A State of Freedom
Neel Mukherjee
W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95 (cloth)

The winter I spent in New Delhi, more than a century after my ancestors left India for the Caribbean, I stayed in a friend’s vacant family apartment in the city’s elite southern quarter. The family lived on the other side of India, and the apartment—located in a gated complex of concrete high-rises—was their pied-à-terre. In their absence, for six weeks, I was its grateful guest. It was a cool-tiled refuge in a foreign city, but it was also a place where I found myself in a kind of time warp, unfixed by history and unnerved by hierarchies.

In India’s cosmos of masters and servants, the latter have to erase themselves to the point of not seeing, not hearing, not even daring to occupy space.

Two men flitted in and out of the apartment: a recent law graduate in his early twenties, whose sister was about to marry into the family, and a servant, also in his twenties, who had been with the family since he was a child. Both were almost like apparitions. The law graduate, enjoying his last hurrahs before beginning a prestigious job, was often away on outings into the countryside with friends. When his party returned at 2 or 3 a.m., the din, airy but sharp, would cut into my sleep as their voices wafted in from the living room. He would call for the servant, the syllables of the name elongated, a high-decibel command into the night: “Kukuuuuuuuul! Kukuuuuuuuul!” Summoned, Kukul would prepare a snack for the nocturnal gathering.

Where exactly he had emerged from was unclear to me. The apartment had only two bedrooms, and I did not know where Kukul slept. He seemed to materialize from nowhere, then vanish back into that spectral place. We had no language in common for me to ask where it was. Eventually I discovered that he sometimes slept in a makeshift room on the roof and sometimes on the living room floor. Kukul seemed to possess the uncanny ability to make himself smaller than he was. After laying out meals for me, he would press his back into a corner of the tiny kitchen, almost merging with the walls, and wait, perfectly still, as he watched me eat. Sometimes, soundlessly, nearly imperceptibly, he would remove a plate or add a bowl of chilies to the table.

I was in India on tour with a book about my family’s exit from British India, and their lives of oppression and gendered violence there, in the late nineteenth century. They had come from villages much like Kukul’s and from various castes—high, middle, and low. All, on leaving India indentured, to labor in the place of slaves on plantations in the British West Indies, were transformed into “coolies.” There, they suffered as part of a system of imperial and racial capitalism. A century later, their descendants came, first as nurses, to an America with a separate and sordid history of exploiting immigrant labor. This long migratory arc across generations and continents dislodged me from any ease as either master or servant. I was raised in a sugar estate’s orbit in Guyana and in a working-class city in the United States—I did not grow up with servants. And more than once, it struck me that I might have been in Kukul’s position, had my great-grandparents not sailed to a new world. Yet there I was, in the land they had escaped, moving in privileged circles, being served. This left me unsettled in the marrow, unhoused in my own skin.

Gender exacerbated my unease. Friends had warned me that New Delhi is India’s most sexually aggressive and unsafe city for women. A year after the gang rape of a young woman there seized international headlines, I was careful of how I draped and carried my body. I wanted my gender to be as unnoticeable as possible, both outside and inside the apartment. I went to absurd lengths to achieve this. Before Kukul claimed the laundry, which he scrubbed by hand, I made sure to wash my underwear myself. Stuck in the role of “Madam,” I tried somehow to affect asexuality.

To be a master is to be a total provider, and to be a servant is not a job but a total identity.

While I was in India, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched after her domestic worker—a woman brought over from India—alleged that she was held against her will and illegally underpaid. The incident prompted a diplomatic stand-off between the United States and India. The Indian government and news media bristled with indignation, their nationalist pride wounded. I was stunned to discover that the law graduate and many others I met in New Delhi were on the diplomat’s side. Her domestic worker’s assertion of rights—to be paid the minimum wage, to move freely—seemed to be an affront to a centuries-old hierarchy. To be a master was to be a total provider, and to be a servant was not a job but a total identity.

