A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-670-09015-0
Pages: 275
Source: Review copy
Rating: 4/5
This review contains spoilers.

The sections in A State of Freedom have common themes, or characters recurring in the periphery of each section’s primary narrator’s life. Migration emerges as the central theme, and its accompanying freedoms and losses are explored as the loosely intertwined stories unfold.

The first of these narratives is of an Indian man who moved abroad into a first-world life of comfort visiting India with his son. During a tour of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri on a sweltering afternoon, it dawns on him that he has become that caricature of middle-class Indian migration – he feels like a stranger in his country and his son’s foreign accent makes him feel guilty. Disturbing comments and sightings of a fox-faced man in a Mughal-era palace put the narrator on edge and heighten his sense of disconnection. Retreating from the heat and the monuments in a car back to the hotel, the narrator is struck once again by his inability to respond when a dancing bear approaches the car and scares his son. These feelings of loss, helplessness and fear culminate in a shock ending to the opening chapter.

Another urban migrant voice shines a light on various forms of persistent social divides – the subtle caste and class politics in the treatment of domestic workers, the elevation of or distaste for certain foods, and the role of formal education in bridging gender and social disadvantages. The section follows a young Bengali man living in America and returning to his parents’ home in Bombay to research Indian recipes for a book. Needless to say, the base need of food for survival is raised to an art form and the nuanced differences in regional food preparation are celebrated in this story. Renu, the cook at his parents’ home is treated with sadly unusual respect, and the family cook back in Kolkata is discussed as a prized heirloom. Panch phoron, hing, and other spices and condiments are described in delectable detail as the narrator watches the cook preparing meals. Food and education take centre stage in the tensions of social class playing out here – the narrator strikes up a friendship with Renu, makes an abridged visit to the slum where she lives, and recalls how he stood up for a servant girl when she was berated by his father. The cook’s hidden story of hard labour to finance her nephew’s study to become a physicist is discovered on a visit to her village. The girls in the family are not given schooling, and there is no talk of them having a life different from that of the squalor and meagre resources they grew up with. Yet, Renu overcame this life dictated to her and migrated to Bombay to find work and send money home.

The lives of two girls from a village in Jharkhand play out in contrast with each other, with each of them growing into a different ‘state of freedom’ as their paths diverge. Milly sees her brother’s hand chopped off by a local Maoist group and is packed off to earn a domestic worker’s wage in the city. Faced with thankless hard labour and treated like a sub-human because of the low social position, Milly soon forgets her childhood friend Soni, and slowly loses hope in continuing her education. Back in the village, Soni is a bystander to the rapid decline of her family as it faces disease and brutality from Forest Department officials. By joining a Maoist group and learning to live in the forests, Soni takes charge of her life to fight injustices, but sacrifices her freedom of movement as she will always be on the run. Milly escapes the village, but has her movement constrained by her employers and limited literacy. Milly finds a certain agency as she escapes her controlling employers, finds love, and begins a family living in a cramped slum in Bombay. By persevering in providing for her family, Milly is determined to give her daughter the education she could never have herself. She hears of Soni’s death year later and affirms to herself the thought that no matter what Soni thought, her life of frequent movement had coherence – the individual living each life gives it coherence.

The strength these women find in their adversity as it hardens and shapes them is reflected in the story of a dancing bear. An abandoned bear cub, first mistaken for a puppy, is taken in by Lakshman. Ramlal and Lakshman grew up orphans under the label of ‘bin mai babok’ (the fox twins) because of their deformed pointy faces. After Ramlal abandons his family in the village in search of work elsewhere, Lakshman tries to devise ways to provide for them. Under the guidance of a ‘qalandar’, the bear is subjected to horrific pain to tame it, and it takes on an uncertain role as companion and performer for his ‘master’. Since the bear will always be a wild animal, Lakshman can never be sure if his bear will obey him or maim him. Nonetheless, Lakshman’s travails as a travelling performer, always an outsider, always shunned for his lower social position, lead him to draw his sense of security and companionship from the bear. The questions of dependency, ownership, and authority on the periphery of this story remain unanswered as we witness Lakshman’s emotional and financial devastation.
The fox-faced orphans resurface at the end of the book, with Ramlal entering a rushed dreamlike state as he loses consciousness. His ordeals as a day labourer and addict are at an end, and his thoughts tie together the threads on class, food, need, migration and displacement woven through the individual stories.

Read this book for the accurate observations on daily life of the often-ignored. These stories separately may have been maudlin, but taken together tell a national story greater than the sum of its parts.

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