I alter my accent to sound more Malaysian—clipping my words, adopting a singsong manner and peppering my sentences with affectations once commonplace in my parlance: ‘wei’, ‘lah’, ‘mah’. But it doesn’t convince the Malaysian acquaintance I’m talking to at a mutual friend’s wedding; there are Australian echoes to every word I utter, the vowels too rounded, the consonants too sharp. He looks at me askance when I say I attended Malaysian public schools from Year 3 to Form 5 (the equivalent of Year 11). But my fate as an interloper is sealed when we start talking about Indian weddings—a ritual I tell him I want to partake in, when the time is right—and I confess that I don’t know how to tie a sari. He doesn’t say this, but the imputation is obvious from his furrowed brows: why would I choose to partake in a Malaysian-Indian celebration when I’m the furthest thing from being either Malaysian or Indian?
I’m unable to fully inhabit either my Australian or my Malaysian voice because, in reality, I’m neither. My tattered passport may be clad in the bright red sheath of the country of my birth, but more than half my life has been spent oscillating between Sydney and Melbourne. The Australian accent was both the first and the last that I acquired, but the ten years I spent in Malaysia during the most formative period of my upbringing have irrevocably changed how I conceive of myself and how I sound—my pronunciation of certain words will always be corrected by well-meaning Australians.
India has given me the most recognisable shorthand for my identity; when people see me, they don’t guess that I’m Australian or Malaysian, but they almost always know I’m Indian. Yet while India is the source of an intrinsic part of my being, it’s a country whose history, constitution and culture I’m woefully underfamiliar with. Having visited only once, at the age of fourteen, and been coddled by the experience of travelling with parents, my opinion of India is shaped more by external preconceptions than by any lived experience. Chinese-Malaysian writer Vera Chok narrates this feeling of dislocation in her essay ‘Yellow’ in The Good Immigrant collection, explaining that, for her, ‘China is like Mozambique or Canada—a distant country but one where I happen to look like the locals.’
This experience—of being an outsider in an insider’s body—is adroitly explored in Neel Mukherjee’s epic saga A State of Freedom, published by Penguin Random House UK’s oldest continuous imprint, Chatto & Windus, in 2017. Five standalone but interconnected stories feature characters who have, to varying extents, been displaced. Some, like me, belong to the Indian diaspora who migrate out of choice, while others are violently forced to leave their family behind in search of livelihood, salvation, or both. Each narrative is underpinned by a fundamental question: what is lost (and in turn, gained) when humans embark on journeys that uproot them from their homes?
There is an irrevocable chasm that arises when a migrant becomes a tourist in their own homeland. The first of A State of Freedom’s five stories—so comparatively short it acts almost as a preface to the others—follows a Calcutta-born academic now living in the US, as he visits Agra with his American-raised son in order to teach his son more about his Indian heritage.
Mukherjee cleverly illustrates the distance between the academic and his homeland in the whitewashed and removed way the character responds to India’s poverty. The minutiae of the destitution the academic witnesses is rendered through superfluous descriptions, as observed by someone who isn’t used to seeing such poverty firsthand:
From the simplest pleading, with a hand repeatedly brought up to the lips to signify hunger, to hideous displays of amputated and bandaged limbs, even an inert, entirely limbless, alive torso laid out flat on a board with wheels—this extreme end of the spectrum of human agony filled him with horror, shame, pity, embarrassment, repulsion but, above all, a desire to protect his son from seeing them. How did all these other people drifting around him appear to be so sheathed in indifference and blindness?
On reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the way I myself have begun to parrot the views of other Malaysians living abroad: exclaiming that the country’s high crime rate, blatant corruption and growing racial divisions make it an unsavoury place to reside. When describing it to outsiders, I have spoken about Malaysia through the misinformed lens and with the detachment of someone who hasn’t lived there in a long time, and perhaps never will again.
The academic’s monologue is not unlike the utterances of many Westerners who write about life in India through a narrow prism lacking in cultural and social context. Günter Grass’s notorious 1987 novel Show Your Tongue—purportedly a record of the author’s stay in Calcutta, but with an obsessive focus on his encounters with the town’s slums—was criticised for its Orientalist depictions of poverty in India; depictions not dissimilar to the passage above.
