Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

review by Maryom

Through a series of seemingly unrelated stories, A State of Freedom paints a complex picture of an India in flux, with its great divide between rich and poor. On one side are the owners of luxury apartments, employing servants to cook and clean, and security guards to keep out the uninvited; on the other, not only those cooks, cleaners, and guards, but their even poorer relatives, left behind in isolated rural communities, living hand to mouth, with no financial safety net for illness or a ruined crop, often dependent on any money that can be sent home by those you've left.
At first we see India through the eyes of comparative 'outsiders', ie Indians living abroad - an American academic and his small son visiting historic sites, a young man returning home for his annual visit, at odds with his parents and their attitudes - then move on to those still 'trapped' by India. And 'trapped' does seem to be the appropriate word here - the caste system may no longer exist but people are still limited in every way by the circumstances of their birth, which for the majority is into a life of grinding poverty. The well-meaning outsider may try to understand their lives, but without having lived them, it's a gap almost impossible to bridge.

Attempting to leave that poverty behind is the great desire that fuels everyone's life, whether through joining guerrilla forces fighting for equality, trying to make a break for freedom as a wandering entertainer with a dancing bear, or moving to the city where there's work to be had supporting the lifestyles of the wealthy. The lucky find a relatively stable job, but still choose to live as cheaply as possible in appalling conditions, sending money home to their families who are worse off, or to finance their children's future.
 Plans, savings, dreams can disappear overnight and yet, maybe because there's no other choice, people carry on - strive to find a better job, save to put their children through school or university - and for a lucky few the dream comes true  - not quite the Slumdog Millionaire fantasy, but a boy from a poor farming family can win scholarships, and, supported by the selfless devotion of a family member, find himself at university in Europe.

From the  safety of our comfortable lives, this isn't always an easy read. The level of poverty and squalor is almost beyond our understanding, but Mukherjee gives these 'third world problems' a human face, makes us care for the individuals when we might ignore the masses caught in the same plight, and maybe it might change a few minds about people from all countries who choose to take a chance and try for a better life here.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Chatto and Windus 
Genre - adult literary fiction

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