A State Of Freedom: A novel in five parts, about displacement, migration and conflict

Cormack McCarthy wondered in No Country For Old Men if a man has the right to decide the exact order in which he will abandon his life. The sequence in which things fall apart, are they of his own choosing, or does fate ordain this too? Neel Mukherjee's response to this philosophical debate comes in the form of a 275-page answer, A State Of Freedom.

McCarthy, a wonderful writer of American Westerns, would feel utterly at home in the world Mukherjee has created. Come to think of it, large swathes of rural and semi-urban India would make for a perfect setting for a Cormac McCarthy novel. The badlands are as untamed as the American Wild West, as replete with lawlessness and exploitation. The bleak and nihilistic portrayal of humanity that McCarthy desires is richly available here.

 A State Of Freedom: A novel in five parts, about displacement, migration and conflict

Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom

Mukherjee, to his credit, mines this resource very well. His strength has always been the characters he creates, the happy ones and the damaged goods both. He chronicled three generations of a family in turmoil in The Lives Of Others, taking us through the steady decline of the once powerful Ghosh clan, who lost it all through debauchery and profligacy. But despite a multitude of characters, he ensured there were independent and separate voices, and each of these shone through in the whole rainbow spectrum of emotions.

In The Lives Of Others, he doesn't have to try as hard. There are a handful of characters, and long silences. It's more about the manner in which these people, earnest and diligent them all, react to fate — especially when it seems determined to follow up a tough hand with another, doubly tough, one.

The book is essentially a series of five very vaguely inter-connected stories. They intersect but so tenuously that it's almost like reading separate short stories. Themes of displacement, migration, and the desire for a better life bind them together like a leitmotif. The stories range from a man with a dancing bear who travels from village to village looking for a place to do business, to villagers who send their daughters to the city to work as housemaids. People on the fringes of our society; on the outside looking in. And we, the status quo, will do everything in our power to keep them there. The conflict that this ensues makes for A State Of Freedom.

It's not a book made for easy reading, however. Mukherjee takes a mirror to our society and forces us to confront this world. He does it without compassion, without euphemism and without theatre. The violence is almost cathartic, the bloodletting feels like a purge. But more than once over the course of the book, I found myself going through literature almost too visceral and primal to be able to continue. At several points, I had to stop reading, breathless though I was, for there had to be a limit to how much cruelty a person can take in one go.

The "us vs them" narrative is heavy in this book. It's a very socialist text in that regard. And it's clear which side the author's sympathies and sentiments lie on. To an extent that it gets to be predictable. Much like cinema of a certain vintage, where all of society conspired to target the do-gooders, the protagonists in A State Of Freedom often find themselves in inescapable binds, where the only escape from rocks seem to be in hard places. Unlike the cinema, however, there are rarely any happy endings to be had here.

If The Lives Of Others dealt heavily with the Naxal movement, Mukherjee has returned to the insurgency again here. Issues impacting the tribal in Naxal-dominated districts of the heartland find a voice, while a prominent character in the book is shown joining the movement. It is clearly a topic Mukherjee feels comfortable enough to return to, and I have a feeling his next offering will not change this.

Having said all of this, however, there are a couple of problems that stick out. Chief among this is how far removed the supposedly inter-connected stories are from each other. They move on vastly different paths and any attempts at bridging the tale seems coincidental, by accident not design.

The quality of writing is also workmanlike. It works because it's supposed to describe the commonplace realities of the bummed-out, but it could have done with a bit more sparkle. It does occasionally reach a higher level of writing, especially in the chapter about the two young schoolgirls in a village who are forced to separate:

There were no goodbyes, no promises or expectations to see each other soon, because there was no understanding of absence and not having each other's company. There was no wrench, no exchange of tokens or mementoes. The day's play ended as it did on any other day... Something shifted and she began to cry, not as a child cries, with its innocent and skinless complaint against the world, but as an adult, silently, trying to keep it all in, only just beginning to understand the weight of the world.

But these instances are too few and too far between. For the most part, the prose is fairly standard. Never jarring, but also rarely sparkling. Thankfully, there is enough good in the book for these stray complaints to not undo the damage.

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Updated Date: Jul 23, 2017 14:56:40 IST