In conversation with Neel Mukherjee, one thing is soon laid plain: his most famous quotation, “Fiction can either be a mirror reflecting you back to yourself or it can be a clean pane of glass looking on the outside,” is not a value-neutral statement.
“There are two different kinds of readers, as well as two different kinds of writers—I have mentioned this before,” Mukherjee says by phone from London. “I’m the latter category of writer, not the autofiction kind. I don’t want to write about myself—my life is boring.”
Lately, Mukherjee divides his time between London and the United States, where he’s been teaching creative writing in spring semesters at various universities (in 2018, he’ll be at Harvard). Born and raised in Kolkata, in West Bengal, he is the author of A Life Apart (2016) and The Lives of Others, shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
Whether one considers this boring may be a matter of perspective—and perspective is a matter with which Mukherjee’s inventive third novel cleverly contends. A State of Freedom is a novel comprised of five distinctive narratives examining the migrations and motivations of various characters living in or hailing from contemporary India, one of the world’s most pluralistic places. Theirs is a nation of 29 states, 22 official languages, and 1.3 billion people with myriad manners of working, eating, dressing, dreaming, entertaining, worshipping, and warring.
“The only thing Milly took with her on the eight-hour bus journey to her new life was her school textbook and some sheets of dirty, blank paper which she had saved from a small sheaf distributed in school earlier in the year,” Mukherjee writes inthe novel. “She knew that the book was called Pratham Kiran, although she couldn’t yet read the first word, only the second. The clothes she had were what she was wearing: a pair of old drawstring pyjamas frayed at the bottom edge, the string replaced by her mother for the purpose of travel and held together by a safety-pin; and a shift, which was once white with a bold red paan-leaf pattern on it, but now looked like a greyish-brownish swabbing cloth.”
Milly, an enterprising woman whose back story features in section four, is introduced in section two as a domestic in the Mumbai home of an affluent couple heralding the annual monthlong visit of their favored adult son. The son lives abroad, in London, and, in working at a digital design firm there, has acquired a liberal sensibility in conflict with the formative entitlement of his native country (e.g., he’s lost the heart to upbraid a servant who talks back). This discomfort compels him to explore the slum abutting his family home.
“My discomfort escalated and it was not only because of the stares,” Mukherjee writes. “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. I turned tail.
“The question that most occupied me afterwards was whether each of those rooms was the entire house and home of one family,” he writes.
While the material conditions of their lives differ greatly, both Milly and the son strive to attain the best lives their circumstances will allow. It’s a maneuver that has them grappling with displacement in a nation where moving up often means moving out.
“Conditions in India are very different,” Mukherjee says. “Where, in the West, for example, freedom may have to do with choices such as, Do you want 40 different breakfast cereals in your supermarket aisle or do you want three?, these are not the choice coordinates of somebody Indian. If you give choices to the people that I’m writing about in this book, their coordinates would be something like, Would you like to have three meals a day? versus Would you like to work and have a steady salary? So choice is culturally limited or defined in some ways, but the one thing that remains constant [among cultures] is the fundamental human urge to move from what you have got to something better.”
One of the book’s two epigraphs clearly espouses this truth: “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities” by V.S. Naipaul in A Bend in the River.
In exploring the possibilities of what A State of Freedom might achieve in form and content, its author conceived of a novel in conversation with another of Naipaul’s works, the 1971 novel In a Free State, which Naipaul called “a novel with two supporting narratives” (plus a prologue and epilogue, Mukherjee points out). Mukherjee calls the book “formally daring,” absent the “connective tissue” readers have come to expect from modern realism: linearity, continuity of narrative, and character development.
“[After The Lives of Others] I was trying to think carefully about what makes a realist novel cohere,” he says. “It’s usually plot or character or continuity of narrative. I thought, if I could take all those things away, all the connective tissue of a novel [like Naipaul did], could I still leave something that could answer to the name ‘novel’? That was my formal experiment.”
On the surface, sections one, three, and five—respectively featuring a father and his young, foreign-born son touring sacred monuments; a soulful dancing bear and his abject trainer wandering the countryside; and a construction worker breathlessly reassessing his life—may seem to have little to do with sections two and four. They are, however, united by “a whole internal system of echoes and consonances and assonances and rhythm and repetition and whispers,” Mukherjee attests.
The result is part realism, part ghost story, and wholly original. Kirkus calls A State of Freedom “a calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.”
“I want to be taken to a different place when I read a book,” Mukherjee says, “and that’s one of the gifts the novel can give. If this novel manages to take readers somewhere else, out of their own lives—if every time they opened the book, they found themselves taken to a completely different world, truthfully rendered in all its density and details—that would be wonderful.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.