In his new book, Neel Mukherjee keeps an unwavering focus on the inequities, inequalities and exploitation of human beings by human beings
Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 599
If Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014) was a diachronic dissection of the Ghosh family, spanning lifetimes, in his latest offering, A State of Freedom, he uses his linguistic scalpel for a synchronic cutting open of India’s now and here. Less a novel than a set of five linked narratives, their lengths ranging from a brief eight pages to a novella-length 100, A State of Freedom is probably the most sustained reflection on class in post-Liberalisation India in contemporary fiction. Reminiscent of two monumental works of non-fiction, P Sainath’s path-breaking Everybody Loves a Good Drought, published over two decades ago, and Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, published in 2008, Mukherjee’s novel brings back to the discussion table issues that seem to have fallen out of favour with the chatterati and the intelligentsia these last few years.
From the opening narrative’s unnamed protagonist, the Kolkata-born and–bred “tourist in his own country”, whose two decades in “the academic communities of the East Coast of the USA [have] defanged him of the easy Indian ability to bark at people considered as servants”, to the second narrative’s first-person narrator, a London-based designer, also Kolkata-born, who too is appalled at the way in which supposedly educated people like his own parents treat domestic workers in India, to the “servants” themselves, who are the subjects of the three remaining narratives, Mukherjee keeps an unwavering focus on the inequities, inequalities and exploitation of human being by human being in every story.
Yet, as the protagonists of his stories seem to believe, and Mukherjee himself seems to at times, not all human beings are equal, or, more problematically, capable of being equal. In the second narrative, the first-person narrator parenthetically describes his own use of the term “domestic help” thus: “(My mother’s generation still called them servants. My politically correct tag [i.e. domestic help] had not a jot of correlation to their status: their position in the Indian social hierarchy or economy had never changed)”. But this ironic self-deprecatory statement is marred by the statement, a few lines earlier, of the creation of the state of Jharkhand “carved out… after decades of agitation and activism by tribal peoples and backward castes — they had that dreaded Indian distinction, the branding iron of an acronym: OBC, Other Backward Castes — for a separate state…” etc. One notes several things here. First, the bleeding-heart-liberal championing of the underdog (tribals and backward castes); second, the use of the adjective “Indian” (see all the quotes above — Indian ability, Indian social hierarchy, dreaded Indian distinction); and, finally, the egregious error about the expanded form of “OBC”, which stands for “Other Backward Classes” and not “Other Backward Castes”. Is this the narrator’s error or Mukherjee’s? And is the repeated use of the adjective “Indian” to indicate primitive, casteist, sexist, class-biased positions a reflection of the narrators’ views or Mukherjee’s own? Not an easy question to answer.
A central takeaway from this beautifully written novel is that if one is born in middle-class, relatively privileged, urban India (a member of the English-medium class) one can only imbibe democratic and human values, and develop the ability to look critically at oneself, if one lives in the West; remaining in India dooms one to continue one’s horrifically solipsistic middle-class existence, treating everyone who is one’s social inferior with contempt and brutality. Such, for example, are the people who are Milly’s employers — the domestic help/servant who moves from the underdeveloped Naxal-infested jungles of Jharkhand to the highrises of Bombay/Mumbai (where she works for the parents of the second story’s narrator, among others) — one of whom, in Kolkata, is described as having picked up and thrown a 10-year-old boy “down the hole through which the lift goes up and down”. Milly, central figure in the novella-length narrative, is told she “should be grateful for what you have — things are far worse out there” by the tribal Christian woman who had got her a job as a domestic worker.
Mukherjee’s novel strikes all the right guilt-ridden-anti-capitalist-liberal-pinko-lefty chords so beloved of the West’s educated classes: middle-class Indians (who are actually pretty near the top of the class hierarchy, and so, should be seen as rich) are brutal exploiters of innocent tribals; innocent tribals who convert to Christianity end up exploiting their own people; development has only added modern forms of misery and enslavement to India’s traditional heritage of discrimination and violence; the only way out of this seems to be death, whether willed or otherwise. No wonder it has won high praise from Western critics. But for this reviewer, the biases that Mukherjee seeks to lay bare with his cutting prose end up revealing some of his own — and these are not always very pretty.
A magnificently written, marvellously phrased book, with its heart in its right place, A State of Freedom might not be quite what its Western critics claim (“devastating portrait of the inhumanity of the rich to the poor”, and so on) but it is certainly worth the read, if only to discover what it stumbles in attempting as also what it succeeds in achieving.