Caste in Doubt

A State of Freedom: A Novel BY Neel Mukherjee. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.

The title of Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel recalls V. S. Naipaul’s Booker Prize–winning collection In a Free State, from 1971. Like Naipaul’s book, which consists of two stories and the titular novella, bookended by sections of documentary observation, Mukherjee’s is not a novel in the sense we might recognize, though it is being called one. It, too, is made up of five parts, more like long episodes than complete narratives. But the departure from the novel form is superficial. All of these episodes are set in India, and feature minor characters we glimpse in passing and then learn more about later. There is, throughout, the Dickensian satisfaction of invisible linkages among disparate lives. In part two of A State of Freedom, a bhadralok Bengali émigré living in England travels to Bombay to visit his family and conduct research for a cookbook. One of the family’s servants, Milly, is the protagonist of part four, which depicts her family’s brutalized existence in regions touched by Maoist rebels (the subject of Mukherjee’s previous novel, The Lives of Others), and shows middle-class Indian household life from the viewpoint of the help. In the novel’s third part, Lakshman, a rural Indian, tries to make a living as a bear-tamer, taking his only somewhat domesticated bear to towns, where he gets it to dance and offers it for children’s rides. References are made in this section to Lakshman’s brother, who has moved elsewhere to earn money in the construction industry. The novel’s final section gives us a stream-of-consciousness monologue from the perspective of this lost brother, whom we have also seen fall from scaffolding in the first part.

The title of Mukherjee’s book is more limited in its suggested ironies and ambiguities than Naipaul’s. A state of freedom might be an existential one—perhaps the existential one: We are condemned to be free. Or it might be referring to an actual nation-state. Something like this latter resonance is evoked by Naipaul’s book, in the title’s skillful deployment of preposition, adjective, and noun, and in the content of the stories and novella. Both books are about what level of freedom people actually have. For Mukherjee in particular, the question is one of class: In a country where stratification and inequality are heavy, immovable facts, the quality of what it means to be free, in a free state, is strained.

Mukherjee has rightly protested in an interview that Indian novelists, unlike their white Anglo-American counterparts, are always talked about in terms of how they depict India and rarely praised for experiments in prose or structure. But there is no doubt that A State of Freedom, for all its modest pushing against conventional boundaries of the novel, is a scathing portrait of India. Mukherjee reveals the country’s promise of upward mobility as a sham, in which every person’s advance means stymieing someone else. This is a grimmer world than even Naipaul’s. I think of “In a Free State,” when Linda, one of two white characters driving through a country racked by political crisis, murmurs, “Marauders. I love that word.” This surreal, Naipauline dialogue, capable of eliciting uneasy laughter, is missing from Mukherjee’s serious and unfunny book.

Mukherjee is at his best when examining the curiosity and cluelessness that characterize his own class. The unnamed Bengali design professional who narrates the novel’s second part is an aesthete and gourmand (his cookbook is a side project) who knows the proclivities of his stratum but falls victim to them anyway. The plot concerns a fascination he develops with the family’s cook, Renu. During an early encounter, she comes bedraggled to the house after a night spent awake—worried about flooding from the rains, the police visited her slum in the middle of the night to take her to higher ground. When she leaves to go rest, he finds himself wanting “to ask her so much more: the layout of her living quarters in the slum, how many people had been dragged out of bed and made to stand out in the driving rain all night as a way of preventing death by flooding, how close the slum was to the sea.”

The narrator’s curiosity drives him to pry further into Renu’s life. As he gets deeper, he receives admonitions from his mother and father not to trespass class boundaries. “Best not to become informal with the servants, one must always maintain a distance with them,” his mother warns—which only makes him more determined. He visits Renu’s slum, which prompts an acid reflux of liberal self-hatred:

People were now looking at me. My discomfort escalated and it was not only because of the stares. Edicts from a middle-class upbringing on looking into other people’s lives through their open doors and windows combined with a liberal sensitivity, acquired later in life, about treating the poor as anthropological fieldwork or a tourist attraction, to produce a mixture of dread, guilt and self-loathing.

