A State of Freedom, Neel Mukherjee’s bleak but beautifully constructed third novel, offers five loosely connected stories set in modern-day India. Five characters from diverse backgrounds experience displacement and devastation as they move from east to west, from village to city—even from life to death.
Mukherjee’s empathy for the underdog is apparent in the creation of his most resilient characters. Milly, who works as a maid, is forced to arrange her own kidnapping after her employers refuse to let her out of their house. Lakshman, whose chance encounter with a bear cub convinces him to leave his family, roams from village to village with the animal that he slowly trains to dance (though the training is extremely violent and gruesome, and may prove difficult for sensitive readers). Equally compelling is the London publisher visiting his parents in Bombay who defies strict cultural etiquette to involve himself in the personal life of the family cook, Renu. This almost comic piece, which has the domestic richness and class-consciousness of “Downton Abbey,” takes a grimmer turn when the publisher visits the village of the cook’s impoverished extended family.
With recurring characters and motifs throughout its disparate chapters, A State of Freedom echoes the structure and themes of V.S. Naipaul’s Booker Prize-winning novel, In a Free State (1971), which also focused on the international effects of political and social disruption in five distinct stories. There’s also a bit of Henry James in the discernible tensions between Old World complexity and New World innocence, as well as the interplay between real life and the ghostly realm of the dead. But this is no pastiche; Mukherjee’s depiction of social inequalities and his belief that even the lowliest person has a story to be told is very much his own.