Neel Mukherjee: De-exoticizing the have-nots
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When Neel Mukherjee was 8 or 9, an elderly woman with a stoop, who smoked bidis, used to come from Canning Town to their home in Jadavpur, to work for 2-3 hours a day, sweeping the floor and washing the dishes. Canning Town, named after the British viceroy Lord Canning, was a feeder town providing domestic help to middle-class homes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the time. “She used to take the train at the crack of dawn and I was very interested in her life. Later, she used to pick up cow dung from the streets and mix it with hay. There was an abandoned pump-house near where I lived, and she used to make cow-dung cakes on the wall,” Mukherjee remembers.
“I was fascinated by the process. I remember following her one afternoon when everyone was asleep and she trained me how to do it, and I still remember the kind of movement of her hands—you just can’t forget it—it is like cycling or swimming, once you learn it, you never forget. And I remember my mother finding out and I got one of the most spectacular pastings after that. An astonishing class boundary was being breached.” Understanding that divide, and connecting the interlinked lives, has been a recurring theme in Mukherjee’s fiction.
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wants us to “only connect” apparently irreconcilable parts of our existence: the prose and the passion, so that once made, those connections may help us discard the hypocrisies which create the social conventions that keep people and classes apart. Disparate parts that barely recognize each other may one day learn from each other. With his new novel, A State Of Freedom, Mukherjee does the same, observing the connectedness of those who inhabit the part of India that wants to shine, while ignoring the other parts intertwined with its fate. “The poor are not exotic; they are the centre of any picture of humanity that you may draw,” he tells me when we meet over tea in central London one evening.
“This is the great problem of the urban elite,” he reflects. “They do not pay attention to the people who work for them every day. It is part of the project of this book to de-exoticize them. I have always felt drawn to write about the have-nots. If you ask what a novel form is about, it is the literary form about the lives of others. Those ‘others’ interest me a lot.”
A State Of Freedom is Mukherjee’s third novel. His first, published as Past Continuous in India (it won the Crossword Prize for fiction) was titled A Life Apart (2010) abroad. His second, The Lives Of Others (2014), chronicling an aristocratic Bengali multigenerational family, was set during the turbulent period of Naxalism. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Prize, given to an author’s second novel. A State Of Freedom is a novel in five parts, with a prologue and an epilogue bookending three novellas folded within and a ghost story opening the narrative. Apparently disconnected, they are interwoven.
Its outwardly disjointed structure is deliberate. Urban migration causes displacement, leading to fractured, broken lives, and Mukherjee wanted the structure to reflect that. He also wanted the novel to be a conversation with what he calls a masterpiece of the early 1970s, V.S. Naipaul’s In A Free State, which too was in five sections. Naipaul called it a novel with two supporting narratives, and Mukherjee says the reader has to figure out why it is one, even though there is no continuing narrative. “It is an interesting question, how does a novel form cohere?” he says. “As a form, ghost stories interest me,” he says. “If you ask yourself why ghosts exist, it is because something is unsettled in the past, and it is usually something painful or bad.”
The novel begins with a US-based Indian father who takes his six-year-old son to see the Taj Mahal. In a traffic jam, they encounter a man who earns a living by making a tamed bear dance. We meet that man with the bear again, in a harrowing story of his desperate quest to earn a living, as his brother has left to work on a construction project, and he must look after his own family as well as his brother’s. A London-based man comes home to Mumbai and takes an interest in the way his mother’s house help, Renu, cooks. He decides to go to her village, to learn more about her cooking, as part of a book he wants to write on India’s regional cuisine. Seen from Renu’s perspective, the other woman who works in the house, Milly, is shrewd, calculating and difficult. But when we read Milly’s journey, as a servant in different homes, where the degree of freedom she is allowed varies through intricate codes, we admire her constant striving for a better life. Milly has taken one path out of poverty; her childhood friend Soni takes another path as she embraces Maoist revolutionaries, somewhat like Supratik Ghosh does in Mukherjee’s earlier, celebrated, monumental novel, The Lives Of Others. There, Supratik leaves for the revolution from a position of privilege; in this novel, Soni joins the revolution to escape injustice and poverty.
Mukherjee writes lovingly about food, describing dishes, the taste of various vegetables, their consistency, and how they are spiced. For him, food becomes a tool through which he addresses inequity in India. “Food is a very good lens to bring upon the haves and have-nots—who gets to eat and who does not. Middle-class Bengalis laugh at servants who eat a lot of carbohydrates, but of course they would, because it is filling. They can’t live on salad and avocado.” He recalls a scene from Satyajit Ray’s short film Pikoo, where Pikoo, the little boy around whom the story revolves, watches the darwan eating a whole chilli. Pikoo asks him, “Tomar jhal lage na (Isn’t it too hot for you)?” The darwan says, “Jhal lage, kintu bhalo lage (It is hot, but I like it).” Then his mother, played by Aparna Sen, says, “Chole esho, oke khete dao (Come here, let him eat).” Mukherjee says, “Nothing is said overtly, but a class transaction is happening there—a moment of incipient intimacy between two classes divided almost insuperably, and then the class boundary reasserts.”
Mukherjee has trodden this terrain earlier. In The Lives Of Others, Supratik, the grandson of a wealthy family who joins the Naxalites, asks his mother: “Don’t you agree we eat too much?” The mother is surprised, saying everyone eats like this. Not the poor, he says, not the servants. The same contradiction—without acrimony—returns in A State Of Freedom, where Milly, the servant, rebels against an elderly couple (who keep her imprisoned), by cooking the dishes badly. She manages to escape, and at the new home where she works, she is pleasantly surprised when her generous employers insist she must eat more when she is pregnant and, later, take food home for her newborn child.
A State Of Freedom continues down the path Mukherjee embarked on with The Lives Of Others, a novel he has called his homage to the late Mahasweta Devi, whose Hajar Churashir Maa sets the standard on how to write about Naxalism. Mukherjee grew up in Calcutta in the 1970s, when Naxalism was being suppressed brutally. He remembers his elders trying to scare him and his younger brother, by pointing out someone on the street and saying, “Oi dekho, Nokshol jachhe (There goes a Naxal).”
“They had become the living ghosts of my childhood. They were seen as terrifying people,” he says. Naxalism never died, he says; it came back in a more pervasive form.
Mukherjee, 47, came to London when he was in his early 20s, after studying at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He studied at Oxford, then got a PhD from Cambridge and, later, a degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. With A State Of Freedom, Mukherjee writes of the present time, of calm without, fire within. He focuses on outwardly unconnected lives—about a handful of Indians out of the 1.2 billion who make up the country. He connects the dots by observing, without preaching. It is possible to ignore those lives, but it is also callous to do so.
He writes with great empathy, revealing a Bengali sensibility—the way he describes rural Bengal is reminiscent of images from great Bengali cinema—but he is also an English novelist, with a Dickensian anger towards poverty and inequality. Like Dickens, however, he describes the horror, and does not sermonize about it.
Relationships in India—across class and wealth divides—are symbiotic, and Mukherjee shows the seamlessness with an adroit touch. A State Of Freedom shows how divided India is, and how it might be losing its moral moorings.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint