Things fall apart in the lives of Mukherjee’s characters but the structure of the novel brings the disparate elements together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org:
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.