A STATE OF FREEDOM
By Neel Mukherjee
278 pp. W.W. Norton. $25.95
Neel Mukherjee likes to keep his titles a bit abstract, suggesting a mood or even an ethical choice, but conveying nothing about a book’s characters or setting or plot. His first novel, “A Life Apart,” published in 2010, could be about almost anything; in practice it begins with an Indian student at Oxford and then moves in on the London sex trade. His 2014 novel, “The Lives of Others,” shares its name with an earlier Oscar-winning German film, but those words fit beautifully onto its complex story of political and familial turmoil in Bengal. Both books have a 19th-century plenitude of detail, but it’s the 19th century of Zola rather than Dickens. They’re works of rub-your-nose-in-it naturalism, unforgiving and emotionally draining, books that make you squirm, and think. That’s especially true of his latest novel, “A State of Freedom.” Except this title is less open-ended than it seems, and in using it Mukherjee has something very specific in mind: He has his eye on one crucial literary predecessor.
V. S. Naipaul’s “In a Free State” won the Booker Prize in 1971, just a few years after it was established to recognize the year’s best fiction from Britain and its former colonies. The award has had a better record than most: Many of its winners have stood the test of time and their tally includes remarkably few embarrassments. But “In a Free State” stands out, even in a list that includes “Disgrace” and “Possession,” “Midnight’s Children” and “Wolf Hall.” It is dark and bitter and grand, and its prose mixes despair with a sense of majesty. Naipaul divides the book into five sections, each about people in motion from one continent to another, and frames its different narratives with a prologue and an epilogue whose cadences match his own autobiographical writing. No character reappears from one part to the next, but the book is unified by its sense of freedom as a disruptive force, as though its people were unmoored in something other than a physical sense.
Calcutta-born and London-based, Mukherjee has twice been a finalist for the now-renamed Man Booker Prize, and this new novel stands as an echo of Naipaul’s great work. The first of its five semi-independent sections concerns an expatriate Indian academic, a man bent on showing the Moghul remains of northern India to his American son: the Taj Mahal over lunch and then an hour’s drive to the abandoned 16th-century capital of Fatehpur Sikri. He’s a worried father, concerned that he “might have imposed too much on a 6-year-old,” but he drags the boy along just the same, and grows irritated at his inattentiveness. He’s also horrified at their driver’s breakneck pace and dismayed by the beggars and touts, for whom his guidebook marks him as prey. America has made him soft; he’s lost “the easy Indian ability to bark at people considered as servants.” In other hands this might be comic, but Mukherjee begins on a foreboding note, and so as we read we wait for something to happen, something bad.
On the way back from Fatehpur Sikri the car passes a fox-faced man with “a mustache that seemed alive,” leading a trained bear along the roadside. While Mukherjee’s unhappy professor will vanish from the book, the bear’s owner, Lakshman, reappears in its third section, as though the novelist had decided to imagine a life for a man glimpsed from the window of a moving car.
Lakshman finds the cub near his village in the mountains and saves it from the cruelty of the local children, only to inflict a further cruelty of his own. The keepers of dancing bears are traditionally Muslims, known as “qalandars”; Lakshman, a Hindu, doesn’t so much train the animal as beat it into submission, having first gotten its canines knocked out. Nevertheless the bear soon acquires a name, Raju, and a character, and when Lakshman runs away from the cares of village life, from his family and his debts, Raju becomes his only companion. This is the hardest of Mukherjee’s narratives to read, but it’s also the most original and the most beautifully written. (On a morning when “the heat is beginning to bare its teeth,” the man and his bear must “cleave to the shaded areas.”)