First read: This passage shows why Neel Mukherjee’s ‘A State of Freedom’ takes a knife to your gut

The Man Booker nominee’s fourth work of fiction will make every reader squirm.

As if impelled by some deep instinct, the cub has scuttled off into its box to hide. Salim reaches a hand in, pulls it out and places it on the open ground, then tethers it with a short length of rope to a sturdy stick planted deep and firmly in the ground.

– Now, he shouts.

The four men turn the cub on its back – it’s squealing now, a thick, squeaky noise – and stretch out its four legs, holding down the paws with their wrapped hands so that its claws can’t inflict any damage. It moves its head manically, but Salim soon puts a stop to that. He inserts the thickest of the sticks into the cub’s open mouth while the two men pinning down the front paws hold down the ends jutting out, effectively fixing the head to the ground. Its mouth looks like an improbably pristine pink hole seeded with small white teeth. The sound that comes out of it now is some kind of a hoarse attempt at a whisper from the throat.

– Don’t press down too hard on the stick, Salim shouts – just enough to keep its head from moving.

But it isn’t moving any longer, unless the convulsion going through its exposed underside, rippling that white garland and issuing as a staccato hiss, can be counted as movement. The spectacle of a tiny cub and five big men is a mockery of scale and proportion: it’s as if a cannon has been deployed to deal with a fly. With four quick but forceful taps using a shorter stick, Salim knocks out the cub’s canine teeth. The hiss changes to an odd rasping. The pink streaks with thin ribbons of red. They spill out, mixed with saliva, from the open corners of the mouth. Salim winds a long piece of cloth around his right hand, then removes the iron rod from the fire. He holds it for a while, one end of it glowing red, briefly, before it turns an ashy black, closes his eyes and begins to mutter something, as if he’s in a trance. The crowd that rings around this business has fallen into a total hush. The surrounding pines respond in unison to a passing breeze with their own swishing sound.

Children form the innermost circle, the children from Lakshman and Ramlal’s family, the toddlers on the hips of their mothers, a scattering of boys and girls from the village. Salim opens his eyes – they’re unfocused, as if seeing through everything in front of them to something invisible beyond or under things. Even the pines hold their breath now. He lets out a demonic cry and with a short, thrusting movement, which seems bathetic coming after that sound, he drives the hot end of the rod through the area just above the dark grey tip of the cub’s nose, pierces it in one go, brings it out, then drives it in again a few centimetres above that point, punching a hole through the bone.

The wail of a child punctures the hush with unexpected force. The cub cannot writhe or move – it is pinned into place at every point where movement can occur. Lakshman feels the tug from the sheer need to move express itself as tiny jerks in the joints of the leg that he’s holding down; a cyclone manifesting itself as a breath of air. The red-pink open mouth, leaking liquid, would look as if a moment of utter, grinning glee has been frozen in time, had it not been for the unearthly squeal, dotted with a gurgling rasp, emerging from it. Then a smell alerts Lakshman – he notices that the cub is shitting, and dribbling a few drops of piss, not enough to wet the ground under him.

– Keep holding him down, but not too much force, remember, Salim orders.

He fetches the length of rope, now generously dripping mustard oil, and begins to insert it through the hole he has pierced above the cub’s nose.

The heat has cauterised the wound, so there’s no blood, but there is the faintest whiff of burnt flesh. Lakshman looks into the bear’s eyes, inches below his own face; they alternate between squinting, squeezing shut and opening wide. The pupils swim madly, left and right. A bead of sweat drops from Lakshman’s forehead on to the animal’s shoulder. Salim’s deftness seems to have left him, as he has trouble threading the rope through the piercing. He fails once, twice, three times, shouts curses, then manages to do it at the fourth go. The sound that comes out of the cub – something Lakshman has never heard before – becomes weaker, as if the creature is running out of energy. Salim draws the end of the rope that has emerged from the hole and pulls it for a bit from the other side until both ends are more or less equal.

– The pain, Lakshman begins, but the words don’t come out. He clears his throat and rephrases what he had in mind to ask Salim – He’ll be all right, no? Soon?

Excerpted with permission from A State of Freedom, Neel Mukherjee, Penguin Books.

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