A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

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Things fall apart in the lives of Mukherjee’s characters but the structure of the novel brings the disparate elements together.

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The first section of Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom is gothic horror, reminiscent of a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu. Instead of Dublin, however, it is set in the heat and light of Agra, specifically at the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and on the 16th floor of a modern tourist hotel. But just like Le Fanu, Mukherjee addresses social issues, in this case unsafe building practices, as well as creating grotesque phantasms which swirl around 21st century India instead of the fog-ridden 19th century European alleyways.

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Seafront Haven in Bandra, Mumbai.  booking.com

Section II seems totally unconnected in both style and content. Here an on-trend, but unnamed designer, leaving his fashionable life in London, visits his parents’ beach apartment in Bombay. Outside the slum dwellers queue daily for buckets of water under the gaze of the rich in their flats and hotels. Renu, his parents’ cook has, at tap-turning-on-time, to dash from her work to get her containers filled. Whilst she is absent cultures clash indoors as the son speaks of ‘domestic help’ whilst his mother says ‘servants’ and his father disdains even to talk about these lesser beings.

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Renu encourages the protagonist to research a book about ‘real’ Indian food. But when he goes to her remote village to sample her family’s cooking he discovers secrets that demonstrate how little employers know of the lives of their domestics.   On his return to London the central character realises that his ‘liberal’ attempts to relate to Renu result only in bad trouble for her.

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In the third section an orphan bear cub provides the focus for Mukherjee’s discussion of poverty and cruelty. It is hard for the Western reader to stomach the methodology used to train the creature but Lakshman, who has his two families to support, needs the rupees earned by his dancing bear. Eventually the animal seems more humane than its downtrodden owner.

 

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Beggars at Fatehpur Image: mapio.net

By the time that Section IV opens it is possible to see some of the connecting threads of the different stories. India is a young country, becoming independent only in 1947, and its vast area and enormous population make it difficult to govern. Corruption contributes to the chaos but Mukherjee seeks, in particular, to expose the horrors caused by caste, gender and ethnic divides.

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Neel Mukherjee.  Image: Irish Times

In this section two extremely impoverished farming families take centre stage. From one emerges Soni, a Maoist warrior, living and training deep in the forest. She and her colleagues venture from the shelter of the trees only to explode IEDs in government buildings or to extract a tithe of goods from the local villagers. Soni’s childhood friend, the now Christianised, Milly, travels to Mumbai where she is more or less enslaved by her employers, Didi and Dada.

A State of Freedom is a phrase which Mukherjee uses not only to discuss modern India but also to explore the liberty of individual Indians. He underscores the importance of Milly’s life. Just because master and mistress undervalue and constrain her does not mean that she should not value herself. Hope arrives in the person of a young man, Binjay, who walks past her window on his way to and from work.

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Slums at Bandar Beach, Mumbai.

Once Binjay has extracted her from the imprisoning flat, and they have married, Milly is able to live more fully. She and Renu are neighbours and have the same water collection duties. Milly works as a cleaner in the flat where Renu is cook. In this way the novel reveals the spiralling coherence of its structure.

The coda returns to the tourist hotel. Opposite, on a construction site, a worker whose lungs are ruined by concrete dust, inches barefoot along the narrow bamboo scaffold. He is tasked with fixing the cloth rigging that will allow him to paint the external window frame. A single cough could send him plummeting but the thought of a 200 rupee bonus keeps him grounded.

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Bamboo scaffolding in Mumbai. dailyflicksandpicks.com

The reader works out the identity of this man and fits the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle into place. The tightly woven narrative seems to belie the reality of India, since in her world things fall apart and rarely tie neatly together.

Works cited

Le Fanu, Sheridan.  In a Glass Darkly.  1872.  Richard Bentley and Son. Print.

Mukherjee, N.  A State of Freedom.  2017. Chatto and Windus. Print.

Other related blogs at corkucopia – irishwriting@wordpress.com:

Will the Shit Hit the Fan? – Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam .

A version of this review was first published on page 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 28th July 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

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Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam

Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World.

Snigdha Poonam

‘Anything you want to be, you can be. You can be just what-all you want.’

