The Victorian novel – that great “baggy monster”, as Henry James called it – is alive and well, and being written in India. Neel Mukherjee’s third novel is a good example. Telling the story, or stories, of five main characters, from different backgrounds and social levels, who come fleetingly into contact with each other, its range is both wide and deep. It’s difficult in our stratified society for a novelist convincingly to depict vertical connections in society – unless he is writing crime fiction. The Victorians, notably Dickens and Hardy, could do this; think of Bleak House or The Return of the Native. So can Indian novelists today.
Muckerjee sometimes writes badly and clumsily, especially in the first section of this novel, but then so did the young Dickens and Hardy. There’s a straining for effect that leads to portentousness. Life, he tells us, carries people “like dice on the slot of a roulette machine and delivers (them) to destinations that are endlessly repeatable, each ever so slightly different from the other, all more or less the same”. This is banal. It doesn’t mean much at first reading, and no more at a second, while being also inaccurate as anyone who has played roulette knows.
The five stories seem distinct. In the first a deracinated Indian, now living in the USA, brings his son home, to see the Taj Mahal and other tourist sites. An incident alarms the boy who has some sort of breakdown and this leads the father to realise that he has become a tourist who no longer feels at home in the country of his birth. There is however another incident which will be picked up later in the novel. To the father’s irritation his taxi, caught in a jam, is accosted by a beggarman with a dancing bear. The story of the beggar and his bear will also be told later. Coincidences abound and he will turn out to be the brother of a man who falls from a construction site – the fall witnessed by the father and son; and both the beggar and his brother will get sections of the novel to themselves.
Likewise a son returning home becomes interested in his parents’ two maids, who are merely convenient servants of no other significance to them; but again their stories will be woven into the fabric of the novel. One of them has a childhood friend who remains in their home village before joining a group of Maoist rebels living in the forest. The question is posed: how fluid is identity? You have a choice: to leave or stay at home. Both can test you, or, as the maid Milly puts it, “how can movement from one place to another break you? Are you a terracotta doll, to be easily broken in transit”.
The question is a good one, even though you may think that the image of the broken terracotta doll may have come more readily , and more credibly, to the author than to his character.
The strength of the novel rests in the author’s depiction of social divisions and inequalities, and his insistence that even people deprived of dignity by economic circumstances deserve and require to be respected. Here again, one is aware of a note struck repeatedly by both Dickens and Hardy; think of Joe , the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, or the Reddle man in The Return of the Native.
A State of Freedom may often be clumsily written and is full of pain, grief and misery. Yet it is also a splendidly rich and affirmative novel. It portrays the injustice that is inherent in India today and does so with angry indignation, but it is also tender in its treatment of damaged individuals and admiring of their resilience. D H Lawrence called the novel “the one true book of life”, and this is the sort of novel that Neel Mukherjee has set himself to write, has, for all its flaws, succeeded in giving us. If irritation with some of the careless writing in the first section tempts you to give up, resist the temptation. You will be richly rewarded if you persevere.
*A State of Freedom, by Neel Mukherjee, Chatto & Windus, 274pp, £16.99