Light brushstrokes in India ink

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday January 3, 2018
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Just as we take the punch out of the monosyllables "gang rape" by decrying "sexual assault," so do we call the driving issues of our time "inequality" and "relocation" to keep them at a decent distance from us, "us" being "civil society." Novelist Neel Mukherjee instead gathers in the distressed, the displaced, and holds them close.

In his new novel "A State of Freedom" (W.W. Norton & Company), the gay Bengali-born Londoner takes us to India, setting us inside Indian lives in ways from which we will not emerge the same. Like the sprawling, clamorous symphony that is India, Mukherjee's novel unfolds in movements more harmonically than thematically connected.

It's the tactic he used in his previous novel "The Lives of Others," though "A State of Freedom" is both more diverse and more concentrated. "Lives" was a generational tale of a Bengali family that touched on the realities of others. Its first pages brought the reader into the physical and emotional torments of an impoverished tenant farmer no longer able to feed his starving family. "Lives" was "A Suitable Boy" with dirt under its fingernails, and a reader looking for the long-lost sequel to Vikram Seth's Dickensian novel would have put "Lives" down after that stark, three-page Prologue.

Such as Mukherjee ever had an obligation to tell expressly gay stories, he fully discharged that duty with his first novel "A Life Apart," first published in the U.S. in 2016. That singular "Life" goes toe-to-toe with anything you'll find by way of narrative candor or psychological insight in Garth Greenwell's "What Belongs to You."

The first Indian we meet in "A State of Freedom" is a naturalized American - "a tourist in his own country" - taking his young, American-born son to see the Taj Mahal. Another is a man much like the author, a writer who speaks in the first person, now visiting his parents, upper-middle-class Bengalis self-transported to Mumbai.

The others are Indians male and female, cast hither and yon across the subcontinent far less voluntarily. By the end of the novel, about the time you no longer need or particularly want Mukherjee to tie their lives together, he does, with deft, light brushstrokes.

"Freedom" is less overtly political than "Lives," where, among a cast of thousands, the black-sheep son Supratik, with his Maoist aspirations, comes to dominate the narrative. State re-surfaces in "Freedom," but Mukherjee's politics are subsumed, like a thread in a tapestry, into the stories of these indelibly India-inked characters, the sole place where they are all treated equally.

Also like "Lives," "Freedom" is so unapologetically Indian that it plops transcribed Bengali and Hindi words, defined only by context, into the level playing field of his carefully crafted English sentences. As in India, in this book there is shit everywhere. That it includes the excrement of many species is most vividly realized in the novel's most foreign-to-Westerners tale.

Lakshman, another hapless Hindu unable to provide for his family, and avid to take his shame on the road, poaches a bear cub he finds in the forest. After deciding not to feed it to his family, he names it Raju, teaches it to dance, and takes it to temple fairs to earn cash.

As a foundling so cuddly he is initially mistaken for an abandoned puppy, Raju has the reader's instant affection and retains it through the long, episodic chapter. So ultimately sympathetic is the character Lakshman that the reader almost forgives, but hardly forgets, Raju's subjugation by Salim, the Muslim qalandar, or "bear-walla," who aids and abets Lakshman's enterprise. The cub subdued and its canines knocked out, Salim drives a hot iron rod through its snout, for the muzzle and rope from which it will never again be free.

"Lakshman feels the tug from [the cub's] sheer need to move express itself as tiny jerks in the joints of the leg he's holding down; a cyclone manifesting itself as a breath of air. The red-pink open mouth, leaking liquid, would look as if a moment of utter, grinning glee has been frozen in time, had it not been for the unearthly squeal, dotted with a gurgling rasp, emerging from it. Then a smell alerts Lakshman - he notices the cub is shitting, and dribbling a few dots of piss, not enough to wet the ground under him."

Throughout, the writing is as trenchant and subtle as its situations ask. Milly, a nanny conscripted into service from her impoverished village, makes a great escape from the Mumbai couple who have "hired" her, then incarcerated her in their apartment. In her story, the gritty and the lyrical dance.

You never forget you're in India. Of late there's been a drumroll in the press about the imminent release of a French nanny novel whose unsparing first sentence is, "The baby is dead." Mukherjee is subtler, if no less forceful.

The father-son trip to Agra is as sinister, and cannily told, as Goethe-Schubert's in "The Elf King." Sensing the ailing boy is overwhelmed by India, the father takes him back to the hotel, where both fall into an exhausted sleep. When he wakes, "Next to him, the child was dead."

"A State of Freedom" author Neel Mukherjee. Photo: Courtesy the subject