BookBrowse Reviews A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

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A State of Freedom

by Neel Mukherjee

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee X
A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2019, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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A set of disparate storylines coalesce into a whole in A State of Freedom, a dazzling contemplation of life in contemporary India.

In an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, author Neel Mukherjee describes A State of Freedom as being a formal experiment driven by different principles of coherence. Across the book's five disparate sections, there is no obvious grand narrative arc, no plot to speak of, no holistic character development or neat resolutions. Instead the reader is left with a glorious, chaotic babel of voices and lives and hopes and suffering of migrants pursuing freedom and economic betterment within the confines of their native country of India. By removing the connective tissue of a typical work of fiction, Mukherjee admits he wanted to see whether his book could still answer to the name of that ever elusive term: novel. Understanding each of the sections and how they relate may shed some light on this question.

The opening chapter is the reader's gateway into the India of A State of Freedom. Here we follow a Calcutta-born father who has emigrated to the US, returning to his homeland to show his American-born six-year-old son the splendors of their cultural heritage. This setup could almost be symbolic for Mukherjee, the Indian-born author, giving the uninitiated Western reader an introductory tour of his India. However it is shame and embarrassment that soon supersede any feelings of pride in this father. As we pull up to the hotel, a mazdoor, a local construction laborer, falls to his death from the top of the scaffolding of a nearby building site. On sightseeing expeditions to the Taj Mahal and the Fatehpur Sikri monuments, the father desperately tries to shield his innocent boy from the greeting party of starving beggars, cripples and amputees clothed in filthy rags and festering wounds. Try as he might to proudly show off the marvels of India, the father can only seem to expose more horrific human agony.

This motif is bookended in the final section, where we hear from a sickly construction worker before he falls to his death. Is this the same mazdoor from section one? Perhaps. He tells us that the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, that world-famous symbol of Indian opulence, ordered that the thumbs of each of the thousands of mazdoors who slaved away to bring his marble mausoleum to completion, be cut off, so as to ensure that the masterwork could not be replicated. Again and again, A State of Freedom seems to argue that for all its beauty, there is too much suffering and injustice in India.

In the second section, a son returns from London to stay with his parents who live in Mumbai to research an Indian cookbook he is putting together. The intricate recipes and delicious regional cuisines explored are juxtaposed against the exasperatingly complex hierarchical class structures at play within the household. The liberal minded son's attempts to break down the barriers and connect with his parent's servants Renu and Milly on equal footing are futile and only cause more social awkwardness between all involved. Just as the father in section one realizes he has become a "tourist in his own country," the son here is told, "You live abroad, you don't understand the culture here." If the opening chapter introduces the Western reader to India, then surely this is Mukherjee insisting such readers set aside their values and prejudices, and keep an open mind. After all, if returning Indian sons are rendered tourists in their homeland, then what becomes of the actual tourist?

Servant girl Milly is the leading character in chapter four, as we explore her traumatic childhood and the demeaning struggles she faces as she travels from town to town, seeking to improve her station as a cleaner and cook in various households.

Similarly, a beggar and his bear who are introduced fleetingly in the first section, take center stage in the third. This standout chapter is a bleak tale of how a desperate father named Lakshman allows himself to sacrifice his humanity and inflict acts of barbaric cruelty towards a baby bear called Raju. He hopes to escape his poverty and make a fortune by having Raju perform a dancing bear routine (see Beyond the Book).

The characters do return over the course of the book but it is their shared pursuit of a life free from needless suffering that unifies A State of Freedom's otherwise self-standing chapters. Readers who dig a little deeper may be able to spot a few other meta-clues Mukherjee has left scattered throughout the book to help answer the question of cohesion. Towards the end of the fourth section, the servant girl Milly tries to make sense of her life that has been lived "in bits and pieces," as she has constantly had to move from village to village, from job to job. At this point Milly realizes "[h]er life is not fragmented. To her, it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities." And this seems to be the real key to solving this literary Rubik's cube. It is the reader who brings meaning and cohesion to A State of Freedom. It is the reader who chooses to accept whether these are returning characters or individuals with similar roles and positions in life. It is the reader who chooses to zero in on certain themes and motifs, while suppressing others, to shape the novel and give it a unity and coherence that truly resonates.

Once the reader accepts that A State of Freedom is an endlessly playful conversation between author and audience, as well as a collection of stories, then they will see evidence of this from the book's opening pages. So let's return to Fatehpur Sikri from chapter one, where the father shows his son a life-sized parcheesi board game marked out permanently in the emperor's courtyard. Delighted, the boy begins to hop from square to square, positioning himself within this grand-scale game. "Am I a piece in this game?" the son asks. "You could be," the father laughs.

For those willing to play its game, A State of Freedom will prove to be a dazzling and challenging contemplation on beauty and anguish in India.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2018, and has been updated for the February 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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