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It is refreshing to read a book about hope.   The current world-weary cynicism of Western Europe and its institutions can, on a daily basis, be enervating.   But in Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers an Indian version of the American Dream lives on.

images.jpegSimilar to the ayah’s lullaby (see above) in the opening pages of Salman Rushdie’s iconic Midnight’s Children young Indians think that they can be anything that they want to be.  Rushdie retold the story of India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947 and showed that by 1976, when he began writing the novel, the hopes of the young country had been blighted by civil war, partition and ethnic hatred. Poonam’s tale is different. She has, for three years, been ‘hanging out’ in North Eastern India with a few of the under 25s who make up 50 percent of the Indian population. She records their progress in realising their hopes and dreams.

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Image: patrika.com

The opening chapter, The Click-Baiter, is infused with sadness. The young workers at Wittyfeed, an online content business, are experiencing great financial success. The founder’s father, plucked from his work as a grain salesman in the family village, is now running an on-trend clothes shop in a city mall. In this milieu the parvenu retailer feels ‘low, depressed, bored and hopeless’. His children, on the other hand, are upbeat. They have named their offices after castles in Game of Thrones and the toilets are called Khal and Khalessi. They run their company as a scion of Apple although they think their model is better because they have based it on the linked concepts of family and village. Nevertheless, it is clear to Poonam that uprooting older family members from the familiarity of village life is not pain free.

The first section of Dreamers is called There is No Plan B indicating an all or nothing dream. The Fixer is a self-made middleman who liaises between villagers and authorities. Pankaj Prasad navigates the bureaucratic maelstrom of modern India. His activities are based on ownership of a computer and camera. He takes and prints passport photos, one of which needs to be appended to any government form. He also records fingerprints, often facing the problem that farm labourers’ thumb whorls have been entirely eroded by physical work.

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Aadhaar card. Image: acbuzz.com

Since 1947 successive governments have introduced layer upon layer of schemes designed to alleviate poverty in rural India. By organising queues of appellants, inspecting their paperwork and identifying their entitlements Prasad is able to secure government grants. He also arranges for villagers to open online bank accounts and access them via his ‘micro-ATM’. Latterly he has become the local Aadhaar operator meaning that, after scanning applicants’ irises, he issues the biometrically unique identity cards without which it is impossible to access services such as old age pensions. He doesn’t know English but he does know how to use Google Translate.

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  • Courses: Spoken English, GD / PI, Personality Development

 

Unlike Prasad, Moin Khan, AKA The English Man, makes his money from selling English. Working out of The American Academy of Spoken English, a language school franchised over North India, he teaches classes of 50 students, by telling them stories. The methodology is to narrate in Hindi and using English only for the key point of the lesson – be it identifying the different usages of active and passive verbs or how to use the word ‘would’.

Poonam, whose English is of an academic and literary type, ponders this and suggests that Spoken English, designed to allow Hindi speakers to get by in a call centre, will define the future of the language in India and beyond. She states that as India is expected ‘to have the largest number of English speakers in the world in the next ten years – the English they speak will be the English of the future’.

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Poonam with Nomi Alqbal at the launch of Dreamers, Asia House, UK.

Poonam is a high-caste, highly educated Hindu. She works as a journalist for the Hindustan Times in Delhi. These elements set her apart from her subjects.   But what separates her even further is her gender. Women are expected to keep quiet and be obedient. Only men dream and thus Richa Singh, the eponymous Angry Young Woman in the section called I am Ready for a Fight, is the exception.

Singh is very different from the low caste men that Poonam followed. She is a post-graduate student at the prestigious Allahabad University in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India. She was, in 2015, elected as the first woman president of the university’s student union. All other officers that year, and, indeed, every year were men.

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Richa Singh.  Copyright: Richa Singh.

During the run-up to the election and afterwards Singh was subjected to misogynistic attacks questioning her morality and calling her a ‘bold’ girl. The university authorities attempted to exclude her and ignored a petition organised by her supporters. Women marched on campus and in the streets with gags indicating how their gender was silenced.

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Poonam went with Singh to one political meeting and was so frightened by the violence and anger of the male participants that she left Allahabad. She states that the ‘madness of modern India boils down to the anxieties of young men who no longer know their place in the world’.

