Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee in conversation with Anjali Joseph about his latest novel A State of Freedom

By Anjali Joseph

I’ve known Neel Mukherjee for about eight years. A mutual friend introduced us in Bombay a couple of years after his first novel, Past Continuous, was published in India and had gone on to win the Crossword Book Award for Fiction. When Neel and I met, I was working for ELLE in Bombay. Past Continuous, renamed A Life Apart, appeared in Britain in 2010, which was also the year my first novel Saraswati Park came out.

When Wasafiri emailed to ask if I would interview Neel on the occasion of the publication of his third and latest novel, A State of Freedom, I was delighted. As I read the novel, I was both surprised and not at all surprised at its spareness, its wilful undoing of its own narrative, and at the authority and wholeness of its characters – among them, a bear tamer, a domestic worker and an expatriate Indian man who spends a month in India each winter and begins to compile a recipe book.

A State of Freedom is the very inverse of one of those ‘interlinked narratives’ which perhaps reached their apogee in a film like Babel. A ghost story of sorts runs through the novel, beginning from the opening episode – but who is the ghost? Once I started thinking about it, it seemed to me that every character in the novel is a ghost of sorts, existing but unperceived, marginal but obstinately real. Perhaps the Indian state, free from a colonial ruler but trammelled by its own institutional cruelties, is the ghost. Or perhaps it’s the reader, able to watch each of these characters for a time, but never allowed to come to a conclusion or make a simple judgement, any more than an intelligent man or woman of conscience might, these days, be able to give a single satisfactory account of him or herself if asked the question: ‘Are you a good person?’

AJ: Your second novel, The Lives of Others was in some ways a classic novel, almost a 19th century novel – characters were introduced, a world was beautifully evoked, the terms of the novel were set and then we followed the characters through what unfolded, with all its surprises and shocks. A State of Freedom introduces different characters, different threads, follows the characters through involving and appalling events which they undergo with the stoicism brought on by having no alternative. There are links and parallels between characters, but instead of cohering towards the end, these elements instead further unravel, fray and fragment. I thought it was such a striking departure both from the previous novel and in general from the current expectations of the novel.

Of course, the state of disarray of the narrative by the end of the book made me think of the Indian state, so tattered, so indefensible in many of its actions, but somehow still enduring after six decades. It also made me think of the spate a few years ago of people saying ‘The novel is dead’ as though the novel were a monolithic kind of God instead of the loosest possible mode of – telling a story? Not telling a story? Inviting a reader into the experiences of others? Infiltrating the consciousness, the dreams and heart of the reader and reconfiguring his or her capacity for compassion? Whatever it is we do. Can you talk about the kind of novel you wanted to write in A State of Freedom, and why, and your feelings about the novel in general – if you have any, that is?

NM: You’re absolutely right, Anjali. The Lives of Others was a self-conscious homage to the 19th century novel, with some thinking about the ideological foundations of the realist novel smuggled in. I wanted this theoretical thinking to be subsumed entirely within the story, and seamless with it, so I shouldn’t have the right to feel surprised, as I did, when no reviewer or critic picked up on it; the Trojan horse was a victim of its own success. I mention all this because you have seen a collocation between The Lives of Others and A State of Freedom exactly on the site where there is one – on the question of form – and put your finger unerringly on the formal difference between the two novels that has led you to ask about the novel form.

Like a lot of novelists, I’m beginning to get slightly impatient with the constraints and artifices of the realist novel at the same time as I find myself endlessly fascinated by the form. The realist novel is anything but realist: mimesis is a process of stylisation, of modelling reality, if you will. The selection process involved in picking what should go from life, and in what form, onto the page is an act of stylisation, of extreme artifice. Edmund White was once told by a friend that he would never make a great novelist because he was incapable of writing a line such as ‘The Marquis got dressed to go out every afternoon at five o’clock.’ How do you move people around, go from one place to another, from one set of characters to another in a realist novel without falling into banality and obtrusive scenery? You have shown a similar impatience in your latest novel, The Living, reaching out for a new form in which, instead of events and external matters of lives and plot, you dig under the surface for the real inner life, the small moments of consciousness that, strung out, make what we call a human life. You also bring together two separate and distinct stories, one of a white, working-class single mum in Norwich, the other of a middle-aged chappal-maker in Pune, within the covers of one book, and ask very important questions about what gives both cohesion and coherence to what we call a ‘novel’.

I, too, wanted to pursue a similar line of enquiry. What if one were to take away all the things that one conventionally associates as contributing to the cohesiveness and unity of the realist novel, elements such as plot and characters and psychological development? Could we still end up with something that can answer to the term ‘novel’? In other words, I wanted to write a novel with all the connective tissue taken out, and also to see how much I could push realism towards anti-realist modes (such as the ghost story) while working within the realist framework and with its accepted generic topoi. What would a love-child between realism and anti-realism look like?

