Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)