The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.
A Calcutta-born lecturer living on the East Coast of the United States is visiting India with his six-year-old son. He is worried; since their arrival in Agra, an unsettling quiet has descended on his American boy. On the way from the Taj Mahal to Fatehpur Sikri, the father recalls how, the day before, their car drove by a crowd gathered around the body of a worker who had fallen from the scaffolding of a multistory building. Without asking, the father now wonders whether the son too has had a glimpse of the blood-darkened spot where the worker fell to death—whether that is the real reason he has become withdrawn and meek.
The ominous mood intensifies inside the monument. The father, unmoored and clutching onto the boy’s hand, looks at a carved fresco:
An animal, crouching below, had been defaced too, making it look much like the lower half of a human child, decapitated in the act of squatting; it brought to mind ritual sacrifice. A small thrill of repulsion went through him. The mutilated carvings had the nature of fantastical creatures from Bosch’s sick imagination; left untouched, they would have been simply beautiful. Then the dimness started to play havoc with his perception. Shapes and colors got unmoored and recoalesced in different configurations. It was like discovering a camel smoking a pipe, formed in clouds in the sky, shift and morph into a crawling baby held in the cradling trunk of an elephant…
Neel Mukherjee’s third novel of five linked narratives, A State of Freedom, begins with a realistic story told not so realistically. Thematically, it does not remain within the bounds of the premise on which it is originally predicated: the clash of the cosmopolitan sensibility acquired in the West with the ways of modernizing India.
Mukherjee works within a complex tonality, reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and John Banville, writers who are fond of flexing realism but look away from history. He varies his tone from earthy—representing the quotidian—to a giddiness that borders on the surreal and occasionally slips into the absurd. The images borne along the way disrupt the logic of realism. The father, after being jostled by the erratic driver encounters “the swiftly engorging clot of people” and “the blazing froth of bushes.” Hours before he would wake up to his own tragedy in the hotel, his face “twisted around on the stalk of his neck,” and “the white bed linen” beneath him “roped and peaked in the great [incomprehensible] turbulence.”
In his 1938 essay, “Realism in the Balance,” Georg Lukács argues that the Surrealists “construct characters in terms of their own consciousness and not by contrasting that consciousness with the reality independent of them.” He found “a vivid evocation of the disintegration, the discontinuities, the ruptures,” in modernist writings. But he could see the maneuver of identifying “this [disintegrating] state of mind directly and unreservedly with reality itself.” The “highly distorted image”—like the one at the end of the passage quoted above—representing the disintegration becomes the focus itself; modernist poetics do not encourage readers to go beyond the image and engage with what circumstances caused the disintegration.
Had Mukherjee’s mode of narration been purely realistic, the story would have opened up to the trite debate of migration in the times of globalization, and the questions of civilization in the context of post-coloniality. As such, Mukherjee’s intention to historicize subsides. The story, wrapped in terrifying mystery, successfully replicates the experience of disintegration itself.
The theme of the clash between cosmopolitanism and the rigidities of tradition finds a stronger exploration in the second story. A liberal, London-based foodie is visiting his Bengali parents in Bombay. Observing his father’s dealings with the domestic help, he recalls “the Indian practice of shouting at the servants.” He is painfully aware that the practice is “hallowed.” The foodie’s father is a Brahmin while the cleaning lady, Milly, is an Adivasi, a forest-dwelling tribe in the eastern state of Jharkhand. His authority to shout at her is sanctified by his religion. This upsets his son, who despite his mother’s attempts to dissuade him, keeps conversing with Milly as well as Renu, the cooking aunty, and pays a visit to the slum where they live. A year later he visits Calcutta to research a book he is writing about Indian breakfasts and ventures out of the city to visit Renu’s family. The encounter exposes his ambivalence. He feels disgusted while “driving through the hell of Haora district…dirty, squashed in and claustrophobic.” When he reaches the village, the sight of the cramped lives brings doubt and unease. “Not for the first time,” he wishes he had listened to his mother, because the visit bristles “with all kinds of awkwardnesses and contretemps.”
