The 100-page story of Milly and Soni, two tribal villagers, is held together by Mukherjee’s wonderfully inventive prose styleby Tanjil Rashid / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
You can tell a lot from the titles of Neel Mukherjee’s novels. The “state of freedom” he refers to in the title of his latest work has multiple meanings. It rings ironically of Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency from 1975-77, even as the book’s five narratives are set in contemporary India. The title also refers to a metaphysical state, the freedom unlocked when—like each of Mukherjee’s protagonists—you are dislocated from home. The characters’ lives, from a servant in Mumbai to an Indian-American emigré, serve to examine troubled social relations. The 100-page story of Milly and Soni, two tribal villagers, is an especially searing account of state oppression and Communist terror.
Mukherjee’s previous novels, A Life Apart and The Lives of Others, were fine novels, but the author didn’t excel at knitting plotlines together. Here he makes a virtue of this, achieving a state of freedom from the form of the traditional novel—by the final chapter, he’s dispensed with punctuation altogether. Along the way he inhabits the mind of a dancing bear—sadly still a common sight in India.
The themes interact more than the plot strands. So when Milly muses on “fragmentation,” she is referring to the fissiparous politics of the world’s largest democracy and her divided self. Ironically, for all the multiplicities in the novel, this is the author’s most coherent achievement so far. Not least since everything is held together by Mukherjee’s wonderfully inventive prose style.