This unique novel comprising five interconnected parts has been described as audacious, stunning, deeply imagined, vividly observed, and “a great hymn to poor, scabby humanity.” It is a book full of Indians, from India, some of whom live abroad and have returned to their birthplace to discover who they really are, or are not, and how other Indians, even their own family members, perceive them.
One father, returning to home after living many years abroad, discovers how time is lived differently in India. He has become a tourist in his own past world. In another story, another returnee is chastised in strong terms: “You live abroad, you don’t understand the culture here, you shouldn’t come trampling in with your fancy notions. There will be difficulty for us to clean up afterwards….” The author, an Indian writer, then proceeds to take the reader deep into everyday Indian life.
When Neel Mukherjee sets the stage for a story, his descriptions of place, time, and the weather, for example, are realistic. It’s fiction, but you quickly realize that he’s working from strong personal experiences. For example, when writing about one of his character’s boyhood, he remembers a monsoon downpour and describes “lying awake, listening to the sound of relentless sheet of water coming down, imagining a low, red, early-era sky, and strange vegetation and fearful creatures and dangerous landscapes….” Cooking and eating are also reoccurring themes in this book, served up in ways to take the reader deep into a family’s daily life. And, we catch the tensions lived when the poor try to make a better life for themselves, against the odds.
As an anthropologist who has studied South Asian cultures and languages, I find Mukherjee’s stories to ring ethnographically true, capturing everyday realities in what are sometimes disturbingly realistic ways. There’s no sweet cream here; instead, we taste red hot curry in the storied lives he creates.
If you like a bit of cross-cultural exposure, Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom is well worth the read.
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