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Narendra Modi. Image: forbes.com

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the popular Hindu nationalist, has admitted that although he was elected on a promise of more jobs there is no way that employment can be provided for over a billion people. Now Modi’s spin-doctors talk instead of ‘opportunities for self-employment’.

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Young Indians are dreaming big and determined to achieve their dreams. Poonam says she could not ‘understand how they could dream of these things starting off from where they were’. They want to be rich, important and famous but with the world indifferent to them Poonam believes that they will be unable to achieve this legally. Instead they will need to redefine the concept of work to embrace cheating and scams. They also have to ignore the difference between right and wrong. And so Poonam names the final part of the book Nothing is What it Looks Like.

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In The Scammer Poonam explains that many young people undergo a sequence of interviews in each of which they pay to have their name put forward for the next stage. But there is no job. The whole process is a fake. Dozens arrive daily and leave with an offer of work. The name of the company will, they hear, be texted later. Dream on. The ‘interviewers’ work is to pocket the money and process the hopefuls.

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Call centre scams involve cheating Americans out of millions of dollars by pretending to be the United States Treasury Department. Also Americans lose $1.5 billion annually to tech support scams. But those who work in scamming call centres leave not because their ‘work’ is immoral but because the incentives are not big enough. Instead they set up their own scamming centres, having realised that ‘whether it’s fraud or not depends on perspective’. Scamming is the way to achieve a Facebook-photos-lifestyle.

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Young Indian men are fed a sense of entitlement by online content. The best way to make their dreams come true is by stealing from the gullible. They are like a plague of locusts. But what will happen when they have devoured everything?

Works cited

Poonam, S. Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World. Hurst. 2018. Print.

Rushdie, S. Midnight’s Children.  Jonathan Cape. 1980. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 45 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 9th June 2018 .  It is reproduced here by permission of the editor.

 

 

 

 

Partition – 70 years on

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Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of             Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner

In the comprehensive index of Barney White-Spunner’s Partition there is no entry under Ireland. This is surprising because in the text there are many occasions when Ireland is important. For example, White-Spunner mentions that the representative of the Calcutta branch of Congress ‘visited Ireland and learned about leading revolutions against Britain from Michael Collins and the IRA’.

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Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image: oneindia.com

Strange wording since he arrived in Ireland in 1936 fourteen years after Collins’s death. The visitor was Subhas Chandra Bose who, like his fellow party member Mohandas Gandhi, had been educated in England, at Cambridge. Bose was in opposition to the non-violent ‘Mahatma’ and believed in an armed struggle against the British. Some historians interpret Bose’s beliefs and efforts as those of an ‘Indian Michael Collins’.

The internecine struggle in Congress took place before the Second World War and, as White-Spunner shows, was only a small part of the complexity of the situation in which both India and Ireland found themselves in terms of their relationship with Britain. Indian politicians and thinkers kept a close eye on events in Ireland considering that there were parallels in the two countries’ roads toward independence.

What is revealed in Partition is that the British botch of the process in India was infinitely more incompetent, more negligent and more numbskulled than it was in Ireland. And it was an independence botch that left millions dead or maimed. The resultant partition of India and Pakistan caused political, religious and violent outcomes which are explosive even today.

At the beginning of the book White-Spunner provides a useful potted history of the relationship between Britain and India in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries. Most striking perhaps is the fact that with so few settlers the empire retained the colony for nearly 200 years.

In compiling his account the author has to juggle all the different linguistic areas, provinces, administrative districts, princely states, political systems, religions, taxes, plagues, famines and uprisings. His skill in doing so reflects, symbolically, the way in which the Viceroys and the Indian Civil Service administered the multitudinous complexities of the subcontinent for generations.

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Nehru during the Quit India campaign in 1942.

 

In 1937 Congress emerged as the strongest party and, states White-Spunner, men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, ‘intelligent students of how the Raj had managed to exercise total control across India with only the slenderest of resources’, learnt that they must keep all the key branches of government centrally in Delhi. This was one of the seeds of partition since if everything was so centralised a binary split into two nations would seem better than devolution or federation.

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Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image: source unknown.

