Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
In a Free State is a collection of three stories: “One out of Many,” “Tell Me Who to Kill,” and the title piece, “In a Free State.” When the first story, “One out of Many’ begins, Santosh is in Bombay working for a middle-level government official. When his employer is reassigned to Washington, D.C., Santosh faces the prospect of dismissal and having to return to his village in the hills. Rather than face this loss of prestige and comfort, he presses his employer to take him to the United States.
He soon regrets coming to the United States, however, because in his new home, Washington, D.C., he feels unsafe and out of place. Soon after he arrives, he has an experience that will make it impossible for him to return to India: He becomes aware of his own identity. Previously, he had been content to be a small part of his employer’s presence, but after lengthy scrutiny of his face in the mirror of his employer’s bathroom to determine why the maid finds him attractive (a question that would never have occurred to him in Bombay) he discovers that he is handsome, and his troubles begin. He loses the ability to confide in his employer. The only Americans who seem real to him are on television which is where he usually sees them; the $3.75 he earns per week is not enough to allow for social activity. He has a romantic encounter with a black maid at the apartment building, but his attitude toward blacks (the hubshi), like all the attitudes he brings from Bombay, betrays him and, instead of solace, he finds only dishonor in his contact with her.
The misery of his life, coupled with his new self-awareness, makes Santosh susceptible to Priya, a restaurateur, whose talk and philosophy strongly attract him because they remind him of his life in Bombay. Therefore, he runs away from his employer and begins to work as a cook in Priya’s restaurant. He is earning one hundred dollars a week and has his own room, an unimaginable extravagance but, because of his complete lack of rapport with his surroundings, he soon realizes that he has only made his lot worse. He starts to think of Priya as his sahib: With Priya, however, the word is servile, whereas, with his old employer, the word sahib was part of his employer’s dignity and therefore part of his own. He says, “Priya’s dignity could never be mine; that was not our relationship.” As his newfound freedom is lost, his desolation deepens. When Priya convinces him to marry the hubshi woman in order to get his citizenship, his desolation becomes absolute. He “closes his mind and his heart” to his new world and resigns himself to being alone forever.
In “Tell Me Who to Kill,” the unnamed narrator is a member of an impoverished West Indian family who have pinned their collective hopes on educating the youngest and brightest son, Dayo. The narrator, after seeing that the immediate family cannot pay for Dayo’s education, and that the extended family has no interest in doing so, borrows and saves enough money himself to send Dayo to study in London; he then comes to London himself to help look after him. In London, however, the brothers become alienated from each other as the narrator vainly urges Dayo to pursue studies in which he has no interest. Dayo spends his days loafing and smoking expensive cigarettes, yet makes just as much (or as little) progress toward ensuring a prosperous future as the narrator, who, having saved up two thousand pounds by working eighteen hours a day for four years, loses it all in a month when he invests in a curry shop that goes bankrupt. As the story ends, Dayo is getting married to an English girl, a marriage that the author intimates will be disastrous for him, and the narrator is too broken by his personal and financial losses to recover. His life in London is finished, yet he has nowhere else to go. He has word sent home to his family that he is dead, and as the story ends that is how the reader thinks of him.
The final story, “In a Free State,” is equally pessimistic. In it, Bobby and Linda share a car ride from the capital, in the northern part of the African country, to the so-called Southern Collectorate, where Bobby works and where Linda will rejoin her husband. Ethnic rivalries within the country make this journey perilous because the president, whose politically and militarily dominant people control the north, has set up roadblocks to apprehend the king, whose weaker people populate the south.
The basic conflict between the two characters concerns their attitude toward Africa: Bobby, a homosexual who suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, has emigrated to Africa and plans to make it his home. “My life is here,” he says. Linda has lived in the country for six years and considers it an exciting place for her and her husband to work, but she intends to go to South Africa, if it ever stops being “like a John Ford Western.” Her attitude suggests that Europeans can never be accepted in black African society.
Conflict is implicit in their initial conversations, but their experiences during the two-day journey south dramatize it and prove convincingly that Linda is right. Bobby’s claim of having made a new home is shown to be a pipe dream, both in his private life, when at the hotel where he and Linda stop for the night he misinterprets a young African’s innocence for interest in a sexual encounter, and in his public life, when in a shockingly brutal scene he is beaten by the president’s soldiers, who do not recognize Bobby’s authority as a government official.
The story’s final scene between Bobby and his houseboy, Luke, when Luke discovers that the president’s men have very nearly beaten his employer to death, illustrates how insurmountable the distance is between Bobby and his would-be countrymen. The king’s people are routinely beaten, imprisoned, and executed by the president’s soldiers; Luke is a member of the king’s people, yet when he sees what has befallen Bobby, he laughs and acts contemptuously toward him, rejecting out of hand the notion of fellowship between them. Bobby realizes that he will either have to leave or, by firing Luke, invoke the prerogative of the neocolonialists, whose culture he purports to reject. In either case, he perpetuates his status as outsider and, like Santosh and the narrator of “Tell Me Who to Kill,” is lost.