That odd winter in Delhi, I was seeing someone. When once he stayed the night, what worried me most—in the weird intimacy of that apartment, in a city where couples holding hands or stealing a kiss in public risked police harassment—was the thought of embarrassing Kukul. Would he be in the living room, or on the roof? What might he see? What might he hear? The man I was dating assured me: “He will not see. He will not hear.” Such was the definition of privacy in India’s cosmos of masters and servants. The latter had to erase themselves to the point of not seeing, not hearing, not even daring to occupy space. As a woman trying to conceal my contours, to hide my difference, I empathized.

• • •

An epigraph to Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom announces the figurative significance of ghosts to the novel. It quotes a Syrian refugee at the Austrian border in 2015, who told a journalist: “Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, that’s what we are, ghosts.” Of the migrants who feature throughout the novel, two are global immigrants, educated elites who have returned to India, to visit, from successful addresses in the United States and England. The rest are internal migrants, India’s rural poor uprooted to seek livelihoods in its megacities, often as domestic workers. In a podcast with the New York Public Library, Mukherjee explained the resonances: “A ghost,” he said, “is someone who belonged to a particular world who had an unhappy or tragic or violent ending to that particular life and hasn’t found a resting place in another world. This could be a very a good working definition for who a migrant is.”

Mukherjee offers a literal, if subtle, ghost story in A State of Freedom. The first of its five interlinked narratives begins with an American academic, who has returned to his native India as a tourist with his six-year-old son, weeping for the boy at their Agra hotel. In flashback, Mukherjee unfolds the quietly uncanny events leading to his grief. As the father and his American son toured the Taj Mahal, the boy was uncharacteristically silent. The day before, as they had pulled up to their hotel, a day laborer on a construction site had fallen to his death twenty yards from their taxi. Perhaps the boy had caught sight of the blood-soaked earth where the corpse lay? Did that explain his apathy? Later, at the ruins of a Mughal settlement, a man with the face of a fox appeared, tout-like, spouting facts about the monuments, then later reappeared to reprimand the father. Realizing only he saw the fox-man, the father became so spooked that he bolted from the ruins with his son. As they sat in gridlock in their departing taxi, the grisly figure of a bear tapped on the window, with his master by his side. The man’s face, pointed, animal-like, was eerily familiar. By morning, the six-year-old was mysteriously dead.

‘Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, that’s what we are, ghosts.’

By slow degrees, in the stories that follow, Mukherjee clinches the connections merely intimated in this disturbing tale. In the third narrative, the transfixing story of a bear master who wanders from town to town as a hapless busker, the reader learns that his twin brother works on construction sites in a faraway city. The pair had been teased mercilessly since childhood for their pointed, fox-like faces, and their mother, denounced as a witch rumored to have “had some kind of unhealthy relations with animals.” Still, the identity of the wraith hounding the academic’s dream-like steps through the Mughal-era landscape is only revealed in the fifth and final story. This last narrative is an interior monologue by the migrant worker who died near the hotel, right before his free fall from the bamboo scaffolding. It is clear, finally and conclusively, that he is the bear master’s twin and the apparition at the Mughal ruins. With exquisite control, Mukherjee withholds the identity of his ghost until the novel’s (and the laborer’s) dying breath.

The spectral quality of the novel is, of course, not merely literal. Arguably as ghostly as migrants (and often synonymous with them) are servants: not only can they become, in accordance with the wishes of their masters, incorporeal, but also starvation often reduces them to a physically insubstantial state. The chief subjects of the novel’s compassionate inquiry, they are its most haunting figures.

Intriguingly, Mukherjee’s characters—be they ghost, migrant, servant, or some combination thereof—are dislocated in time as well as space. The book is set in contemporary India; but Mukherjee situates the father and son from the first story in the sixteenth century, when the Mughal settlement they visit was abandoned. There, they see carved frescoes defaced by religious iconoclasts, prompting the father to lose his anchor to reality:

“the heads of the birds of paradise sitting on trees had been destroyed. An animal, crouching below, had been defaced too, making it look much like the lower half of a human child, decapitated in the act of squatting; it brought to mind ritual sacrifice. …The mutilated carvings had the nature of fantastical creatures from Bosch’s sick imagination. … The dimness started to play havoc with his perception. Shapes and colours got unmoored and recoalesced in different configurations.”

