Category Archives: tribals

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

Two Pronouns and a Verb

Kiran Khalap’s Two Pronouns and a Verb is essentially the story of three friends and how they shape each other’s lives.

Who am I? Two pronouns and a verb, make up the most important question in our lives and this book doesn’t attempt to answer that for you. It’s a novel not a soul consciousness app that will help you achieve the zero state or whatever state is the most exalted! But yes, it attempts to do so for the two male protagonists : Arjun, a quiet and sensitive child with a finger on the pulse of the universe and Dhruv, a physically assertive child ready to fight at the slightest provocation. They grow up, both together and apart, and realize that true reality only shows its face when you question your illusions and see beyond them. The female protagonist, Eva is a happy-go-lucky German who came to India as a teenager with her mother (who was looking for salvation). She quickly adapts to the culture and becomes a part of the group.
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Some thing  fundamentally changes when Eva chooses one over the other while giving both the idea that she loves them. And maybe she did love both of them but two loves are never equal. Maybe I am too bourgeois in my thinking but you cannot claim to romantically love two people and be faithful to them at the same time. It causes a rift between Arjun and Dhruv, and this event changes the course of the story.

It went off to a promising start and I really wanted to love this book, which I did, but in places. It wasn’t a constant love, the prose was the opposite of flowing and loaded with adjectives and adverbs. And also the question the book opens with, and the answer we are supplied at the end-it was predictable, which was a letdown.

In some lines the dream like (magical realism?) narration worked but in entire paragraphs, it was jarring. Some lines made me take a look at my life or question  previously held beliefs and hence it was a slow read. Also, the prose hung heavy on me. While Arjun was introspecting so was I. When Dhruv burst into angry flames, I questioned why some things anger me so. Eva was without any expectations from life, unsullied by even violence, which astonished me. I was really disappointed that she didn’t grow much as a character. She doesn’t realize any greater truth. Maybe some people are that constant and unwavering and, hence are more stable.

I liked how the chapters were named, revealing a little of what is to follow, beckoning the reader into the story.

My favourite character was Arjun. I loved the way he viewed the world, as a vast interconnecting web and the bond he shared with all living beings.

In the book, Marathi words were not italicized. Some things cannot be translated, I agree, but for people who don’t know Marathi, a glossary at the back or their meaning in English beside the Marathi words would have been helpful.

As a person who loves the art of photography, I loved the bits about Arjun learning photography. He excelled in it due to his ability to connect seemingly unconnected things and his childlike way of looking at the world. Seen through his eyes, inanimate things reveal a pattern and animate beings speak to him because he understands the frequency at which they function.

Two Pronouns and a Verb, along with a few other books,  will always be special for me because I bought them while I was in the midst of the book publishing course – with all the ideas zooming in my head about how a good blurb and cover can make or break a book. I picked up this book because the title was intriguing (for a novel), the blurb was interesting (even if it didn’t do justice to the story inside) and the simple cover added to the charm.

If you want something easy and light don’t pick this up. The story has bits of Ayurvedic philosophy, the Naxalite movement, atonement through renunciation, downtrodden tribals and their way of life, and people (should we call them equalizers?) fighting for their rights and a friendship that endures.

Some quotes from the book that I managed to copy and lost many others that stood out.

I mistook toughness for resilience. 
 
Photography can slow down, speed up, reduce, enlarge any moment…
 
Life evolves as a spiral.
 
I am using this retelling to relive the rage built up inside me. The pain gets more bearable as the words suck the poison out of my memory, leaving empty pods scattered in my mind.
 
Every reaction creates karma and every suppression of reaction, creates disease.
 
We are always as close to the truth as we want.