Apparently, the foodie has a lot in common with V.S. Naipaul’s character Santosh from the first short story “One Out of Many” in In a Free State (1971). Both are first seen in Bombay. Their lives revolve around food. Both experience migration and adjustment. But in comparison to Santosh’s nightmarish existence, the foodie’s hesitation about where he would relieve himself while staying at Renu’s, whether the bathroom would be clean enough, is a trifle.
Naipaul’s realism is of a different order. He sees the behavior of his characters as a function of the cultures in which they are entrenched. For instance, the cleaning of the teeth with a toothpick in an unnamed African country (A Bend in the River), defecating in the open in India (An Area of Darkness), and spitting out seeds while eating a melon in Iran (Among the Believers). His prejudice and his achievement is that he arrays the minutest behavioral manifestations along the axes of the many civilizations he inhabits but does not entirely belong to. He historicizes by infusing his characters with his own quest to define and locate himself vis-a-vis the colonial history that has uprooted him and consequently produced him. It is this scalding quest that makes Santosh a disturbing feat of a character.
In revealing the harrowing inequities and contradictions of contemporary India, Mukherjee does not weigh his characters in relation to the currents of history that have tossed them about. And in writing about Laxman, a laborer struggling to feed his family, he is not charting an individual’s path of migration from his village to the neighboring town initiated by some wave of urbanization or modernity. Instead, by evoking the details, grueling and tender, of Laxman’s pursuit to teach a wild bear cub how to dance so that it can become the source of his livelihood, he is dignifying the universal experience of human survival itself.
Although history is not a determinant force in the aesthetic conception of Laxman, this reader cannot ignore the crushing weight of the facts that surrounds him. In September of 2017, two French economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty published a report called “India Income Inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?” Their findings suggest that within India’s salaried class, income inequality may be at its worst in the last 100 years. Laxman does not fall under this category. He does not have an income, least of all a taxable one. He does not own land. He represents 21.9 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion who are below the poverty line and have less than $1.90 a day to spend. In an aggressively neoliberal economy, where the middle class looks up to the billionaires whose wealth keeps soaring on the Forbes list, the life of a laborer hardly registers.
Mukherjee’s achievement is in sustaining his characters, adrift in realms of stark disparity, in a style that is buoyant and effervescent. He is not daunted by the dereliction of his landscape. Out of his own turbulent encounter with the home country after living for decades in the United Kingdom, he forges sentences of distinct, crystalline beauty. In the pavilion at the top,” he writes, “where Akbar used to sleep, faded frescoes, nibbled away by time with a slow but tenacious voracity, covered the walls.”
Mukherjee’s decision to tell Milly’s backstory from a third-person omniscient point of view is a wise one. Had her story been filtered through the foodie’s consciousness and told from his point of view, it would have been tinted with his naïve optimism. As such, we intimately learn the details of her arrival in Bombay, and how her first employers abused her. She eventually managed to escape with the help of a man from the slum she later married. Time passed and she became a mother. And one evening when she was on a bus with her daughter whom she had gone to pick up from school, her brother gave her a call from home. Soni, Milly’s childhood friend and a Maoist guerrilla, has been killed by paramilitaries.
Unlike Milly, readers know how the state forest guards heckled and raped Soni’s sister on the pretext of gathering kenju leaves. And how Soni’s mother, disregarded by the public health system, ended up hanging herself from a tree. But the memory of Milly’s once closest friend does not mean anything now. The news of Soni’s death in fact strengthens her resolve to educate her daughter. The moment is ironical, almost cruel. The state has not only penetrated Milly’s home by sending in the forest guards and paramilitaries. But, away from home, it has also subversively refashioned the truth of her life.
Writing in The New York Times on the eve of India’s 70th birthday, Pankaj Mishra noted that ever since the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, the practices of Hindu nationalism have become wanton. The killing of intellectuals and dissenters, the lynching of Muslims, and racist assaults on Africans continue apace. The public sphere is shrunken and vitiated. A book as incandescent and heartfelt as A State of Freedom is to be read and reckoned with against this bleak backdrop. Mukherjee calls upon one corroded nation’s capacity for introspection, to cast a few visceral glances at the millions of lives battered daily.