But unlike Grass and recent Indian exports like Slumdog Millionaire, which was accused of ‘exoticising and packaging Indian slum life for the consumption of voyeuristic Western audiences’, Mukherjee doesn’t romanticise poverty. In this case, the academic is a clever stand-in for the ways Indians themselves fall victim to internalised Orientalist readings and Western purviews of their country.
Elsewhere, descriptions of the conditions of India’s extreme poverty are neither laced with mystique and wonder, nor described in exploitative terms such that might invite condescension, pity or revulsion. Towards the end of the book, Mukherjee traces the trajectory of a character named Milly, who first appears as a housemaid in the second story. The direction of Milly’s life unfolds alongside that of her childhood best friend, Soni, who stays in their village but goes on to join the communist uprising.
When Milly eventually settles into a slum that becomes her permanent home, Mukherjee eschews lurid descriptions of abject squalor in favour of a clear-eyed examination of Milly’s living conditions. Families occupy one room each, bathrooms are communal, and electricity bills are paid to a slumlord who illegally taps into existing power lines. The spider-web alleys that crisscross through the slum turn into overflowing drains during the monsoon, but Milly also owns a television, two beds and limited kitchen supplies that allow her to cook. Milly is afforded a quiet dignity that neither denies nor sentimentalises her tough living conditions.
In an interview with fellow Indian writer Tishani Doshi, Mukherjee talks about how his writing on the order and chaos in India differs from that of Western writers:
There is this strand, particularly by white Westerners, to see the chaos as somehow energy-giving, and how wonderful and exotic, and I think the experience of living in that chaos is not any of those things. It can grind you down.
Mukherjee is similarly effective in charting the large divide between India’s working classes and the burgeoning middle class, offering us glimpses into the material disadvantages that many among the working class have to contend with. This is apparent in the second story, when the unnamed narrator—a London-based Indian writer, designer and avowed food lover—wonders if the single rooms he observes in the slums near his parents’ Bombay home in fact house entire families. It is also heartbreakingly clear in a later scene, when Soni’s illiterate father has to ask a Christian villager to accompany him and his wife to the general hospital because ‘he couldn’t read a single sign; he didn’t know how to’.
In the third and longest story—arguably the hardest to read of the five, due to its meandering plot and gratuitous descriptions of animal cruelty—an abusive man named Lakshman abandons his family to seek fame and fortune with his dancing pet bear. Mukherjee is almost challenging us to make a moral judgement on the poverty-stricken Lakshman, who tames his captured bear cub into submission by threading a rope through its nose with a big iron ring and knocking out its teeth. The backdrop of Lakshman’s life is an orphaned childhood, the responsibility of providing for both his brother’s family and his own, and a failed crop of land that consigns them all to intermittent hunger. The provocation is clear: who are we to judge?
Although my parents never deemed it worthwhile to bring us up on the lilting sounds of our mother tongue Malayalam, every meal they cooked for us was firmly rooted in the cuisine of Kerala, the southern Indian state my grandparents hailed from. Breakfast was a choice between upma (a dry roasted semolina porridge), dosa (lacy-edged pancakes made from ground rice and lentils) and idli (a steamed rice cake), and our meals often featured variations of thayiru (homemade yoghurt), biryani (spiced basmati rice) and fish cutlets (the equivalent of Indian croquettes).
Food is one of the few ways in which I feel unabashedly Indian, and similarly, Mukherjee uses food as a means for his characters to continually connect and re-connect with their Indian identities. The academic tries to tempt his listless son with ‘Parle’s Orange Kream’, a popular Indian cream biscuit snack, but this fails to elicit the desired response from a boy who didn’t grow up with the confectionery’s advertisements blaring across his childhood. The divide between the academic and his son could not be starker—while the former is grappling with the confusion of belonging to two places at once, his son’s lived experience is firmly rooted in the US; the son is oblivious to the disconnect that is so central to his migrant father’s experience.
