Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Genre: Fiction, Cultural, India
Source: Free ARC from W.W. Norton
Rating: 4 stars
Note: As stated under the Source (above), I received this book for free from W.W. Norton via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.
Summary: This is a collection of short stories (really two very short stories, and three quite long), all told from the perspective of people within different social classes in India. The first story is about an Indian man who has moved to the United States and has brought back his American-born son to visit the Taj Mahal, to see his native country. The second is told from the perspective of a man who came from wealth, who has now living a very successful life in London and has come home to visit his parents for a long holiday. The third story tells of a very poor villager who captures a young bear and trains him to dance for money. The fourth tells the story of Milly, a girl who came from a village suffering poverty and living in constant fear of the guerrilla groups who wreak havoc all around them. In truth, the fifth story was so short that I can’t even recall what it was about.
Review: It would be inaccurate to say that I enjoyed this book. It really isn’t the kind of book one enjoys, so to speak. Neither did I love it or hate it. It’s one of those books that is painful, compelling and eye-opening and therefore needs reading. I’ll tell you now, many people, including myself, wanted to put it down after the first story. It’s confusing. Don’t give up because of the first story. And pay attention, because there are bread crumbs of the upcoming stories sprinkled throughout. In the tiniest of ways, the characters in each are connected in one way or another, but it is so slight that you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention.
The second story was interesting enough to move forward to the next. A wealthy young Indian man, now living in London and thinking himself rather forward-thinking, comes home to visit his parents. Despite his mother’s insistence that the servants should be treated according to their position – in other words, given instructions or corrections, but don’t dare try to get to know them – the young man empathizes and wants to connect with them, to better understand their lives in the slums, perhaps help them in some way if he can. As he inserts himself into the cook’s life, reality sets in and he begins to understand the disparity between their lives.
The third story was difficult to read. In truth, I despised the main character. He abused everything and everyone around him. He was a wretch, and I could not bring myself to have any empathy for him. Be forewarned that in this chapter there is a smattering of domestic abuse (not terribly graphic), and a fair amount of animal abuse against his dancing bear, which I found difficult to stomach. While I hated him, I see the value in the story itself.
The fourth story was by far my favorite. Two young girls, best friends from the same village, follow very different paths, mostly due to circumstances out of their control. Parts of this story were especially painful to read, not only because of the poverty they endured, and the mistreatment (from my American perspective, mind you) by their parents, but also because of the violent social practices within their society, and the way that violence, especially against women, is accepted as a normal part of life.
With the exception of the first and last story (both, fortunately, very short), this is material worth reading. It is not for entertainment, but perhaps for a little enlightenment, to shine the light on the reality of countries like India, whose economies and social structures are quite different from that of the Western world.