Review: A State of Freedom

Neel Mukherjee's incredible novel A State of Freedom presents a mosaic of life in modern-day India that is chaotic and tragic, but also inspiring.

Mukherjee is a Calcutta-born British writer known for his novels A Life Apart and The Lives of Others. In his third novel, he pushes his talents to new heights. Divided into five parts, the story follows a number of poor residents struggling to work their way up in a deeply stratified society. Two of the most compelling characters are domestic servants Renu and Milly, who both migrate from rural poverty to Mumbai and find work with well-to-do families. They live in the same seaside slum, folded into the city's infrastructure, almost out of sight from the luxury apartments nearby. Milly's urban life parallels the story of her friend Soni, who still lives in their home village and has joined guerrilla Maoists, "their anger shiny and whetted." While Soni finds consolation and purpose in the violent communist movement--"Here was a kind of equality, at last"--Milly increases her workload and saves money to send her children to school. In Milly, Mukherjee has created a character of admirable tenacity and singular purpose, a woman who refuses to be broken by adversity: "Her life is not fragmented. To her, it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities."

In a similar way, Mukherjee reveals Renu's story. She's also saving money to support higher education for her family. In the course of her work, she forms an improbable friendship with the son of a wealthy family. The son is a London resident who has returned to his native country to write a cookbook about Indian cuisine. Mukherjee uses the evolving relationship between the two characters to examine class identity. He contrasts the attitudes of the "good, sheltered first-world liberal" with the stark realities of the developing world and industrialization. The son is shocked to find the slum in which both Renu and Milly live.

Another compelling character in the mosaic is a rural, beggared man named Lakshman, who travels the countryside with his tortured dancing bear, Raju, trying to make money. Unlike the relative success of Renu and Milly, Lakshman finds nothing but failure and poverty. His parable-like tale offers a tragic counterpoint to the novel's other parts, as if the prospect of upward mobility were nothing more than a phantom torturing the disenfranchised.

A State of Freedom is a complex, groundbreaking novel that blends mythic pathos with unflinching social realism. Mukherjee's India is a place beset by poverty, corruption, exploitation and gross inequity, but a place, nonetheless, in which the human spirit survives. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Shelf Talker: This powerful, multilayered novel imagines the indignities and small victories of India's working poor.

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