V S Naipaul is one of the most celebrated Indian writers of all times and this is his masterpiece having won him the Booker. The credentials of the writer and the book itself make the task of reviewing this piece of literature a daunting one in itself. However as an ordinary reader I will seek to review the book without letting any prejudice creep in.
So to begin with, In a Free State is a collection of 3 stories “One Out of Many”, “Tell Me Who to Kill”and “In a Free State” along with a prologue “The Tramp at Piraeus” and an epilogue “The Circus at Luxor”. The central theme of the book is around the psychology of ‘not belonging’. The main characters in all the stories are people living in a country they do not belong to and the ongoing strife that they have with the culture and people around and their own self.
One out of Many starts with Santosh who has been the house help for a Government official in Bombay, who is one day asked to move to the US. Despite the misgivings of his friends, Santosh decides to travel with his employer to the US but almost immediately regrets his decision – an overdose of wine, his addictive betel juice along with the motion sickness in the airplane makes him vomit all over, inviting ugly stares from all around. Once in the US, Santosh’s self ignominy slowly gave way to a new realisation of self; he even considered himself to be capable of having a handsome face. It all catapulted when one day he was ‘dishonoured’ by the ‘hubshi’ maid and the idea of escape possessed him. His escape should have allotted him his share of freedom, but instead left him with a deeper realisation of life.
“I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over”.
Tell me who to Kill is set in England and starts with, most probably, a Caribbean man, on his way to attend his brothers wedding. The man, out of sheer rivalry with this Uncle Stephen and their well settled boy, takes his brother Dayo to England for studies. He remains unnerved by a life of misery for the sake of a better future for his brother. But finally with his brother tricking and abandoning him for his white lover, his restaurant vandalised and all his money gone, all he can think of is who should he kill.
“I love them. They take my money, they spoil my life, they separate us. But you can’t kill them. O God, show me the enemy……..Tell me who to kill”.
In the final prose of the book, In a Free State, two British expats reminiscence on the past and unwillingly try to come to terms with the current state, all while driving through the, now turned treacherous countryside in a ‘post colonised ‘free’ African state reeling under a Civil war. The title of the story significantly uplifts the dichotomy of freedom, from the perspective of the native Africans as well as the English settlers. The former supposedly free now that the colonisers have retreated and the later still reeling under their sense of freedom which they most probably have already lost along with their erstwhile colony.
Finally, the Prologue and the Epilogue ride on a similar motif: the tryst of the oppressed, sometimes in his own homeland, oppressed by an outsider while the narrator looks on forlornly. The narrative throughout is one of the juxtaposition of the sense of freedom against the reality of freedom.
This book is laden with deep seated emotions which can only be brought out by a slow read, allowing enough time to let the thoughts seep in. It is highly recommended for the mature reader.
My rating 4.5/5
Buy it here In a Free State