Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel Choice – a tripartite structure – is loosely held by a thread that can be very easy to miss. Spanning from London to Nonapani, a backward village in West Bengal, each section considers the illusion of individual choice in the face of insurmountable social conditions.

In Section I, we meet Ayush and Luke. A London-based gay married couple with twins. Ayush is a publisher while Luke is an economist. Though severely underpaid in comparison to Luke, Ayush is still among the well-to-do of the London proletariat. He can afford to have lofty ideals and be unmindful of money that is not entirely his own. As a brown man in a predominantly white industry, he wants to shake things up. He knows everything boils down to money – even in the sagely business of books. Nevertheless, he pushes on by taking on “underrepresented” writers and fights for artistic choices free from market constraints. The result is often demoralising.

Who cares?

Despite his ardent wish to make the world a better place, it’s hard to empathise with Ayush. His noble pursuits are often propelled by staggering displays of self-pity. The concern that he shows towards the environment or livestock or the poor seems like a gimmick to compensate for his own insecurities about race, profession, and earning capabilities. In no way poor or disenfranchised himself, he comes across as one of those dubious types who wouldn’t care so much about social justice if only they were slightly better off. In contrast, Luke the Economist is a caricature of a “finance bro”. According to him, “Economics is life, life is economics.”

I wonder if any human being can function within such a tight bracket. He has no sympathy for the illnesses that afflict our world and brushes it off as necessary evils of progress. In this case, of course, progress is strictly capitalistic. Section I starts promisingly but I have little patience for constant self-flagellation. Perhaps the idea was to present two extreme lines of thinking but what we ultimately get in the end are two stunningly limited men who refuse to bend over just a little to understand the other person’s point of view. It’s hard to take either seriously and that’s a pity because, despite the seriousness of what the characters feel, they are reduced to unlikeable caricatures of their professions.

A short fiction collection that Ayush publishes has a story about an academic who, drunk in the back of an Uber, witnesses a hit-and-run case before driving off. Section II takes off from this incident. The academic, Emily, tracks down the driver and instead of handing him over to the police, wants to get to know his story. A refugee from Eritrea who has fled to England via Sudan, Libya, and Italy. Emily is fascinated by him and his fight for survival. Well-meaning and sympathetic, she soon gets involved with the driver’s private affairs. So much so that a friend accuses her of having a sexual relationship with him.

In Emily’s hands, the driver’s struggles – so desperate and heartbreaking – will not be in vain. She’ll immortalise him in fiction. Her short story is full of pathos and exaggerated third-world indifference. She’s so confident of this need to tell his story that she does not even bother giving his character a different name. When her friend points out that it’s not her story to tell, she says simply, “No, it’s mine. It’s my story too.” A classic white saviour. In this section, Mukherjee goes back to the age-old question about the integrity of fiction. Who gets to tell whose story and can one write fiction without stealing from the lives around them? A more realistically written section, the conflicts of race and class play out in perfect harmony. Set within a small area in London, the story travels in time and geography as one ruminates on the aftereffects of colonialism and how it has crippled continents and generations of people.

Nightmares in Nonapani

Section III follows a cow named Gauri and her impoverished human caretakers. While attending a fancy gala in London, Ayush is told by an economist how cows are being distributed to poor families in West Bengal villages to make them financially independent. The cow, “a grand and majestic gift”, will lift these families out of poverty with her plentiful supply of milk and dung. When one such family of four in Nonapani receives the gift, they are dumbfounded by what to do with the animal. It’s another mouth to feed and the hut is already cramped. Their daily meals consist of boiled rice soaked in water. Vegetables are rare treats and eating “fish” constitutes only the bitter innards that are almost always discarded.

The descriptions of such mind-boggling poverty are hard to imagine for the urban reader, but none is fantasy. This is indeed the reality of a large population of our country. The rustic setting, the troubled relationship of a mother with her children, and the animal’s central position in their lives are reminiscent of some classic Bengali literature that evokes tremendous emotions for the hungry and poor. The scheme, lauded in London, results in the family undergoing major financial and emotional upheaval to keep the cow alive. This superbly conceived section is weighed down by unimaginatively written dialogues. Essentially an exercise in translation, Mukherjee commits the cardinal sin of trying to fit the Bengali language in the mould of the English language. This is especially evident in longer dialogues, including the mother’s impassioned tirades which would make any translator shake their head.

The final section is achingly poignant while the first two don’t make much impact at all. The title, Choice, leaves little room for imagination – it’s like handing the reader a manual on how to read the book. In doing so, the reader is denied the choice to make their own interpretations. It makes it easy to fit each character into the neat binaries of those who have the power to make a choice and those who don’t. A more cleverly titled book would have made reading a more challenging – and interesting – experience. Mukherjee denies that to himself by picking a title that is straightforward in intention and starting off the three-part story on very wobbly legs.

Choice, Neel Mukherjee, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House.