Desire and need, may well seem to be the two sides of the same coin. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, explores these complexities through five different characters, in five different circumstances. Reflections of contemporary India, these lives have an unquenchable thirst for a better life, as they push themselves beyond mere existence.
Neel Mukherjee’s earlier published books include Past Continuous in India, which won the Crossword Prize. His second book, The Lives of Others (2014) was a shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Prize. A State of Freedom is Neel Mukherjee’s third novel. Sectioned into five parts, with a prologue and an epilogue; the book is essentially a collection of short novellas, supposedly interwoven, though I found them to be disconnected in most ways.
Set in present day India, the five tales speak volumes on all things Indian
The American based young man returns to India with his six-year-old son, only to experience a growing sense of discomfort in his very own homeland. An upcoming London based publisher, spends a month every year with his aged parents in Mumbai, and befriends his domestic help. He takes up an invitation to visit her home, however regretting this decision later. The third tale displays the antics of a poor man, and his attempt to train a bear cub to dance and perform on the streets, to earn him some fortune. The fourth examines the lives of two young girls in a remote village and the paths they both take, different yet similar in some way. And finally the last tale is a reflection of the consciousness of a troubled construction worker.
Striking feature of the book- The portrayal of characters
Touched by misery, unease, poverty, the characters are crude, yet natural in every way. They live amidst filth, struggling in over-crowded dwellings to simply stay alive. Neel Mukherjee’s narration makes clear cut class distinctions, the presence of which cannot be undermined in our country. As the upper class is pre-occupied with its mindless activities, the poorer section is caught in the endless web, worrying constantly about their next meal. The book gives a fine sketch of the divided country that we are. The characters are deep and intense.
But the fractured stories, without any cohesiveness
Despite the intense portrayal, the tales didn’t seem strikingly new to me. There was a feeling of having read them before. The first tale about the returning NRI left me feeling disoriented. The second tale, though, about the Bengali family flowed more easily. I would consider the third and the fourth tale to be the soul of the book as they did make a compelling read. The fifth tale on the construction worker seemed tacked on and just didn’t work for me. The ending seemed chaotic, and I was left with a feeling of disillusionment as I closed those last pages.
A State of Freedom is good in bits and pits
Through these five tales, Neel Mukherjee has managed to portray a deep understanding of the Indian society, all with its inequalities and class distinctions. The book may not be unflinching and could stretch in parts, yet there are portions where it shines, with its vivid display of a complicated country called India.
Recommended if you love intense and haunting narratives.