But, of course, if you’re an Indian writer, you are seen as capable of writing only ‘good yarns’, which are family sagas, or about inequality/crushing poverty/the ‘New India’. The term ‘experimentation with form’ is reserved for white guys only (or when black people are allowed a look in, they have to be, first, the toast of the New York Scene). It’s a battle we have lost; there’s no point engaging with it any longer; one writes what one can or what wants to, the rest is chance.

AJ: I also wanted to talk about the idea of Indianness. You grew up in India, but your entire adult life has been outside, mostly in Britain, and you’re a British national. And yet of course your imaginative engagement with India remains. How does that work? More interestingly, you’ve been drawn to the fissures, the broken bits of the Indian experience, whether looking at the experience of an English governess in Bengal during the freedom struggle in A Life Apart (whose initial title Past Continuous I continue to like, by the way), or following Naxalites in 1960s Bengal in The Lives of Others, or in this novel you include for example figures like a poor man who almost accidentally becomes the keeper of a dancing bear – a bear whose terrible mutilation you show us, one of the scenes in fiction that I think I will remember until I die – or a desperately poor woman who goes through a chain of miserable jobs as a domestic servant.

I didn’t know much about how a bear is tortured to the point of becoming a performing animal, but I do know the stories of figures like Milly, the domestic worker. At one point she is trapped with an elderly couple in their house in Bombay, not allowed to go outside, mistreated and physically abused. Stories like this are in the newspapers in Indian cities all the time. Then, the scene of the bear’s mutilation – in one extraordinary moment the pain the animal goes through as men hold him down and drive an incandescent stake through his nose is so intense that his eyes swim out of focus – it’s as though what the human species is inflicting on him is just too cruel for the animal to comprehend. Reading this, or reading about Milly, I felt what the novelist Evie Wyld calls ‘the familiar shame of being human’ but also the familiar shame of being an Indian. Maybe the cruelty inflicted on the bear is less shameful than the way the middle class couple treats Milly, or maybe the two things are related because in both cases the perpetrator sees the victim as fundamentally other, undeserving of basic kindness. I know you aren’t trying to present a snapshot or write a sociological essay on contemporary India, but what feelings does ‘Indianness’ evoke in you? As a supplementary question, what are your feelings about Bengaliness?

NM: I feel I could be here forever with this one. But, to begin: yes, I’ve lived more than half my life away from India now but I left India at the age of 22, so as a fully formed – one hopes – adult. For better or for worse, that place made me. That is something immutable and irreversible. We can, of course, parse ‘made’ in many ways: not just the obvious things such as the socioeconomic bracket you inhabited, the school you went to, what your parents did for a living, the language(s) you spoke, but also more ‘micro’ things – childhood reading, friendships and enmities, the food you ate, the domestic helps who worked in your house, the radio stations you listened to, the climate you dealt with, the fact of Nyctanthes arbor-tristis flowers – or night blooming jasmine – in the autumn … in other words, everything that makes up the texture, the thickness and density and the ‘thisness’ of life. By the time you are 22, all those hard-wirings are in place; what happens afterwards is top dressing.

I got myself a British passport out of expediency: it’s so much easier to travel the world if you are a UK passport holder. For a start, you don’t get treated like a dog at the Italian high commission in London when you go to get a visa. But I’ve never considered myself British; I never could be. Britain entirely lacks an assimilationist narrative or impulse. Besides, of all the things in the world one could be, why would one want to ‘be’ British, especially if one comes from India? I consider myself an Indian writer who lives and works in London and spends part of the year in the USA.

Having said that, we return once more to the notion of ‘Indianness’. The notion of experiencing a nationality-ness is something I find opaque. It begs the question, ‘What is Indianness?’ The moment you begin to answer it, or any such question about what constitutes the essence of the people of a nation, everything dissolves. I am suspicious of such totalisations. Yes, sure, an American walking down a supermarket aisle might find the availability of only a dozen kinds of muesli disappointing, whereas I, in the same situation, would find the same fact, at different times, overwhelming, gratifying, wasteful, unnecessary. But does that constitute some kind of essential ‘Americanness’ or ‘Indianness’? Besides, what does it mean to feel or experience that?

The only thing I can say about my continuing interest in India is that I find the country intellectually fascinating in a way I do not find stable, liberal, first-world, capitalist democracies fascinating. India is so plural, so shifting, so one thing and its opposite simultaneously … how on earth has that country cohered? I cannot even speak of an ‘India’ as a monolithic entity but only of shreds and patches of it. To be an Indian is to be in material all your life. Look at the turn the novel has taken in the West, particularly in the US. The lauded books of our times are books about fucking divorce and relationship dramas! Or about the endless fascination with looking at oneself in the mirror. Oh, fuck off!

