Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (W W Norton & Co 2019)
Short stories don’t sell. At least, I believe that’s the prevailing wisdom among publishers. That’s probably why this excellent collection of short stories – or more accurately three short stories and two novellas – has been marketed as a novel. Still, if that’s what it takes to draw readers in, then why not?
All the stories happen in India, though they are five different Indias. An expat returns from the USA with his seven-year-old son, and takes him to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; another expat, this one from England, visits his parents and gets to know their cook; a man from a poor village goes on the road with a dancing bear; a girl from another poor village is sent off to a life of domestic servitude in ever bigger and further away cities, while her best friend joins the Maoist guerrillas; a man suffering from asbestosis does dangerous construction work in a city far from his home village.
All the protagonists are dislocated. Some of them turn up as minor characters in another’s story: the bear man is the twin brother of the man with asbestosis, and both of them, having left home intending to send money back, have left their wives and children to fend for themselves. The cook in the second story has it in for another servant, who turns out to the the girl in the fourth story.
These are grim stories. The first starts out like a mini-travelogue, though one with a dark cloud over it, and ends with devastating heartbreak; in the second, what might have been a piece of food-tourism comes hard up against the desperation of the poor; and in the rest, the harsh inequalities of class destroy people’s lives. There’s a Reading Group Guide up the back of my copy, which I skimmed. These notes insist that this is a novel with a brilliant structure. Perhaps they’re referring to the way the stories are ordered as a descent into ever more desperate situations.
It’s a grim book, and a beautifully written one. There’s some romance, some intrigue, some terrible domestic violence and cruelty to animals, but also kindness and a glimmering promise that things might improve.
I’ve read it during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown, and am writing this with cold symptoms waiting in strict isolation for the results of a Covid test [test came back negative about six hours after I wrote that]. Without wanting to trivialise the situation of the character, here’s a passage that seems to speak to my current situation and may give you a feel for the writing, and also a sense of the irony in the book’s title. Milly, the protagonist, is working as a maid in Mumbai, and her employers have forbidden her to leave the apartment block:
It was not that she needed to go out – where would, could, she go, in this endless city, without knowing anyone? – but something so fundamental denied is that thing made disproportionately enormous, consuming, and she began to think of herself as a caged bird, defined by the fact of nothing except its imprisonment …
She experienced a new feeling, at night, of the kitchen walls inching forward slowly from all four sides to crush her, lying in the middle. Their hut in the village had been tiny and eight of them had to sleep together, huddled, but she had never thought of that as small. Besides, there was always the great open outside – fields, forests, groves, river bank. The idea of space of something small or big, something that could be reduced, had never occurred to her, not even on the train, in the general compartment so dense with people that the air had sometimes felt too thick to breathe. not even in that battery-cage had the thought ever crossed her mind that ‘this is too small’. Now, in a Mumbai flat bigger than any house she had ever known, she felt trapped and squeezed.(Page 228)
Sound at all familiar?
My copy of A State of Freedom is a loan from my book-swapping club.