I never think of myself as a writer; I think of myself as someone who writes books,” says Neel Mukherjee emphatically, as he reflects on the years between the completion of his degree in creative writing and the publication of his first novel—years he spent reviewing books and, quite happily, working for a charity. “I see writing as the last chance saloon! Writing is such a tricky game.” He wonders why so many people want to do it, rather than applying themselves to something more useful, like science or medicine. “When,” he asks, “did it become so glamorous?”
Mukherjee is the author of three novels; A State of Freedom, his third, will be published January 2018 by Norton. His debut—A Life Apart, begun during his course at the University of East Anglia—won four awards, and his second, The Lives of Others, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Both were published in the U.S. by Norton). Edmund White thinks State of Freedom “a masterpiece”; A.M. Homes believes Mukherjee “writes like a painter.”
Neither does Mukherjee like the fuss and fandango that these days is part of the writer’s lot. The Booker—which culminates in a long formal dinner for several hundred people, at the end of which the winner is announced—is “a circus,” he says, the writers “performing monkeys.” Mukherjee wasn’t nervous about being shortlisted—“It was like winning for me; I was only two books old”—but he’d rather all prizes were “done in the Pulitzer kind of way” and not as “a blood sport.”
A gentle and self-effacing man, Mukherjee was born in Calcutta and grew up in a poor family. His parents, who died within a few weeks of each other when he was just 21, made sacrifices to send him and his brother to a Jesuit school. “One of the things my mother drilled in to me was that education is the way out of misery or depressed circumstances.”
It’s a familiar trope in all Mukherjee’s novels. His father was “some kind of engineer—very progressive, spoke beautiful English,” and it was he who gave Mukherjee his love of reading. “I read all the early Nobel Laureates—people whose names are not known now, like Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, and Grazia Deledda.”
Mukherjee studied English at Jadavpur University, where all his teachers were Renaissance scholars who encouraged him to go to Oxford. He applied, won a scholarship, and embarked on his own study of 16th-century culture and literature. His Ph.D.—in which he “lost faith, but like the good Bengali boy I am, I was brought up to complete things”—was, he says, “mostly about Edmund Spenser and the complaint form.” Having, as he sees it, “failed at everything else I tried to do,” he went to creative writing school.
Mukherjee considers that “a mistake, for various reasons,” though he allows that it gave him time to write—perhaps the most useful aspect of such courses—and the “pressure to produce something” was valuable. He is skeptical that writing can be taught and worries that writing schools are now “a Ponzi scheme.”
At Princeton, Mukherjee taught creative writing earlier this year, as part of an undergraduate program with students who were majoring in unrelated subjects. “I asked them to write, and I read their work, and we did the workshopping experience,” he says. “You can give students the luxury of having their work read with attention and care by other people, and you can point them in the direction of other writers who’ve done plot or dialogue, character or humor, but you can’t teach those things. Writing is nine parts instinct, I think. All the things you need to learn can be found in other books. If you want to be a writer, you should first be a reader.” He will approach his Harvard sojourn next year in much the same way.
A State of Freedom forms a sort of dialogue with V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the 1971 Booker Prize. Like In a Free State, Mukherjee’s novel is five linked narratives. The outer stories in A State of Freedom are short, and the concluding narrative is written as if in one breath, without punctuation and ending on an unfinished sentence. Each narrative grapples with displacement, migration, the search for a better life and for dignity. Each has echoes, sometimes faint, of the others, and the novel is in a sense a ghost story.
“I wanted to look at the formal things about the novel itself,” Mukherjee explains. “What does a realist novel do? Can it be pushed in another direction? Within the realist framework, can we sabotage realism from within? You can no longer write about reality by just telling a story, and I wanted to take out all the things you would assume makes a realist novel cohere, like plot or character or narrative. Could I do that and still have something that would answer to the name of a novel? Could meaning be a way of making a novel cohere?”
A State of Freedom does not conform to the idea of what many think of as “the Indian novel”—Raj or family saga, exotica or the new India. Indeed, reading A State of Freedom is not an enticement to visit the world’s largest democracy, with all its casual, everyday cruelty: the uncaring reference to the family cook who comes daily “from the slums”; the exploited worker whose TB must go untreated because he can’t afford a doctor; the bear, a ring through his nose, forced to dance for rupees by a beggar; the little girl made to watch a Maoist terrorist take an axe to her brother’s arm. Each of the book’s five characters has a story to tell, four of them from the very margins of Indian society. The fifth, an NRI—a nonresident Indian—has returned to see his family and is deeply discomfited to discover a world far removed from his hip and cozy London life.
“I feel very bleak about India and Indian life, particularly at this point in history, when it’s turning into a religious, nationalist, right-wing society,” Mukherjee says. “I feel bleak about its prospects, and I’m not a cheerful happy writer. To write about India truthfully one has to face these issues. One cannot write about either the exotic side of things or the Slumdog Millionaire side of things. I’ve always felt you have to deal with it all with as much honesty and truthfulness as you can without spinning it off into some kind of escapism or colorfulness or chitchat.”
Mukherjee is pleased to have received a letter from a reader saying he had “made visible the invisible people of India.” He points out that the country’s constitution is “an incredibly progressive document where all caste division and discrimination are unconstitutional” and suggests that India needs “a kind of China-style government where a top-down system is enforced, and enforced brutally, and then the next generation will come out free of those problems.”
“I feel very bleak about history and the human race right now,” Mukherjee says. “Where did we take this wrong turning in history? Late capitalism has not been good for us. I think the whole capitalist order has a lot to answer for. The marriage of liberal democracy and capitalism is coming unstuck. It hasn’t worked. Why haven’t we got rid of racism in America? Why haven’t we got rid of nationalism and intolerance? The only way to deal with it all is to look it in the face and try and write about it and depict it in very unblinking ways.”
Liz Thomson is a journalist and author living in London.