Neel Mukherjee may have narrowly missed out on winning the Booker Prize when his previous novel “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted in 2014, but someone ought to give this writer a crown just for writing such impactful openings in his novels. In both that book and his new novel “A State of Freedom” I was moved, surprised and totally gripped after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. The vignettes which open these novels are separate from the main plots but have the ability to capture a reader’s attention and emotionally set the tone for what’s to come. In the case of this new novel, we meet a man who returns to India after living in America for a long time with his son in tow. On their travels to tourist sites he has a conflicted sense of identity seeing his native country through Western eyes. He has feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety and disgust. Then something so surprising and eerie occurs that I became hooked. The novel goes on to describe the lives of a few different individuals whose stories connect in fascinating ways. It’s a sweeping story that makes a complex but highly readable portrait of the state of modern India, economic inequality, classism and national identity.
Although the novel deals with a lot of serious subjects and has many brutally heartrending scenes, a lot of the book is saturated by the warm sensation of cooking. In the second section, an unnamed character makes annual visits to his family in Bombay after he’s permanently settled in England. He’s writing a book about regional Indian cooking because he asserts “Indians have always known there is nothing called Indian food, only different, sometimes wildly and thrillingly different, regional cuisines. This is a fact that has been flattened out in the West.” So he develops a special interest in his parents’ Bengali cook Renu and frequently gossips with his mother about her and their maid Milly. We’re given a strong sense of the flavours of their meals and aromas like fennel, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and mustard seeds which permeate their kitchen. These descriptions are not only evocative of sensory experience but the author delineates the origins of dishes, their attachment to particular sections of society and the way recipes are passed down through generations. This character’s desire to acquire this information and neatly present it for a British audience begs questions about cultural appropriation or cultural/class tourism as he delves further into Renu’s humble origins and the slum she inhabits.
The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.
One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”
Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment.
We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.
Running parallel with Milly’s story is that of her childhood friend Soni who suffers devastating losses due to illness. This highlights another important schism between classes of society: access to healthcare. Through emotional scenes in a rural underfunded and understaffed hospital the author powerfully depicts how “Illness was a luxury for the rich. Illness had reduced everyone here to a beggar.” Soni’s tragic circumstances prompt her to join the “People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army” – a radical Maoist armed group bent on overthrowing the government. This brushes against the Naxalite movement which Mukherjee explored so fascinatingly in “The Lives of Others.” In this story it makes a sharp contrast between the paths that Milly and Soni take in life and elucidate the central preoccupation of the novel: what choices do we really have in determining our personal freedom?
The final section, yet again, goes somewhere else entirely and demonstrates a complete stylistic change as well, but poignantly circles back to earlier story lines. It builds to a spectacular tale that prompts uncomfortable questions about the degree to which our own independence impinges upon or inhibits the freedom of others. Mukherjee excels at describing evocative details of particular places, but also movingly comments upon universal conditions such as friendship and aging: “Childhood friendships were often like that – intense in presence and in the present tense, remote and unreachable in absence.” His characters are so memorable not only because he movingly captures the arcs of their development, but lets us feel so intensely that given a twist of fate their stories might be our own.