In 1938 the colourful character of Bose returns to the narrative arriving to take his place as president of Congress perched high on a 51 bull chariot. By 1941 he was in Berlin flirting with Nazism and organising Indian prisoners into an adjunct of the Waffen-SS. Bose then travelled, in a German submarine, to Japan and involved himself in developing the Indian National Army. The remnants of the INA were troublesome in the post-war run up to independence causing ructions during a series of courts-martial trials. Many regarded the INA as national and nationalist heroes rather than traitors. Bose, however, had died in an air crash in 1945 leaving India still under the yoke of imperialism.

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Nehru, Gandhi and Patel in 1946. Image: The Hindu Archives.

After the war Congress was, according to White-Spunner, ‘the universal voice of the Hindu majority’. But within the party there were divisions and oppositions. Gandhi did not think that religion was problematic: instead he believed that all Indians should live together, as they had proved they could under the British, in an undivided post-colonial India. Patel was keen to proceed at speed and was likely to accept partition if necessary. Nehru, a socialist, was also impatient to govern – seeing India in a secular light but containing within his faction, to his left virulently anti-British refusniks and to his right, extremely intolerant, Muslim-hating Hindus.

The Muslim League was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He broke from Congress in 1920 when he disputed Gandhi’s preferred method of civil disobedience. Jinnah preferred an approach of high-level negotiation with British rulers. In 1927 he had attempted to build bridges between Congress and the League but his proposals were rejected. Again in 1937 he approached Congress with power-sharing ideas, but again he was rebuffed. White-Spunner suggests that these occurrences were two of the ‘tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947’.

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Louis, Lord Mountbatten takes the salute from the Governor-General’s bodyguard as he takes on the Vice-Regency.  Image: Getty.

Meanwhile, on the British side, Viceroy Archibald Wavell, had been sacked and minor royal, Louis Lord Mountbatten, briefed by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was preparing to take the reins. Sworn in on 24th March 1947 Mountbatten was the twentieth and last governor-general and viceroy. Mountbatten realised that India was on the edge of chaos but also that Congress, not himself, was in the driving seat so that his own role would be to facilitate speedy action.

The Indian Army were, according to White-Spunner, ‘the only effective instrument of power in the government’s hands’. But their commander-in-chief Auchinleck, devastated by the likelihood of dividing his command into two forces – one for what was to be Hindustan and the other for Pakistan – seemed no longer able to focus on what needed to be done. Plans should have been drawn up and further troops obtained to police the partition process. Instead the senior staff concentrated on the remaining Europeans and their protection. This inaction had disastrous results for Indians.

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The Indian Army in 1948. Image: kindlemag.

Jinnah who had demanded separation mainly as leverage to achieve a federal India now found himself accepting the imminent existence of Pakistan. Congress, whilst insisting that the new state would not be called Hindustan, agreed reluctantly to ‘a partition of India… as it was a peaceful settlement involving the least compulsion of any group or area’.

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Jinnah, first Governor-General of the Muslim Dominion of Pakistan takes the salute in Karachi 1947. Image: Getty.

Things were moving fast now and by May there was a date for transfer of power: 14th/15th August 1947. Mountbatten would attend celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 14th before travelling across to Delhi for India’s festivities on 15th.

The stage was set for the gory finale. In the preface White-Spunner warns the reader that the story he tells is full of violence and horror. In the subcontinent human life became, for a period, of little value. Neighbours raped, maimed and killed each other. Some killed themselves to avoid forced conversion to another religion. Trainloads of refugees were butchered as six million Muslims attempted to move to Pakistan whilst six million non-Muslims moved in the opposite direction.

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Gandhi with Muslim refugees in 1947. Image: Getty.

White-Spunner, an experienced and senior commander himself, mulls over the British colonisation of the Indian states and the preparations for independence. He thinks, as did many of his colleagues, that the British Army experience in Iraq after the 2003 invasion can be analysed against the framework of Indian independence. He identifies a poisonous pattern of British governments interfering in other countries for money or status and then finding it difficult to leave.

The book deals clearly with the political process but White-Spunner also interweaves eyewitness accounts given by ordinary Indians from all walks of life. The personal stories add poignancy to what is already an entirely compassionate rendition of history. He dedicates Partition to ‘all those who lost their lives in India and Pakistan in 1947’. It would be interesting if White-Spunner were to write a similar account of the British in Ireland along with the manner of their leaving.

Works cited

White-Spunner, B. Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. London: Simon & Shuster. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th February 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.