Tag Archives: Migration

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.