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.)