Neel Mukherjee has had a two-handed literary career, working as a reviewer of other people’s novels and writing his own. In 2014, his second novel, The Lives of Others, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His latest book is a state-of-the-globalised-nation novel which gives human particularity to those deadened concepts we pass around such as migration, inequality and neoliberalism.
A State of Freedom breaks into five chapters, each telling the story of a distinct individual in India, whose connection to the others is only fully revealed in the final pages. Mukherjee has observed wryly that due to stereo-typical ideas about the Indian novel, whatever their formal properties, his fictions tend to be read as family sagas. Perhaps with this in mind, the relationships in A State of Freedom are more often horizontal than generational and the stories, taking place across the country, emphasise wildly different fortunes and experience.
Confounding western preconceptions, one of Mukherjee’s protagonists, a cookbook writer manqué, asserts that there is no such thing as Indian food (the cuisine varies tremendously between states and cultures, something Mukherjee shows in mouth-watering detail), and in his novel there is no exemplary character: everyone’s perspective is partial and fragmented, and the ability to read the lives of others is less a product of education than a function of power. So the beggars, servants and manual labourers who appear ghost-like and inscrutable to the wealthy émigré visitors of the first two chapters, glimpsed only in their ‘periphery of vision’, emerge subsequently from this state of illegibility into fully realised human beings, each with their own chapter, context and rationale.
Mukherjee begins with a man undone by India, a returnee after years away in America, now ‘broken down’ by an event made all the more horrific for seeming inexplicable. The unnamed man, bursting with pride but sensing he is ‘no longer a proper Indian’, has brought his young son in the back of a chauffeur-driven car to the Taj Mahal. But the American boy is too young to appreciate his father’s stories about emperors banqueting under white moonlight, and bewildered by an onslaught of beggars and amputees from whom his father tries to shield the stunned child.
This brief sketch opens the novel like a sharp slap, alerting the reader to how proclamations of India’s dizzying too-muchness — hoardings in multiple languages and styles make the father think, ‘how unsettled their orthography’ — become the excuse for not really looking at the violence of poverty, or reading the effect on everyone in its orbit.
Mukherjee confronts us with the deranged performances of both master and slave. There is Lakshman, forced by poverty to beat and tether a wild bear so that it will dance for a handful of rupees. The power struggle between this unlikely couple is profound, and the entertainment they produce enacts their mutual humiliation. And Milly, in service from the age of eight, treated like an animal by successive employers, forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, fed leftover scraps, and beaten when she breaks a cup. The worst of these employers becomes so enraged at any sign of independence she imprisons Milly, and threatens to brand her face with a hot iron: ‘Flat 10,’ the narrator observes, ‘had become like a circus.’
Mukherjee repeats certain words, complicating his novel with every accretion of meaning. So the cookery writer observes that recipes handed down can never be reproduced: each cook brings their own ‘hand’ to the food, and it is this unique creativity, the expression of freedom, that power is threatened by and seeks to control. In Milly’s village Maoist rebels cut off her brother’s hand; while the ‘romantic’ emperor who built the Taj Mahal, cuts off his workers’ fingers so that his mausoleum could never be reproduced. In the same way, images of breaking amass to the point where the story withdraws from its own performance, reduced to a breakdown of material cost (rent, water, electricity, food).
Finally, in its dialectical ending, A State of Freedom’s artfully handled piecing together of story fragments is held in tension by a counterforce of textual disintegration. Capital letters and full stops disappear, sentences fragment, words break into poetic suggestions reminding us of the reduced, hollow men and women, trapped and fated by an order the writer would break, while acknowledging that art, in the end, cannot achieve this: ‘He is husk of course he is at last.’