As for concentrating on the fractures and fissures of the Indian experience, well, how could one not? It’s a moral duty, I feel. What is the experience of India for the vast majority of its people, even the middle classes, if not of what you call ‘the broken bits’? Rose Tremain used to tell her students, ‘Don’t write about what you know, write about what you want to know.’ I think that’s not just an invaluable piece of advice, but a moral one too. To want to know the world, to look outward – why write if you can’t or don’t want to do that? But, of course, to write about ‘the broken bits’ is inevitably to have a reckoning with ‘the familiar shame of being human’. To that phrase by Evie Wyld I would add Coetzee’s ‘the disgrace of living in these times’. Nowhere do you come so up close against those sentiments as in India. Is there anything, any one thing, that you see in India that makes you feel proud, at least at this particular juncture in history, when the country has been hijacked by foaming-at-the-mouth rabid, monkey- and cow-worshipping murderers? 

AJ: Well, I’ve been living in the north east of India for the last three years, in Assam, and travelling a little bit, mostly in Assam but also in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal. And that position of being literally on the side of things – away from what, in the north east, we call the ‘mainland’ of the country – has given me pride in that region, and in a larger sense, in some essential bloody-mindedness and scepticism in Indian ways of thinking. There is a cleaving towards irony, paradox and humour that I really love. You see it in the sarcasm of Hindi humour or the silken irony of upper Assam. Among other things, for me it is an antidote to the present political narrative of nationalism, which flattens out perspectives and, ridiculously, demands loyalty. For me, the very fact of belonging, of being at home, means that I shouldn’t have to prove that I have a right to be there. That is what it is to be abroad – to be polite, to be in some senses a guest. And yet it is what the Indian government is increasingly trying to demand from us. It seems so self-defeating to me as a strategy. I mean, when at home one shouldn’t have to ask oneself if one belongs. And when one has to ask the question, surely the sense of belonging is already ruptured?

But if this thought is new to me, it’s not a new experience for a large amount of Indian citizens. In the north east, for example, people have a tendency to look at you sidelong and say, very politely, ‘Oh, we like Indians. We like Indians very much.’ Then you obviously think, And what are you? But the fact is, people in that area, although sometimes they benefit from special privileges (tribals from the region don’t, for example, pay income tax) have also undergone the most peculiar and estranging treatment from the Indian government. In Mizoram for example, during the independence movement of the 1980s, the Mizos were hiding in the forests to avoid air strikes by the Indian air force. When Assam was invaded in the 1960s by China, Jawaharlal Nehru made an announcement on the radio saying, ‘Our heart goes out to the people of Assam. The fall of Assam is not the fall of India.’ Not very reassuring for the Assamese, who fled their homes, rightly thinking they’d been abandoned. So the Indian government – not just the present one, but various governments since 1947 – has often behaved like an abusive parent, a fact that has somewhat dislodged my attachment to an idea of Indianness at the level of national identity.

Moving on, though, I wanted to ask a technical question, about craft. In A State of Freedom, as well as The Lives of Others and A Life Apart, you don’t flinch from the close description of actions. I think of Ritwik bathing his elderly landlady in A Life Apart, or the blowjob he gives a man in the first few pages of the novel; of the exact description of a young Naxalite from Kolkata learning to do a poor job of harvesting paddy in country fields in Medinipur; of the bear’s mutilation in A State of Freedom. What’s your feeling about detail, about research, when to zoom in?

NM: Ah, details. I know the term ‘world-building’ is used exclusively of speculative and science fiction and fantasy, but why should only worlds different from the one we inhabit have to be created on the page? Isn’t world-building also something central to the realist novel? Here is a passage from Naipaul’s great masterpiece, In a Free State: ‘The filling station Bobby turned into belonged to an old company that had come to the country after independence. A tall yellow-and-black board announced the amenities in bold international symbols. But one of the symbols, the telephone, had been partly covered over with a square of brown paper; and another symbol, the crossed knife and fork, had been crossed out, apparently by a finger dipped in engine oil. Along the lower edge of the yellow board, as on the white walls of the office, were the marks of oily fingers and sometimes whole hands that had tried to wipe or roll themselves clean. The covered part of the asphalted yard was black with oil; the exposed part, still wet after the rain, was iridescent.’ A whole world in there, utterly precise, fleet-footed yet with all the weight of history, in cinematic sharp focus.

