Category Archives: Flipkart Book Review Program

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 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 it gives them depth, and makes them appear real, like you and me.

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 give up 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, lives in Mumbai and their son is a young writer, who 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. Renu works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu 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 and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way some things are 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 are brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother then leaves home to find work. It follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a livelihood. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He calls the bear cub Raju. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware of the fact that he is at the mercy of the helpless animal. With his brother gone, the responsibilityof 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 think who are the ones that are wild and savage.

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 you could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train him to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making Raju perform in front of a crowd. 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 and familiar surroundings 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.)  Continue reading Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

Baaz by Anuja Chauhan

In the past Anuja Chauhan has tackled topics such as cricket and politics in her novels, The Zoya Factor and the Battle for Bittora respectively. I like her writing but I’m not what you would call a fan. Anuja Chauhan is known for witty romances nestled in good, if sometimes unbelievable plots. I was skeptical going in when I heard Baaz was about war, the Indo-Pak 1971 war no less. Baaz offers us a behind the scenes view into the lives of everyone associated with air force.  The multitude of things the air force men worry about, knowing their future is uncertain. How their wives and girlfriends deal with the stresses of their men being in combat.

Baaz opens in 1957 newly independent India. 10 year old Ishaan ‘Baaz’ Faujdaar is standing in front of an incoming train to get his adrenaline kick, to get that dhook-dhookk-dhoookk feeling, as he calls it. Ishaan or Shaanu, as he’s fondly known, is a thrill seeker. Motherless, his stepfather isn’t too fond of him but his five siblings hero-worship him. His Nanaji gives Ishaan the idea of becoming a pilot so that he could get the thrill he craves for. And there is no looking back.

10 years later, Ishaan gets through the exam and joins the  Indian Air Force (IAF). Here he meets Rakesh Aggarwal (Raka) and Madan Subbiah (Maddy) who were in NDA corps together. Initially they make fun of him but soon become his good friends. Ishaan takes never having known his father, coming from a humble background and not knowing English, lightly. His faith in himself (read cocksure) tides him over.

Ishaan meets Tehmina Dadyseth (Tinka) when he’s on duty and she’s fleeing her marriage. They appear to have some kind of a connection which they realize when their paths cross again. She doesn’t believe in hyper-patriotism and hates the idea of war whereas for Ishaan the country comes first, and everything is black and white. Their backgrounds are vastly different and so is the way they view the world, but they do have something in common. The chemistry was sizzling but there was something missing.

Tinka, the motherless daughter of Major General Ardisher Dadyseth, was born to challenge the status quo.  She is unafraid to go where very few women have gone. From studying photography to becoming a war correspondent in Dacca, she is undeterred once she has made up her mind.

Caste is very much in the air though caste system has been abolished. Pakistanis and Muslims were viewed with the same suspicious lens. The society then was regressive and not to mention conservative – not ready to accept independent free thinking men or women who deviate from the norm. So it was heartening to have many strong female characters in the book, who defied convention in their own way.

Continue reading Baaz by Anuja Chauhan