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January 18, 2018

Book Notes - Neel Mukherjee "A State of Freedom"

A State of Freedom

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Inspired by V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State, Neel Mukherjee's novel A State of Freedom is powerful and original.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"Exquisitely written, cleverly structured, powerfully resonant to the very last line. . . . A profoundly intelligent and empathetic novel of privilege and poverty, advancement and entrapment."

In his own words, here is Neel Mukherjee's Book Notes music playlist for his novel A State of Freedom:

A State of Freedom is an experiment of sorts: an attempt to write a disruptive novel, an interrupted novel, disrupted and interrupted lives being the central experience of the people at the heart of the book. These people are all economic migrants within India who have moved far away from their homes, either by volition or by force, in search – in the hope – of a better life. The book is also an attempt at experimenting with certain aspects of form, such as sabotaging realism from within by pushing it towards its opposite – a ghost story, say – while keeping the surface effects of realism intact. Another such formal experiment was to take away all the connective tissue such as plot, character, unity of narrative and development and drama from the realist novel and see if I could have a book that could still answer to the name of 'novel'. It is emphatically not a linked collection of stories of varying lengths.


1. A tour of the great Mughal palace at Fathehpur Sikri, built by Emperor Akbar around 1569/70, forms the core of Section I. It is difficult to think of the music that could accompany this section. A piece of Hindustani classical music could work: say, an excerpt from a vocal rendition of the sombre and sad raga Mian ki Todi, since it is named after Mian Tansen, the sixteenth-century composer, musician and singer who was one of the 'Navaratnas' (Nine Jewels) of Emperor Akbar’s court.

2. The only kind of music I could think for Section II is something that the unnamed first-person narrator would listen to. He is urbane, educated, lives in London, works for a trendy design company, is involved in a project to create a sort of part-coffee-table, part food-tourism – but authentic – book on regional Indian breakfasts. What sort of musical tastes would he have? Maybe a Schubert impromptu?

3. But this guy is some kind of a … well, not exactly hipster, but a proto-hipster, if you will. What do hipsters listen to? Sufjan Stevens? The Pharrell Williams-Katy Perry-Big Sean track, 'Feels', from the new Calvin Harris album, Funk Wav Bounces, Volume I?

4. 'Oongli mein angoothi' ('A ring on my finger/A serpent in the ring') from Ram Avatar, for Section III. Lakshman watches a girl mime highly stylised Bollywood dance movements while listening to this (ghastly) song from the (ghastly) 1988 Bollywood film being played at some celebration or the other in a small-town school in north India. This song-and-dance romance routine is every cliché of an over-the-top Bollywood number.

5. And here is another of those: 'My name is Lakhan', from Ram Lakhan, for Section III. Lakshman sings this song from the huge Bollywood hit, Ram Lakhan (1989), as he makes Raju, the bear, dance. 'Lakhan' is a diminutive of his own name, Lakshman, so there is a kind of silly knowingness in his choice of the song.

6. A 'Ba Parab' song for Section IV. Ba Parab ('festival of flowers'), or Sarhul, is an important spring festival for the Munda people, the tribe that Milly (in Section IV of the novel) belongs to. Some words from one of the songs sung at this festival are quoted on page 169. You can find quite a detailed description of the festival here:

7. On page 260, Milly hears the title song of the television serial, Balika Vadhu, as it begins playing on a neighbour's television. The serial ran for 8 years, from 2008 to 2016, and was immensely popular.

Neel Mukherjee and A State of Freedom links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Statesman review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

The Hindu interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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