Meanwhile, the unnamed London-based writer at the forefront of the second story befriends his parents’ Bengali cook, Renu, while back home in Bombay. Their friendship predictably revolves around food, and is one that the narrator leverages for a regional Indian cookbook he’s writing. In this story, food morphs from a way of bestowing affection in the absence of words—the narrator’s mother continually mollycoddles him, showering him with tea and fruits—to an illustration of clear gender and class divides. The patriarch of the narrator’s household is dispatched to buy the fish because ‘only a man could discern the freshest and the best specimens’. And it is through food that the discrepancy between Renu’s and the narrator’s class positions becomes most apparent. To Renu, food is functional—she tells the narrator she eats only one meal a day and has no use for the leftovers he tries to give her—while to him, food is an artistic, creative pursuit that he executes with flourish, much to the admiration of his British friends in London.
Elsewhere in the novel, food becomes shorthand for the desperation and desolation that pervade the lives of the poorer characters. In the story of bear-trainer Lakshman, the broken eggshells he discovers are synonymous with toxic masculinity and the spectre of failure that looms over Indian men who are unable to provide for their families. In the fourth story, Milly’s brother Budhuwa buys her a banana for her long bus ride. It is a seemingly inconsequential piece of fruit, but it’s also a keepsake from the home that Milly is leaving for the first time, at the age of eight, to work as a housemaid.
Mukherjee’s striking pentaptych culminates in perhaps the most experimental story of the five—a stream of consciousness from a long-suffering construction worker, originally introduced to readers in the first story. The roundabout way in which the characters’ lives intersect with one another finds its catharsis in this story, with a resolution that ties all loose threads together—one that is somewhat at odds with the messy notions of class, identity and belonging each character negotiates throughout the book. But despite this tidiness, Mukherjee’s resolution—which is far from happy, and hopeful only in a nihilistic sense—is reached through a sequence of the same forces that characterise the novel: chaos, disorder and contradiction.
Decades after her pivotal bus ride to begin work as a housemaid far from home, Milly reflects on her disjointed life, spent moving from one place to another. Here, Mukherjee succinctly encapsulates the migration experience:
Her life is not fragmented. To her, it has unity and coherence. She gives it those qualities. How can movement from one place to another break you? Are you a terracotta doll, easily broken in transit?
But, as each of these interconnected stories reveals, in cases of displacement things are often broken. In his interview with Doshi, Mukherjee himself likens the migrant experience to being a ghost: ‘A ghost story affords a way of thinking about painful histories, and a ghost is also a migrant, trapped between two worlds, somewhat in purgatory.’
To varying extents, each of the characters in A State of Freedom is engaged in a constant juggling act, forever wondering what lies on the other side of the home they’ve chosen. Some, like Lakshman and Milly, find an unlikely sense of peace and companionship after leaving home—whether by choice or by force. For Mukherjee’s unnamed fifth character, the dislocation wrought by leaving home is temporarily liberating and ultimately fateful. But for some, like the academic and the food writer, who struggle to identify with the land of their birth, the concept of home and all it entails will forever be fraught, laced with a sense of loss and regret.
Like the academic wanting to teach his ambivalent son about his roots, and the writer more comfortable pursuing his food writing in London than coming to terms with his class privilege in India, I, too, am clumsily dancing in the margins between one identity and another. This is, at times, both a curse and a blessing. There is an ever-present sensation of simultaneously belonging to two cultures and none; of having too many identities, but none that run deep enough; of being a fragmented, semi-complete version of what people want or expect me to be. But it’s in this complex, liminal space—where I’m still not sure what I am, or where I’m from—that I’ve found it’s perfectly acceptable to be both everything and nothing.
Milly’s journey from her village in Jharkhand to the city of Bombay is the only narrative to be given novella treatment by Mukherjee, demarcated into eleven individual chapters. It is also the singular narrative centred on a woman. Although it’s not the longest in the novel, Milly’s story leaves the most enduring imprint of hope, renewal and elevation. Through her experiences, Mukherjee reveals that, as a ‘ghost’ traversing borders, it might not always be possible to feel like you wholly belong to any one place, but that there’s a strange, inexplicable beauty in that.
She thought of her village as home, too, but she used the word gaon for it, never ghar; the jhopri in Bandra was home now.
Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and Metro, among others. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.