The allusion to Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch Renaissance artist known for surreal, allegorical paintings littered with half-animals, thrusts us back, again, into the sixteenth century, when he lived and died. The reader is disoriented in time, as is the father. He finds that he can no longer step into the rhythm of India, because “time in this country flowed in a different way from the rest of the world.” And he compares seeing a faded painted angel in the Mughal ghost town, “barely discernible through the slow, colorless disappearing act that time … had … enforced on it,” to “looking into the face of ancient light transmitted back from the beginnings of time.”

This displacement in time, which makes of history a haunting, is a signature of Mukherjee’s work. A State of Freedom is the first of his books with a fixed chronology. In his two earlier novels, he executes shifts in time through the structural conceit of text within text. In his debut novel, published in South Asia as Past Continuous and elsewhere as A Life Apart, a gay Indian man living undocumented in late twentieth century globalized London, writes the story of a middle-aged English spinster in nineteenth century colonial Bengal. The movement from one consciousness and period to another connects the present to the past and gives history a continuous arc, as one type of foreigner abroad (the colonialist) morphs into the other (the immigrant fleeing a former colony for the fallen empire’s center). Mukherjee’s second novel The Lives of Others, unfolds the saga of three generations of a Bengali family of paper manufacturers (and their servants) through a seemingly realistic third-person omniscient narrative. Braided throughout, fragmenting the perspective into first-person shards, are unsent letters penned by the family’s scion, who has repudiated his own class to become a Maoist guerrilla organizing peasants in the countryside. Jumping back and forth across a half-century’s span, the novel tells India’s twentieth century history as backdrop; the Bengal Famine, Partition, the Naxalite Uprising all get attention.

The displacement in time, which makes of history a haunting, is a signature of Neel Mukherjee’s work.

Although the most recent novel isn’t directly inflected by history, Mukherjee has hardly lost his preoccupation with time. In the story of the father and son, time is not a straight line but a palimpsest: simultaneously then and now, as warped as Dali’s curved clock. Its chronology is more surreal than real. This seems apt: the surrealist, estranged from the laws of realistic time and space, is as displaced aesthetically as the migrant is physically and psychologically. Mukherjee has said that he experimented with form in A State of Freedom so that “the Trojan horse of realism” masks its opposite, here a ghost story. And as you might expect from a ghost story, the narrative unfolds in a kind of past continuous, if you will: religious iconoclasts make half-animals-half-men of carvings, as fox-men are born to a reputed witch, as a bear (heralded as “lord of the underworld”) shows human tenderness to the master who brutally tames him, as a ghost augurs ill to a child.

The mischief with time, as well as half-animals-half-men and specters, give the work an allegorical quality. As literary scholar Stephen Slemon wrote thirty years ago, in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, “an awareness of the passage of time is at the heart of allegory,” and allegorical writing saw a resurgence with the emergence of the postcolonial novel. In this writing from the formerly colonized world, allegory not only engages with history but transforms our understanding of it. Such allegory (as Wilson Harris, Amitav Ghosh, George Lamming and sometimes even V.S. Naipaul have given us) shuttles us to the insight that history depends on fictions as much as fiction can depend on history. This awareness displaces the discipline of history, opening it up to imaginative revision and experimentation in the hands of creative writers. In this process, history also changes shape: the straight line of progress, with its teleological arrow shooting towards perfectible human beings and perfectible nation-states, yields to a relativity where time present bends into time past.

