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FICTION: A MASTER STORYTELLER STUMBLES

August 20, 2017

The prologue of Neel Mukherjee’s Man Booker-shortlisted second novel, The Lives of Others, packs a powerful punch. Nitai Das, a farmer, after being turned down for help by his landowner and with not even a cup of rice to feed his famished family, murders his wife and children and then takes his own life. It is an impactful opening; dramatic, suspenseful and extravagantly written, one that gives us a taste of the rest of the book and showcases all of Mukherjee’s talents as a wonderfully evocative storyteller and a master prose stylist — a rare and desirable combination.

Mukherjee’s latest book, A State of Freedom, is a compendium of five interconnected short stories masquerading as a novel. In it, one frantically rummages for flickers of his literary panache, but seldom finds them. The prose is verbose and cluttered, the plot is clunky and often histrionic. Structurally, it is similar to V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, with diverse narratives stitched together by overarching themes such as dislocation, deracination, the myriad social inequities in Indian society and the price of freedom.

Sprawling and meandering in scope and narrative, Mukherjee’s novels often seem to be, albeit just on the surface, Indian variations of the great Russian novels. As such, his characters are perennially concerned with injustice and the redeeming powers of compassion. For instance, in one of the stories here, a London-based Bengali NRI (non-resident Indian) visits his parents in Mumbai. His visit is marked by an eerie sense of awkwardness and alienation. To make up for it, he becomes a spectator to the lives of the two servants in his parents’ home, Renu and Milly. Much to his parents’ consternation he gets deeply embroiled in the servants’ lives and even decides to visit their village. It is during this escapade that he realises the financial and social strain his relationship with his servants in general, and his visit to their home in particular, has imposed on them. Although written in the same congested and contrived style that characterises the book, this section is nonetheless a deeply affecting portrait of the improbability of social mobility and the employer-employee relationship, a modern form of slavery in class-divided India.

Each of the five stories here tends to fly in its own direction

Another, almost fable-like, chapter deals with an impoverished pair of twin brothers. The financially struggling Lakshman bears the burden of an expansive joint family, whereas his elusive brother, Ramlal, escapes the constraints of his family — even the responsibility of his wife and children — and absconds to the city to work in construction. Meanwhile, Lakshman’s serendipitous encounter with a stray bear offers a dash of hope. He trains the helpless animal into an amicable dancing bear in the hope of assuaging his family’s financial ordeals. The passages describing Lakshman’s viscerally brutal training regime are chilling and, together with his reveries of escape from abject poverty, they turn this into one of the most powerful and moving sections in the book.

In charting these stories, Mukherjee creates a symphonic narrative of the experiences and struggles of his characters. Each character is ephemerally encountered, yet Mukherjee refuses to let us forget it. Characters, motifs, themes and incidents are superimposed across all five sections. In these interlinked stories, the protagonist in one story is a minor, digressive character in another. This tactic works because, with skill and subtlety, Mukherjee reminds us of the multiplicity and coincidences of our lives, of how we are as tiny specks in the vast sky of life, yet our paths converge again and again like frenzied shooting stars.

While the stories are disjointed and have erratic overlaps, the final section aims to coalesce them together. This takes the form of a porous, stream-of-consciousness narrative, as one character, Milly, recollects her last meeting with her childhood friend Sony. In her interior monologue Milly revisits the horrors of their lives together: poverty, cancer, rape and all the malignancies that plagued them. As characters encountered in previous stories reappear here, as their fractured lives intersect forming a palimpsest of shared experience, this fissured and chaotic closing chapter gives the book a modicum of cohesion. Yet, the dilemma about form persists. One wonders, after the last page is turned, whether to call it a collection of interlinked short stories or a novel. The stories on their own have such momentum that the smattering of finality offered by the last section is not enough to keep the strands of this riotously crowded book together. Defeating the centripetal force of this section, each story dares to fly apart in its own direction. As such, the book doesn’t succeed in becoming more than the sum of its parts.

The four men turn the cub on its back ... He inserts the thickest of the sticks into the cub’s open mouth while the two men pinning down the front paws hold down the ends jutting out, effectively fixing the head to the ground. Its mouth looks like an improbably pristine pink hole seeded with small white teeth. The sound that comes out of it now is some kind of a hoarse attempt at a whisper from the throat.— Excerpt from the book

Mukherjee might have tried to create a short story/novel hybrid in the same vein as Jennifer Egan’s brilliant book A Visit from the Goon Squad or David Szalay’s All That Man Is, but he doesn’t quite succeed in his technique because of the lack of basic structural cohesion. Hence, to call it a novel is an error of categorisation.

Unlike his masterful second novel, A State of Freedom is a flawed, experimental work. No doubt it is a vital and unsparing book — Mukherjee’s fragmented vision offers a patchy kaleidoscope that resonates with the rage and sorrow of contemporary India — but it regurgitates practically every theme and narrative vantage that he has explored in the past. It also alternates, sporadically, between the affecting and the melodramatic, the compassionate and the maudlin, the inventive and the hackneyed.

Mukherjee is a fiercely intelligent and sophisticated writer, but his talents are imperfectly and perfunctorily employed here. As a result, A State of Freedom is a book that does not genuinely delight and disturb, rather it agitates and disgruntles.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer

A State of Freedom
By Neel Mukherjee
Chatto and Windus, UK
ISBN: 978-1784740429
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 20th, 2017