“A state of freedom” is the third novel by Neel Mukherjee and it takes the form of five mini-stories that seem to be unrelated but are actually umbilically bound together.
In the course of reading them, some interconnections do emerge at the level of plot but what really unites them are recurring themes and moods.
The result is an aesthetic whole and it delivers a literary shock equivalent to John Travolta’s injection of adrenaline straight into the heart of Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction”. She recovers immediately and can put the experience behind her; the reader of “A state of freedom” does not.
The setting is contemporary India and in the first story a man is returning home with his young son and showing him sights like the Taj Mahal. He comes to ‘feel like a tourist in his own country’, signalling the sense of dislocation that gathers pace through the rest of the book.
During a journey, the father and son see a man with a dancing bear through their car window and the tale of this man’s own journey unfolds in the third story.
The second story also begins with another outlier, an Indian returning to his middle-class parents in Mumbai. It opens the way for a searing account of class differences in India, with the lives of two domestic servants, Renu and Milly, forming a bridge with the fourth story.
Milly’s friend is Soni, a young woman who joins an armed guerrilla movement and she urges her childhood companion to do the same.
It offers one way of trying to redress the social injustice that fractures her country but at a terrible cost. Having left her village to join the guerrillas, she can never again return. Milly, says her friend Soni, suffers ‘a broken life’ but this raises a question that the book is trying to answer: ‘Her life is not fragmented. To her, it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities. How can movement from one place to another break you?’
The lives of everyone in “A state of freedom” are broken by India’s class divisions and by different forms of migration as people subjected to awful poverty struggle to escape what oppresses them. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, they roll a rock to the top of a hill from where each time it rolls down again; but they persist.
The last part of the book, without giving anything away, is a first-person account that adds a final layer of unity to what has gone before. Like ‘The Dead’ in James Joyce’s “Dubliners”, it leaves you in a state of melancholy, knowing your heart has been damaged by what has been read.
James Joyce said of his collection of short stories that his intention was to write “a moral history” of his country and Mukherjee accomplishes something similar, writing episodes that merge to form a moral examination and condemnation of modern India.