A novel in five stories of displacement and migration in contemporary India. Five characters, in very different circumstances―from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, to a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city―find out the meanings of dislocation and the desire for more.
In Mukherjee’s hands, familiar fare is elevated by his empathy for the poor and the journalistic efforts he undertakes to understand them. One may even argue that Mukherjee writes about the rich only in order to write about the poor ... Mukherjee is skilled at writing about violence — against animals, gay men, elderly mothers, young wives. When his characters commit physical abuse they aren’t showing off their strength as much as they are lamenting their weaknesses. These scenes demonstrate a powerful restraint. If Mukherjee tested his readers with overwriting earlier novels, here he rewards them for their perseverance, producing his best work yet ... This bleak and entirely justified vision of modern India is what binds together Mukherjee’s stories and indeed his oeuvre. In an arid landscape so inimical to the hopes and dreams of the majority, even those who fight to improve their lives will fail.
While the reader aches for the sections to finally come together, for some kind of unity or catharsis, each section — save for a few instances of the protagonist from one section mentioned in another — stands alone, its own silo, an illustration of the isolation endured by almost all the characters ... many of the sections are sprinkled with otherworldly moments and spectral figures, so that these narratives read almost like ghost stories, while others are rooted firmly in the achingly realistic, unequal, and unjust soil of modern day India. There are stories of casual but unimaginable cruelty between mistress and servant, human and animal, political activists and their victims. A tourism brochure for India, this novel is not ... Accustomed as we are to reading novels that follow a standard narrative arc, some readers may find it frustrating to read a book that labels itself a novel but lacks, as Mukherjee puts it, the 'connective tissue' that ties disparate sections together.
It's a brutal novel that gets darker and darker, and it's as breathtakingly beautiful as it is bleak … Mukherjee tackles some notoriously difficult themes perfectly: The characters in A State of Freedom all want better lives, and — to say the least — they're seldom rewarded. It's not exactly a novel that warns readers against striving; rather, it's one that urges us to be careful what we wish for, and to always be prepared for disappointment. Mukherjee also brilliantly details the brutality inherent in the class system, and the violence and despair that are its inevitable results … A State of Freedom is a marvel of a book, shocking and beautiful.