Category Archives: perspective

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

Stillness

In life there are few moments when you experience a kind of stillness which changes something in you, a perceptible shift occurs. Without being aware of it the conscious has changed. I hadn’t recorded my experience in any form then. It was days later I thought about that dusk inching closer to an inky night, in the wee hours of the morning in another kind of stillness, of dawn breaking and banishing darkness. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was but feeling centered and belonging to the moment as it unfolded was a big part of it.

The winding village road was bereft of street lights. The stars looked so bright without light pollution that I wondered why we were crammed in the city. The path through green meadows where a lighthouse like light moved on both sides made it all the more surreal. I remember there was a waning moon and it looked ethereal. Was it my imagination or the quality of light was different than the one in the city?

I wonder what would travelling alone on a bike, moving with the wind and experiencing it with every fibre of my being feel like. I guess that is why people travel. To live out their unlived lives.

The moment was fleeting (aren’t moments like these always fleeting yet so much is contained in that moment) and even though I was surrounded by people it was as if no one existed. In the silence my mind was completely still. In these rare moments of stillness I feel something I can’t quite explain. Is it what feeling one with the universe and acutely being in the present moment feels like? I intend to find out.

Have you experienced such moments of stillness?

Reflections on reading The Wife’s Letter

Coming home to Tagore is always a revelation. I have probably owned this fine collection of short stories for over a decade now. My aunt had funded it when she saw me lurking in the aisle of the book corridor in Big Bazaar back when it still sold books, along with stationery. How little I must have understood of women’s plight and their predicaments, when I was a teenager if not a child, is dawning on me now. A great story is that which reveals itself anew whenever you pick it up to read. In short something which has repeat value. Tagore is a genius; every sentence has its place and importance in the narrative.

I never pick up Tagore lightly because I can never shrug off his words casually and carry on with my life pretending to be unaltered when the soul has registered change. Reading Tagore needs complete involvement of the brain and the heart, and I need to be on stable ground otherwise it would be tough to balance the emotions when I’m on uneven terrain. The emotions generated on reading the text will overwhelm me and teetering on the edge of a precipice isn’t good for my health.

Reading The Wife’s Letter I had to stop at a few sentences to completely understand them (I am not sure if it is brain fog or ageing in action) and compare it to the real world experience I have had in the last decade. My first hand experience might be very limited but observed or heard second hand experience is so much more. Women talk. Women share. Stories of friends, acquaintances, neighbours, stories from the media. A woman has empathy for all the women of the world (barring duplicitous mother-in-laws and conniving frenemies).

There is no doubt about that Tagore understood the female psyche and portrayed it in his writings better than any man could. I am really looking forward to reading another translation of Chokher Bali soon. Continue reading Reflections on reading The Wife’s Letter