See more of the story

Arundhati Roy’s debut, “The God of Small Things” — winner of the 1998 Man Booker Prize and a runaway bestseller in the United States — spearheaded a wave of brilliant South Asian literature that has found a passionate audience here. Last year’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” only Roy’s second novel, is a sprawling, unwieldy masterpiece whose very structure mirrors the tangled webs of India itself.

Like Roy, the award-winning Bengali/British writer Neel Mukherjee aims high in his ambitious new novel, “A State of Freedom,” but keeps a tighter focus.

Mukherjee tracks five characters as they migrate back and forth across the country, their stories gradually braiding together in an assured, beautiful prose. His India is a lush kaleidoscope, but one with sharp edges, mysterious shadows, vanishing crowds — a touch of surrealism pervades “A State of Freedom,” as in a De Chirico painting.

Against this backdrop Mukherjee probes the meaning of caste and class in a society so dense and chaotic as to render caste and class meaningless: “There were three old men on the red stone bench, three or four stray dogs, half a dozen children running around. The big trees around it blocked the orange sodium-vapour light and kept most of the area in the shadows. In the balmy sea breeze the trees stirred, making the dappled mass of orange light and black shade sway and move.”

His characters swing open like doors, illuminating the subcontinent’s profusion of languages and ethnicities and revealing tensions that simmer among the affluent, ­middle-class and teeming poor, between the educated and the strivers.

An expatriate and his American-born son stumble into an otherworldly pocket near the Taj Mahal. A London-based cookbook writer’s annual pilgrimage to his parents’ house in Mumbai plunges him into conflict with his liberal principles. An impoverished drifter trains a bear cub to dance, hoping to earn enough rupees to save two stricken families. A young girl flees the trauma of her rural childhood to seek a better life in the city. And a cook holds down various jobs to pay for her nephew’s university.

These strands eventually merge through Mukherjee’s exquisite layering of pacing, plot and point of view. Few writers come at the intersection of class and politics with his subtlety and compassion: “All the enveloping noise of the slum that they always heard but were never disturbed or bothered by — it was the very medium of their lives, like air, and who singles out air for attention? — suddenly took on a singular clarity for Milly, each outlined in its sharp, auditory shape.”

The occasional clumsy sentence cries out for an editor’s pencil, but this is a minute criticism compared with Mukherjee’s accomplishment: a ravishing prose style, a lavish mural of an India that is sinister and sublime, characters that sing to us the epic of their cobbled-together country.

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.

A State of Freedom
By: Neel Mukherjee.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 275 pages, $25.95.

A State of Freedom

By: Neel Mukherjee.

Publisher: W.W. Norton, 275 pages, $25.95.