A State of Freedom: A Novel
Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom is a deeply affecting, innovative, and beautifully written novel that is hard to put down and difficult to forget. The novel consists of five intertwined stories that could be read independently but also function as integral parts of a unified, cohesive whole.
A State of Freedom depicts, often in unsparing detail, poverty, social class, cultural differences, corruption, and brutality in contemporary India. Each of the five chapters revolves around a particular character and his or her milieu.
For instance, one chapter relates the saga of Milly, who after many years of exploitation and abuse ends up as a part-time servant to a decent, relatively fair–minded family in Bombay. As a child, Milly lived in a small, impoverished village. The chapter begins with Milly’s recollection of her brother’s hand being hacked off by an axe while her mother cries and her drunk father does nothing.
Soon after, at the age of eight, she is taken out of school and forced into servitude by her mother. She then spends many years as a live-in maid for different families in various parts of India. While Milly is provided with a small salary, food, and shelter, namely a floor to sleep on, and must clean and cook, she is treated as if she is contaminated:
“She had a plastic beaker for her water and an old, chipped mug for her tea. As in Jamshedpur, she had to keep her things separate from the family’s, although here she was allowed to stack her dishes, after washing up, right at the end of the hanging draining rack above the sink, but, crucially, leaving a gap of anything between three to six ‘slots’ between their plates and hers.”
Milly’s next employer in Mumbai keeps her imprisoned in their apartment. Only after escaping, moving, finding reasonable employers, and marrying a kind man, does her life improve. Even so, she continues to live in a slum that has no plumbing, clean water, and floods during monsoon season. In comparison to most of the other characters in the novel, Milly’s life ends happily ever after.
A State of Freedom is a response or homage to V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State. While both works explore the impacts of colonialism, poverty, and exile, in varying degrees, they are most alike in terms of structure and narrative. Both works consist of five chapters, the opening and closing ones shorter, and in Naipaul’s work a prologue and an epilogue, which sandwich three longer narratives. The stories in both works shift between third and first-person narrators.
Mukherjee’s novel, however, is more unified, while Naipaul’s reads as independent short stories. The first chapter of A State of Freedom is about an Indian man living in America, who brings his young son on a trip to India.
Within this almost surreal tale, many of the characters, who are portrayed in later chapters, make brief appearances. While initially seeming distinct from the rest of the book, the first chapter in fact ties the other narratives together.
Mukherjee’s prose is clear, rich in detail, and engaging. He describes settings and food colorfully and graphically. Mukherjee also does not shy away from disturbing descriptions.
In his story about Lakshman who takes on a dancing bear, the details of the training and taming of the bear are horrifying and grotesque. The narrator describes the process of piercing the bear’s nose through which a rope is inserted to control the bear:
“He lets out a demonic cry and with a short, thrusting movement, which seems bathetic coming after that sound, he drives the hot end of the rod through the area just above the dark grey tip of the cub’s nose, pierces it in one go, brings it out, then drives it in again a few centimeters above that point, punching a hole through the bone.”
While critical of the injustices he illustrates and brutally honest in his portraits, Mukherjee writes with great sensitivity and compassion. Although Lakshman is cruel and abusive he is also pathetic and has endured poverty and great disappointment.
A State of Freedom is not a feel-good book. Rather, it is a haunting, unsettling, often heartbreaking collection of stories of modern-day India.