A State of Freedom
by Neel Mukherjee
Chatto & Windus
A State of Freedom, the follow-up to Neel Mukherjee’s breathtaking Man Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014) employs that coolest of modern literary forms: interlinked short stories.
This most playful of genres was made famous by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), and has since been used by everyone from Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad ) to David Szalay, in his Man Booker finalist,All That Man Is (2016) – even if some critics remained uncertain just how interlinked his stories really were.
Mukherjee leaves no room for doubt. Characters, motifs, images and situations occur and develop across five sections, all set in India. These resonances are sometimes explicit, as in the case of twin brothers Lakshman and Ramlal, who have a section each and are glimpsed in others.
Just as often, the associations feel more coincidental: can the boy glimpsed beside his father in an upmarket car possibly be the same as the one in the opening section? The reader learns to join the dots while Mukherjee’s narrative licence makes sense of his title: such constant flouting of formal constraints is indeed a kind of freedom. Such liberties work for and, with deliberate irony, against the content, which (to put it crudely) concerns the state of India: “state” being both the condition of the country and India as body politic.
There are also characters, the rich and powerful, who are free to do pretty much whatever they want – such as the wealthy, successful expat scientist in section one (whose backstory is glimpsed, it would seem, in section two) who returns from New York to guide his American son around India’s temples, palaces and culture.
More numerous are those seeking liberation from poverty, persecution and powerlessness: “You don’t feel scattered, a little bit of your life here, a little bit of your life there? A broken life, in bits and pieces,” says Soni in the long penultimate section, during a long-delayed reunion with Milly, her childhood best friend. While Soni could be describing the scattered novel in which she finds herself, she is actually reflecting on the strange circumstances of her life.
Having been robbed of Milly as a youngster, Soni survives a terrifying encounter with a band of predatory men and eventually joins (or is press-ganged by) Maoist guerillas who are rumoured to commit atrocities in the area: she’s sure they cut off the hand of Milly’s brother, Budhawa, with an axe.
The academically bright Milly is removed from school and sent to work as a housemaid. The image of her attempting to stifle tears signals her sudden ascension into adulthood; her father, by contrast, is reduced to a child when he weeps uncontrollably after failing to find medical help for his dying wife.
Moving to Mumbai to find better-paid work, Milly is essentially held prisoner by wealthy employers who place guards on the door and threaten to brand her with an iron if she tries to escape. Something within her refuses to be defeated, however.
Milly and Soni are, in essence, one set of virtual twins whose fates narrate different possibilities in modern India. Almost every section is built around an intense, complicated relationship between a couple, one of whom is trying to get inside the mind of the other. The prodigal scientist, for instance, is exasperated by the apparent indifference of his son to the glories of India: “He now read a kind of polite forbearance in the boy’s quietness, a way of letting him know that this kind of tourism was wholly outside his sphere of interest but he was going to tolerate his father indulging in it.”
This psychic chasm reflects the divisions between Indian and American culture, but the relationship between Lakshman and Raju in part three is even stranger – not least because Raju is a bear. For Lakshman, the animal is a longed-for gold mine: in the belief that he can support his failing family by teaching Raju to dance, he embarks on a training regime so cruel that it brings tears to the eyes. Callousness slowly reduces Lakshman to the state of an animal, as Raju is gradually elevated into a sympathetic character.
Perhaps the strangest pair of all comprises those who begin and end the book: the bored American boy and Ramlal, who narrates the short final section in a woozy stream of consciousness. They seem to have nothing in common, except the fact that for a brief time they are in the same city. Yet Mukherjee draws them into an unexpected alliance: both have persistent coughs, both think of the Taj Mahal, both experience strange disorientation of the senses, and both share the same eerie fate.
This isn’t a psychic twinning so much as a haunting, something Mukherjee prepares us for. The boy’s father notes that his son’s American childhood meant “he was not growing up as he had with the gift of ghost stories […] As a result, [the father] did not understand quite what went on inside the child’s head when novelties, such as the notion of an order of things created by the imagination residing under the visible world and as vivid as the real one, were introduced to him.”
This finds its own echo during one of Raju’s desperate dances: his eyes “blinking, unfocused, looking at nothing, or seeming to be looking at something beyond what is in front of and around him”.
A State of Freedom creates a vivid tapestry of experience, ideas and incidents that grows richer the more connections are made, or flouted. Religion, migration, poverty, starvation, medicine, violence and work spin before our eyes much as the roadside signs flash past the dazed American boy.
Mukherjee’s prose is sensuous without becoming florid. Delicately handled images of lightness and weight accompany the haves and have-nots. Milly attends school partly to avoid working in the fields, as “a way of keeping at bay the weight of endless days of nothing”.
This elegance is undercut by several shocking set pieces: Soni’s terrifying encounter with the rapists; Lakshman’s eruptions of cruelty. What counters the frantic brutality is the rare character like Milly, who through hardship finds inner resources to survive and even prosper: “Her life is not fragmented,” she realises, answering Soni many years later. “To her it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities.”
A State of Freedom is daring, moving and vital.