The fiction of literary novels of yesteryear carried the indefinable quality of real life simulated, the hallmark of true art. Alas, few contemporary Indian writers—however much they stun with artful prose, do a Prem Chand or Marcel Proust make.
Let me explain with reference to the book under review.
The skill and craft of British Indian author, Nikita Lalwani, is unparalleled; her language is evocative, stylish and masterful; also, the unusual locale of the book—an experimental village where convicts live `normal’ lives with their families comes alive. But the success of literary works rests on characters who must draw you in. Protagonist’s Ray Bhullar’s inward journey, or her potential paramour, ex-convict Nathan’s, falls short of just that.
Having said this—`The Village’ is a highly readable, well-crafted novel and worth a buy. If nothing else, Rajasthan born Lalwani’s prose is like a gurgling brook that never fails to delight. Cut to plot—here too Lalwani `tops’.
Ray Bhullar, a British Indian novice documentary film maker is in middle India to make a film on prison reform—and village Ashwer is selected where an open prison plan is being experimented by an IAS officer anxious to gain international accolades. He arranges for the team’s stay— Ray— director, English Serena— camera person, and habitual offender ex con, Cockney Nathan– anchor. Hmm, so far interesting.
As they mingle the author’s alter-ego– outsider-insider confused Ray— describes in detail the Indian rural scene using film jargon to cut a fine picture of gestures, clothes, language nuances, bazaars, smells etc. She is giving the expat reader a no-frills train ride through rural India—the flavor of authentic `Commonwealth lit’.
Ray’s sexual attraction to Nathan begins with bandied phrases, a whiff of speed, sultry innuendos. But that’s not enough for him. Then Ray grows intimate with Nandini, village counselor, and an ex convict herself. And the lives of each unfold; crimes committed, and moral ground covered.
But the team is interested in TRP ratings. They want a denouement, a raw nerve exposed on celluloid to make their trip worthwhile. Ray however has a change of heart—where does one draw the ethical boundaries of reality tv? And how far will their celluloid `takes’ mess up/expose the lives of the people they are capturing for a western audience. In the process, and through a startling chain of events Ray discovers where her true loyalties lie.
Lalwani’s earlier prize winning novel, `Gifted’, won her praise and was also long listed for the prestigious Man Booker award. It is for this reason that expectations of her second offering run high. Among the younger writers there can be no doubt about Lalwani’s talent. Her plots are unusual, and show remarkable originality. She bravely treads ground where older writers fear to enter— lust, betrayal, divided loyalties, skinning the motives of her characters finely.
Nandini and Nathan start off brilliantly, but need a pen less frugal to draw out their full substance. In other words they could have done with some more mulling. For instance `the governor’ of the village prison, the IAS officer whose brainchild Ashwer is, has potential to grow into the hundred horse power- engined character he really is, warts and all. But apart from telling us he is divorced, he peters off. Nor does the author allow Nandini, who killed in self defense, to grow into the true heroine that she really is.
Lalwani seems in a hurry to move on and tell Ray’s tale but when she does address Ray’s final stance, it is a missed opportunity again, and leaves the readers feeling a bit short of full satisfaction.