To a Western reader who has never visited a Third World country, the abject desperation of the lives of the marginalized characters in Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom’’ will surprise, even sicken. Indeed, the title of the novel itself will read like a grim joke, a steep dip into the pools of irony. A more apt summation of the lives of these characters is the opposite of freedom, a state of confinement or captivity.
Or maybe this freedom is meant to be aspirational, something imagined but not realized. Freedom from conscribed circumstance is what each of the characters, India’s urban and rural poor, craves and seldom achieves.
The novel, which Mukherjee has stated is in conversation with V.S. Naipaul’s “In a Free State,’’ is divided into five sections, a collection of tangentially linked stories. While the reader aches for the sections to finally come together, for some kind of unity or catharsis, each section — save for a few instances of the protagonist from one section mentioned in another — stands alone, its own silo, an illustration of the isolation endured by almost all the characters.
Only the first two sections feature protagonists who are upper-middle-class, in each case, an Indian man who lives in the West and is visiting India. The first section, about an academic at an American university who is touring the iconic Fatehpur Sikri monument in Agra with his young son, is genuinely foreboding and spooky. Somehow, Mukherjee manages to inject a high level of tension and drama in this seemingly innocuous trip even as we anticipate the tragedy to come.
Indeed, many of the sections are sprinkled with otherworldly moments and spectral figures, so that these narratives read almost like ghost stories, while others are rooted firmly in the achingly realistic, unequal, and unjust soil of modern day India. There are stories of casual but unimaginable cruelty between mistress and servant, human and animal, political activists and their victims. A tourism brochure for India, this novel is not.
Perhaps the most difficult-to-read section is the one about Lakshman, an poor, illiterate villager who comes to possess a bear cub, whom he names Raju. Lakshman decides that the way out of his dire circumstance is to train Raju to become a dancing bear and earn money by entertaining passersby. The passages describing the taming of the animal — by inserting a rope through his nose and breaking some of his teeth — will make one reach for the phone to call the Animal Protective League. Our impulse is to turn away from such casual barbarity, but Mukherjee makes a point to remind us that grinding poverty and the desperate need to transcend it, makes such human cruelty possible, even inevitable.
For all its brutality and matter-of-fact realism, even the Lakshman section is infused by a strange hallucinatory vibe, as man and beast take to the road to escape the stifling confinements of Lakshman’s village and family life. And then the section ends on a note that seems to underscore the hopelessness of Lakshman’s attempts to outrun his fate, while also being completely open ended and subject to interpretation.
Accustomed as we are to reading novels that follow a standard narrative arc, some readers may find it frustrating to read a book that labels itself a novel but lacks, as Mukherjee puts it, the “connective tissue” that ties disparate sections together. If most of the chapters share a theme it’s that most of the characters in “The State of Freedom’’ are migrants of one kind or the other, each trying to escape the inevitability of their marginalized existence and of being exiled in a no-mans land, which may or may not be better than what they have left behind.
The final major section reintroduces us to Milly. When we first meet Milly in an earlier section she is a silent presence, working as a domestic in an affluent home in Mumbai. But Mukherjee now gives Milly, a Hindu who has converted to Catholicism, her own voice, and we follow Milly on her strange and convoluted journey from her impoverished rural family to work in an abusive home in Mumbai, where she is not allowed to leave the apartment by her employers and from where she escapes by hiding in an armoire. Milly ends up in another home where she is treated kindly by her new employers.
Indeed, if the novel has the faintest glimmer of hope, it comes from Milly, who, despite her improbable journey, believes, “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? Are you a terracotta doll, easily broken in transit?”
In a world where 65 million people are currently political or economic refugees and migrants, Milly’s words speak to the improbable hope and superhuman courage of the world’s poor and marginalized.
A STATE OF FREEDOM
By Neel Mukherjee
Norton, 288 pp., $25.95
Thrity Umrigar’s most recent novel is, “Everybody’s Son.’’ She lives in Cleveland.