Eventually, he travels to the village where Renu is from, ostensibly to conduct research for his cookbook, but more to investigate Renu’s home life. He is fascinated to learn that Renu’s nephew has escaped the fate of village life to pursue a Ph.D. in physics in Germany; Renu herself is sending all her money to support him. “Something in this broken country worked,” he reflects. And yet his parents’ warnings turn out to be right. The narrator crosses into conversational intimacy with Renu, asking after her nephew, but some months after he leaves to go back to England, the wounded civilization asserts itself. The narrator calls his mother to catch up, and learns that Renu, after having an angry reaction to his mother’s cooking instructions, has been fired. What Mukherjee gives us is a society so undergirded by spoken and unspoken rules regarding who one is, based on where one comes from, that even to push back lightly against them is to invite chaos. Renu can work to send her nephew to Germany, but it turns out that means her daughter is denied money for education. The Bengali, seemingly liberated from snobbish middle-class attitudes by his life in England, forgets the implications of his cross-class mingling.

The complexity of this chapter shadows the others. Mukherjee grants none of his other characters this level of self-consciousness. Their poverty is also one of agency: We simply watch them migrate doggedly from place to place, in search of better lives. In the novel’s third section, Lakshman, saddled with having to take care of two families after his brother leaves to look for work in the cities, finds an opportunity in the form of an abandoned bear cub. He decides to train the cub, whom he names Raju, to be a dancing bear, and much of what follows is a painful series of descriptions of bear-taming through constant beatings. Mukherjee’s unstinting commitment to describing every bear whipping, interspersed with moments of the sheer boredom that marks Lakshman’s futile travels through villages and cities with his dancing bear, makes this a bluntly effective fable: Man is a bear to man.

While the mood darkens over the novel’s latter half, as details of poverty’s brutality accumulate, there is an overwriting that glazes each of the chapters and makes them ultimately difficult to distinguish. Describing a moment in which Lakshman must pierce the nose of the cub to attach a rope to it, Mukherjee writes, “The crowd that rings around this business has fallen into a total hush. The surrounding pines respond in unison to a passing breeze with their own swishing sound.” Word after breathless word is off: A “hush” is already “total”; “this business” comes from an inappropriately casual idiom; a “breeze” must always be “passing”; “swishing sound” is a cartoon of wind moving among trees. Heavy-handed writing accompanies sentimental image-making. When he finds Lakshman in pain and terror, Raju (a bear!) moves to comfort him by taking his head into his paws. In the fourth part, Milly, a servant girl trapped in the household where she works, must be rescued by being spirited out in a cupboard (a reference to Naipaul’s “One Out of Many,” where the servant Santosh is more plausibly given a cupboard-size closet to sleep in when he moves with his boss to Washington, DC). Mukherjee kills many of his characters to underscore his seriousness: A child dies from unknown causes while visiting Agra with his father; a woman hangs herself when she fails to obtain treatment for a tumor; the novel concludes with a man falling at a construction site.

A State of Freedom is less about freedom than resilience: How much dislocation can someone endure and retain a sense of self? Mukherjee’s answer is equivocal. Some characters do maintain their own visions, if only for their children. Milly moves to the slums and plans to send her daughter to school; Renu has sent her nephew to Germany. But Mukherjee’s compassion is at odds with the novel’s own skepticism of such compassion. It is unclear why his London-dwelling middle-class Bengali narrator from the novel’s second part fails where Mukherjee, a London-dwelling middle-class Bengali writer, succeeds. Mukherjee, it turns out, can enter the lives of the poor without consequence. He can even, in a purposeless stylistic experiment, use stream of consciousness to narrate their experience. The true state of freedom is that of being a writer.

The odd thing about this bleak novel is that, in attempting to depict a nation seething with movement, the portrait is finally one of stasis. People are on the move, but their lives and minds are circumscribed by class and caste, poverty and death. By comparison, the cruel Naipaul—he of the dictum “Hate oppression, fear the oppressed”—seems surprisingly dynamic. In a Free State, an early document of decolonization, pairs images of liberation—personal and national—with their ominous, unexpected costs. A State of Freedom arrives seventy years after Indian independence and demonstrates the country’s manifest failure, but with more hopelessness than even Naipaul musters. Politics is no solution. In a bit of piously liberal plotting, Mukherjee has Milly’s childhood friend join the Maoists, but then has her murdered, suggesting that it might have been her own squad that did it. The one truly radical force fighting against India’s version of freedom in A State of Freedom turns out to be just another trap.

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014) and the coeditor of n+1.