(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...

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In a Free State Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a Free State is a sequence of five works: a prologue and an epilogue, two short stories, and an eponymous novella. The stories are connected by a common theme: The protagonists are all expatriates who try to live in foreign countries and look for freedom in alien cultures.

Both the prologue and the epilogue are excerpts from a journal. In the prologue, the narrator records his trip by sea from Greece to Egypt, observing the relationships that develop aboard the ship. He is appalled when a Lebanese couple and an Austrian turn on a tramp, trying to teach him how to behave.

The first story, “One out of Many,” introduces a naive Indian named Santosh who lives happily in Bombay and works as a cook for a governmental official, identified as Sahib. When the government sends Sahib to Washington, D.C., Santosh convinces him to take him along as Sahib’s personal servant. Although he has a wife and children in India, Santosh leaves for America with his employer.

Santosh finds the Western city to be very claustrophobic. He lives in a small cupboard in his employer’s apartment and is not paid much. He feels as if he were a prisoner but reconciles himself to his situation for a while. One day, an Indian restaurant owner, Priya, manages to lure Santosh away from Sahib by offering him more money and letting him stay in an apartment of his own. Santosh begins work at the restaurant immediately, without even going back to Sahib’s home to collect his belongings.

Santosh and Priya communicate on equal terms, until one day the cook calls the restaurant owner sahib, the way he used to address his previous employer. The expression of subordination immediately changes the relationship between Santosh and Priya. The cook begins to feel more miserable than ever.

On an unexpected occasion, Priya is forced to raise Santosh’s pay. This minor victory makes the cook feel that he is on his way to freedom, but at the same time he understands that his path is self-destructive. As Santosh tries to decide what to do with his future, Priya advises him to get married to a woman with whom he had a short affair. The cook takes his employer’s advice and eventually becomes an American citizen as a result. He has attained certain freedom in the United States. However, this freedom does not make him happy.

In “Tell Me Who to Kill,” a young person from the West Indies...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

In a Free State Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hammer, Robert D. V. S. Naipaul, 1973.

Morris, Robert K. Paradoxes of Order: Some Perspectives on the Fiction of V. S. Naipaul, 1975.

Theroux, Paul. V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Works, 1972.