It bears noting that allegory usually has didactic intent. A State of Freedom clearly has moral purpose: to critically examine postcolonial India’s promised tryst with freedom. For Mukherjee, looking at contemporary India is a little like looking into the face of that faded angel of the longue durée. Despite independence, liberalization, technological advancements, and social movements, centuries-old prejudices and feudal structures still warp lives. Caste discrimination, patriarchy, and exploitative master-servant relationships are still visible in postcolonial India’s seventy-first year, perhaps as visible as when those forces set my own ancestors in motion, away from India, in the nineteenth century.

• • •

The unforgettable, hilariously displaced servant from In a Free State—the 1971 novel by V.S. Naipaul to which A State of Freedom pays conscious homage—sleeps in a cupboard in his diplomat employer’s apartment in Washington, D.C. In Mumbai previously, he had happily slept on the pavement, choosing the camaraderie of other servants on the street over a corner of his employer’s home. He is not, then, surprised when the servant quarters in his employer’s apartment in D.C. turns out to be a cupboard.

In a Free State progresses in five parts, unconnected by character or plot or setting. It is more radical in its disjointed structure than Mukherjee’s emulation of it. The longest story in Naipaul’s novel follows two Brits, a gay man and a sexually adventurous married woman, on a car ride from the capital to the outskirts of a newly independent, unnamed East African country on the precipice of civil war. The “free state” of the novel refers to both the new nation-state and the terrain of sexual possibility it provides for the two colonial holdovers. Another story traces a provincial Trinidadian-Indian man’s trajectory from his impoverished island village to the imperial metropolis of London. Naipaul’s own ancestral exit from India—his people, like my own, left Kolkata for the Caribbean as indentured “coolies”—shadows the two stories. Both portray the small man from the periphery ensnared by his lack of power and by his longing for a dignified place in the world. Two accounts from Naipaul’s travel diaries, a sketch of an English tramp on a Greek steamer on its way to Egypt and a vignette about the cruelty of Italian tourists to begging boys in Egypt, serve as bookends. The novel considers the promises and limits of freedom in postcolonial states and in states of wanderlust or diaspora ­– themes that Mukherjee also explores.

Mukherjee departs from Naipaul in the attention he pays to the lives of women.

Naipaul’s servant—who initially views himself as an extension of his diplomat employer rather than a person in his own right—escapes and becomes an undocumented immigrant in the American capital. Financially indebted to his master, who holds his passport, his steps circumscribed by a runaway’s fear, he charts his path to a better freedom by marrying an African American woman, a citizen who helps him become one too. Although his first-person story is told from the perspective of many years of living with the woman, she is never more than a vague carnal presence at the edges of his consciousness. Similarly, although the story set in the unnamed African state unfolds in the third-person, it offers the gay British man’s acerbic yet vulnerable interior life in free indirect discourse while it views his female compatriot entirely from the outside.

Where Mukherjee departs from Naipaul, significantly, is in his attention to the lives of women. He sees gender in a multi-dimensional grid of power wielded or withheld. The two sections of A State of Freedom that focus on servants and masters foreground women, endowing them with both subjectivity and agency. In the novel’s second section, a London-based designer at work on a cookbook returns to his family’s home in Mumbai and becomes interested in the lives of the two women who work for his mother. Even during his childhood in India, he had chafed at the rules dictating what servants are permitted to say and do—and what spaces they are permitted to occupy—but the Western liberal sensibility he has adopted in his new home exacerbates that old fight with his parents. He transgresses the boundaries by befriending the cook Renu, going so far as to visit her rustic village home in Bengal in search of authentic recipes for his cookbook. There, the women are introduced merely by their relationship to the men: this one’s daughter, that one’s wife, only an aspect of a man’s person, as the servant is only an aspect of the employer’s person. The cookbook writer discovers that Renu left an abusive, alcoholic husband when she migrated to Mumbai. Her acts of agency as a servant are more understated: she dares to be surly with her employers when she must run to her slum’s communal tap to get water, and she dares to spoil the food with the wrong spice when she feels wronged. Still, her mobility has enabled the even greater mobility of another: her savings have provided a prodigy nephew with the means to study physics in Germany. Her own daughter does not, however, get that chance; she is only a girl.

