is at the mercy of the ‘helpless’ animal. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.) 

Regional expressions used by the author are translated into English. Bengali and Hindi words aren’t italicized; I didn’t know the meaning of some of these words. It would have been good if a glossary had been provided.

The fourth section is divided into chapters unlike the rest of the book. It starts with two childhood friends, Milly and Soni, and how their lives play out. Milly wants to study but is taken out of school when she’s barely eight to work as a domestic help. Soni witnesses something terrible in the forest and her worldview is forever altered. She leaves school and her family behind, choosing instead to join the Maoists.

Milly and Soni meet after many years. Milly lives her life as a domestic help in cities while Soni fights for freedom along with other Maoists. Who is free and who is oppressed? This is the question the book asks again and again.

In the fifth and last section we read the thoughts of a construction worker. Toiling hard every day to send money home, his life is uncertain, unsure if he will get work every day.

Poverty and the despair resulting out of not being able to make ends meet, figuring out where the next meal is going to come from; the unimaginable agony and horror he lives with is delivered in stomach churning prose.

The ending is more chaotic due to the style it is written in. There is a lingering sense of unease and disillusionment as I closed the pages of the book.

A State of Freedom is bleak but compelling. It is the kind of book where the less the reader knows, the richer the reading experience will be. The book reveals itself to you in fits and starts. The descriptions are haunting but show not tell rule is violated.

Neel Mukherjee couldn’t possibly have experienced the gamut of experiences mentioned in the book but the way it comes off the page oozing realism would make you think otherwise. He gets the Indian milieu right – the mannerisms, the behaviour and the settings. He puts the working class at the center of unfolding events, the everyday life of people which we are often so far removed from.

It takes courage to write about one’s own country and put it under a scanner , magnifying unsavoury things one would rather not admit the existence of, and then try to view it with such fierce objectivity. Perhaps the author can afford to do so because he lives abroad, and is a visitor to his homeland.

It’s a novel and not not a collection of interlinked short stories. A State of Freedom appears to have a fractured narrative but in the end the varying threads are tied into a cohesive unit.

I haven’t read anything else by Neel Mukherjee so I can’t say how A State of Freedom compares to his body of work, but I am looking forward to reading more by him. Read it for a visceral experience.

Note – Thanks to Flipkart and Penguin Random House India for the review copy.

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