Miserablism

Rupert Winchester

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A State of Freedom
Neel Mukherjee
Hamish Hamilton: 2017

Neel Mukherjee’s new novel A State of Freedom is structurally unsettled, eschewing a straightforward narrative in favour of what looks suspiciously like the postmodern. It comes as a number of stories set in modern India: a father and young son visit historical landmarks in Rajasthan; a man finds a bear cub and teaches it to dance; a young woman journeys through various instances of harsh domestic service; a man living in the West visits his aged parents in Mumbai and considers writing a cookbook; and a construction worker gives an interior monologue.

Insidiously, we are shown how the narratives connect and interweave, and this is one of the great strengths of the novel: Mukherjee never overplays his hand or makes too much of his device. Instead, by the end of the book, you’re impressed by his restraint. The connections are tangential but not random: all is of a satisfying piece in Mukherjee’s fictional universe.

The best section concerns Lakshman, a dirt-poor villager from a remote mountainous state, who discovers a bear cub, trains it to dance for money and sets off on a journey across the country to try to earn enough to feed his family. This is where the tropes of Indian fictive miserablism are most strongly in evidence, yet Mukherjee’s combination of clear-eyed pseudo-reportage and the story of the heartbreaking journey, the dignity and the humanity combine most effectively.

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