The idea is not to tip and shake out your entire research notebook onto the pages of your novel, but to give enough so that the solidity of the world the novel depicts is conveyed. Think of the temple of Narsoba in the forests of the Western ghats towards the end of The Living: so unexpected, but so necessary, almost inevitable, when you discover it on the page, rendering the world you’ve built at once familiar and different, original. I think that’s what details should do: they should allow readers to feel they’re inhabiting a real world, a world solid, dense and, above all, convincing and truthful. If it’s an unfamiliar, foreign world they are entering, as it was the case with most readers of The Lives of Others, the accumulation of details creates simultaneously the sense of difference, otherness (used in a benign way!) and the feeling of gradual familiarity with this new world. Penelope Fitzgerald, more than any author I know, had mastered the trick of the correct detail in the correct place, making even the notion of detail become unobtrusive, even invisible, to the reader; all that remained was the truthfulness of the world she was writing about, be it early twentieth century Cambridge or Thuringia in the closing years of the eighteenth century.

I think the work often dictates where to zoom in on details, where to put in things that will confer three-dimensionality. I feel my guide in this is that startling sentence from Middlemarch: ‘to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects’.

AJ: This is a shorter novel – how did that feel? Did you write an enormous quantity of words that you then as it were filleted, or did it emerge in this form?

NM: I’ve recently been advised not to make the kind of pronouncements that I’m about to make, so I feel almost obliged to do it: I may be done with the long novel. I hope my future books will be shorter than A State of Freedom. And it emerged in this form, as five narratives, to reflect the novella, the ‘two supporting narratives’ and the bookends of the prologue and the epilogue of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, with which, I’d like to fancy, my book is a conversation.

AJ: Finally, the idea of England. At the time of writing these questions I was sitting in a friend’s house reading your novel, contemplating moving back to England, a place I’ve spent over half my life. By the time your answers arrived, I already had returned. It’s a funny time to do it, perhaps, in the light of the present mood in England – but then we’re in a certain historical moment all over the world. Being in England after a few months after living largely in Assam for the last three years has also given me a chance to think about the things I love and appreciate about England: inclusiveness, magnanimity, a quiet generosity and a willingness to accept people, even people from outside, as they are. (I keep using the term England not to exclude Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland but because my idea of Englishness is different from the idea of Britishness, which seems at times to connote the coercion inevitable in holding together an empire.) Now those qualities seem to be in question as one of the dominant ideas is that there isn’t enough to go round – enough money but also enough time or enough patience to put up with people who are different. How do you feel about England at this moment?

NM: I have felt bleak and pessimistic about Britain for a long time and Brexit has driven the final nail into the coffin. A great unravelling of the country is on its way. Two of its greatest twentieth century achievements, the NHS and the BBC, especially the former, are being filleted to nothing and there appears to be no significant political mobilisation against it. If you look at the absolutely shamingly appalling healthcare system of the USA, you realise what we have and what we need to save, not to go down the route of the USA. That single subject of the destruction of the NHS, I feel, could be made a loud, relentless issue on which an election could stand or fall.

I don’t know why you’ve chosen this moment to come back to the UK. I suppose if it’s a choice between a small or a large sewer you choose the smaller one because the amount of effluents you are exposed to is smaller. At least the stripe of nationalism in the UK has not degenerated to vigilante mobs hunting down people and groups they do not like. I am reminded of what the great pianist, Alfred Brendel, once said about Britain – that the English mind is not given to any form of extremism, which rules out the possibility of ultra-nationalism or any kind of fascism in government and power. But the stunted, morally impoverished, stupid, lying, half-formed humans in government in both countries are essentially similar and reminds me of that wonderful Bengali phrase, ‘the recto and verso of shit are identical’.

Brexit could potentially make Britain realise its absolute insignificance in the world but I don’t think the collective consciousness and the ruling classes (government, press) are going to update. Besides, I feel the cost of Brexit will be borne, as it always is, by people who can least afford it, not the Eton-Oxbridge-educated Conservatives who, hand in hand with a lying press, landed us in this shit; and that is too high a cost for the extremely slim possibility of a nation coming to its senses about its position and power and uniqueness. Then there is the collective, willed, obstinate ignorance and amnesia about colonialism. Unlike Germany, which has had, and continues to have, such an extraordinary reckoning with its history, Britain has never had one and will never have one. Highly intelligent and educated people still trot out that line, ‘But we gave them the railways.’ That’s where the level of the ‘thinking’ is still stuck.

Still, there are some hopeful beginnings: the stranglehold of the feral and profoundly mendacious right wing press in the UK seems to be slackening, especially on the younger generation; a new kind of grassroots politics is beginning to emerge (I worry about the might of the forces – by which I mean the British press – ranged against it and its ultimate burgeoning). London, I know, is a bubble, or even an island, but its true cosmopolitanism and spirit of openness and inclusiveness (long live the metropolitan elite!) remain undented, and this is heartening.         

A State of Freedom is out now in hardback.

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