Freedom is nothing but a comparative. It is addictive. It is exhilarating and once you have tasted it, it’s forever on your lips.
There is freedom. And then there is ‘A state of freedom ‘. Something very circumstantial. Some sort of compromise.
Neel Mukherjee depicts the difference between the two awfully well in his book of fiction.
The cover page is dreamy. It is a state of freedom painted into a picture. The bear, butterflies and fishes come together from inside the book to adorn the book cover.
I immediately fell in love with this cover. This one is my favourite this year!
There are several characters in the book. They form a spectrum, each made of different hues and shades.
There is a man who has brought his son to India to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. He brings him along to expose him to the culture and richness of his country of birth, but he soon realises that it is not ‘his own country’. He is a tourist here.
There is a man who has a close connection with his cook. He learns new cuisines and meanwhile tells the story of the cook Aunty who left her village and stays in Mumbai to earn money. She has a peculiar story. And in tracing her story, the author of the story is telling his own.
There is a bear and a qalandar. He doesn’t want to call himself that because he is not a Muslim. But bear is his friend and means of living.
There is Millie who started working early as a house maid to earn money and send it to her parents in her village.
The last story is of a labourer who again leaves his village in search of a job in the city and finds himself light as husk while climbing a scaffolding very high. The hunger pangs make him do the unthinkable.
All the characters are very different from each other. They just have one thing in common: they have been displaced from their homes and have found work elsewhere. It has affected their characters and situations but they are all dealing with the displacement like a punch on the nose.
It is only human to strive for the better. It is but natural to search for a possibility of a better life. Migration seems like the only way in which one can achieve this. Yes, the grass is greener on the other side. But is it just an illusion?
A man sometimes feels nostalgic about his own country. He wishes to bring his son to show him around but there is not a pinch of curiosity on the son’s face. He is oblivious. The man sees apparitions and then it is like a fit. He is reminded of everything that he disliked about his country and the trip ends with the greatest loss that could be for a father. There is mysticism in the first part of the book. There are memories of the earlier life and the guilt of disliking it when faced with the reality. The story is the difference between romantics and reality.
The second story is much simpler. It is that of a man who inculcates a sort of friendship with his cook and decides to visit her village while taking a trip around to explore various Indian cuisines. There are several doubts and expanse of possibilities before the trip. However, this all changes when he actually visits the village. Then all he can think of is the food they offered and whether the pillowcases were clean. There is an absolute disregard for the background, for which he feels guilty, and can hardly not let it affect him.
The story of the bear is my favourite. The relationship of the bear with his master and the apparent similarities between the two is brilliantly portrayed as a role reversal between them. One, in those circumstances, can hardly remain sane.
The fourth story is of Millie and this one is where the paradigm starts unfolding itself. Millie escapes the village haunted by the Maoists whereas her best friend cannot. The question remains, ‘What is the worth of your own life to you?’
The fifth and the last story is the piece that completes the jigsaw. Each story is a part of another. Here a daily labourer decides to climb the highest of the scaffoldings to earn the largest sum of money he has made till date. He remembers the boy he wanted to be. A boy who has a rich father. Someone who sits in the car and sees the outside world from the window. He wants to fly like a husk in the air. And that he does.
The narrative is without punctuation, like a dream. A trail of thoughts. There is a bit of pity, guilt, storyline ease and most of all, reality. This book is the heart and mind of the fruit of displacement. This is an authentic biography of those who yearn for better lives and living. It starts slow, but races through towards the end, keeping you on your toes throughout.
The book is written in first person, with multiple narratives. There is an ease in the narration, even though each one is different from the next.
The cover page is stunning. The characters are so well designed that you would like to go back and spend some time with them again. The content is a masterpiece.
The book starts slow. You may want to put it down at one point but I would strongly recommend that you carry on!
The book is one of the best I have read this year.
Whom do I recommend this to
I recommend this book to all those who like a good literary fiction. Fans of Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie are going to love this one!