cover image A State of Freedom

A State of Freedom

Neel Mukherjee. Norton, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-29290-9

Freedom, as defined by the characters in Mukherjee’s brutally honest and haunting latest novel (after The Lives of Others), is a relative state. Most of them are striving to transcend lives of grinding poverty and degradation in contemporary India, where, though the “untouchable” designation has been abolished, the vicious caste system still victimizes village dwellers and domestic workers. Lakshman has abandoned his family and his dismally poor village to travel with a dancing bear (the bear “dances” when a rope is jerked painfully through his nose), only to realize that he has lost everything and that the bear is his only friend. Renu is a domestic cook in Bombay, working herself to the bone and juggling many jobs in order to pay for her nephew’s education. Milly is forced to rely on a man she does not know in order to escape slavelike servitude to her employers: “She had been untethered, set free, when all she wanted was the safety and security of not being alone.” Soni, who seeks freedom through activism with the Communist Party, discovers she is a prisoner of doctrinal subjugation. An unnamed father comes home to India from America to show his young son his heritage only to tragically realize that he can’t escape the ancient violence that lies simmering under the surface. Seen against a pitiless landscape of primitive villages and hellish urban slums, and the extremes of scorching heat and billowing monsoon rain, this is a compassionate, deeply felt tribute to India’s forgotten people who strive to triumph over subjugation. With its mixture of prose styles and narrative voices, Mukherjee’s novel is a literary achievement. (Jan.)