The maid Milly is the subject of the book’s fourth section. A tribal woman born outside the caste system, from a troubled state where a Maoist insurgency rages, she has served abusive, caste-conscious employers far from home since childhood. A reader, she’s heartbroken that school must stop for work. Still, she considers herself lucky given the alternatives. To be occasionally slapped, or relegated to a floor to sleep, or sent outside to use the toilet, are petty slights compared to the hunger and oppression her friends and family endure at home. One particularly sadistic employer forbids her from ever leaving the apartment, even when her father dies—and Mukherjee there engages in a playful conversation with Naipaul by effecting her escape in a wooden cupboard borne on the shoulders of a suitor posing as a man delivering furniture. The prison in Naipaul’s book becomes the means of flight in Mukherjee’s. Ultimately, Milly and her suitor build their own home, albeit in a slum, and she insists that her daughter get an education, despite her husband’s protests.

In the curved space-time of global history, migration can crack open wormholes to freedom.

Education, it would seem, can be the symbolic cupboard out, the vehicle to deliver Mukherjee’s characters to freedom. For example, the son of the mistreated widow in The Lives of Others, the poor cousin who leaves India for Stanford as a mathematics prodigy, eventually brings his mother to America to join him. Both are rescued. The Archimedes quote inscribed on the Fields Medal the mathematician wins at 30 —“To rise above and to master the world”—is telling. Migration, then, can perhaps turn servants into masters. It, too, holds the possibility of durable escape in the world that Mukherjee creates. Milly’s childhood friend had once asked her whether her peripatetic servant’s existence had not left her feeling scattered, “in bits and pieces.” Milly is ultimately able, categorically, to disagree and to declare her stubborn will to be master of her own destiny. She concludes that: “her life is not fragmented. To her, it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities. How can movement from one place to another break you? Are you a terracotta doll, easily broken in transit?”

Although not every migrant’s story in A State of Freedom ends well, there is a sense that in the curved space-time of global history, migration can crack open wormholes to freedom from old rigidities and entitlements. The confidence of sending a nephew to Heidelberg for doctoral study can seep into the resistant pique of purposely ruining the dinner. A woman robbed of her education can counter her husband’s argument that their daughter need not finish school. Even the unease of an Indian returned from abroad, his alienation from the role of a master, is an opportunity.

• • •

For the novelist, the limbo between places is productive, both in terms of ethics and aesthetics. Mukherjee is himself a migrant who left his birthplace of Kolkata for Oxford at twenty-two and eventually became a British citizen. He likes to quote Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: “Ethics today means not being at home in one’s house.” In Mukherjee’s work, this means writing with empathy about the lives of others—Indians who do not enjoy the privileges of class, caste, and gender that he does, Indians whose lives challenge the triumphalist, nationalist story of India rising.

‘Ethics today means not being at home in one’s house.’

Mukherjee accomplishes this through prose that often feels weightless. His metaphors possess a remarkably untethered quality. Mountains distort Hindi film music coming from loudspeakers during a religious festival as if, he writes, “the sound has been torn into tiny paper fragments and scattered from the sky and dispersed helter-skelter by the breeze.” Butterflies on a river disturbed by the tamed bear scatter “like handfuls of colored paper thrown upwards by a playing child.” Indeed, many of his characters, in more than one book, wear the adjective “weightless” at pivotal moments, including the day laborer suspended in the sky—until he isn’t. The echoing trope and other recurring images hold A State of Freedom together as a novel.

This estrangement of a familiar form, this attempt to redefine what provides coherence to a novel, is another aspect of the writer becoming displaced. Just as this unhousing has given Mukherjee the critical distance to assess postcolonial India’s failed promises and the persistence of its many inequities, it has also allowed him to experiment with form, so that the Trojan horse of realism hides a haunting within, where time exists in a surreal warp.