Sunday, September 02, 2012

My Review of Nikita Lalwani's The Village

LITERARY REVIEW, September 2, 2012


The ‘Gifted’ writer—gifted  used literally as well as metaphorically—Nikita Lalwani’s  debut book was  gem of a novel. The readers liked it. The critics loved it. A story about a child prodigy growing up in 1980s Cardiff, Gifted was published in 2007 and  collected a Booker longlist and a Costa shortlist on its way to be declared winner of the inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize.  And now, Nikita’s second novel, The Village, is just out. By any yardstick, this is a decent work of fiction. But, please don’t try to compare it with her first novel.

In An Open Prison

In The Village, the story begins when three Britishers arrive at an open prison called Aishwer, somewhere in north India, to make a documentary film for BBC on the lives of the people living there. Built as a part of prison reform measures, the prison village resembles a typical Indian village which has bare minimum amenities and all the signs of poverty.  But there is a difference. Each household in this village has one person who has killed somebody and is serving a life term.  

Among the BBC crew is the director of the documentary Ray Bhullar who is of Indian decent,  a virgin and strict vegetarian. Serena, the domineering producer, and Nathan, the ex-criminal and eccentric presenter, are other members of team.

 Initially, things go as planned by Ray i.e. to make a documentary following all the professional and personal ethics. But, then her boss from London pressurises her to add melodrama, conflicts and tears to make the documentary emotionally appealing.  A conscientious person, Ray finds it morally difficult to follow her boss’s orders.
Unlike Ray, Nathan and Serena are more ‘practical’ and are willing to cross the border of morality if it is required to make their programme successful. They manipulate and instigate the prison inmates for the desired footage for their documentary film and, in doing so, they disturb the precariously balanced equilibrium of the prisoners’ mundane lives. The novel opens a bit slowly and becomes even more sluggish as we progress. It picks up pace in the second half, throwing some surprises that are the soul of this offering.

Ray is a properly fleshed out character and her moral dilemma is portrayed impeccably except nothing is known of her background. This reviewer feels that the back story about the protagonist would have made the story more interesting and added a few more layers to the character. Serena and Nathan, on the other hand, are underdeveloped characters. The motivation behind Ray’s fascination for Nathan is also left unexplained.

Satisfying Denouement

Nikita’s writing shines when she tells us about the ambience of the village. The descriptions of open prison transport us to the village and we feel like watching a 3-D movie.  She also does a great job while introducing the inmates of Aishwer to us. Characters like Nandita, Daulath and Ram Payari have been so perfectly etched out that we immediately empathise with them and crave to read more about them.

The best thing about this novel is that it has a very satisfying denouement and it delivers more than what it promises at the beginning.  Plus, it raises a very important question about  reality TV:  How real are the reality ?

My Review of Taj Hassan's Debut Novel in The Hindu

September 2, 2012


The author, Taj Hassan, has made good use of his experience as an IPS officer in the naxalite affected areas while coming out with this insightful novel about the Maoist insurgency. Had his editor invested a little more time and energy and guided the author in shaping this novel up properly, The Inexplicable Unhappiness of Ramu Hajjam, would have been a great book.

Contemporary Ring

The story is mostly set in two fictional villages of Bihar. One village, Tesri, is inhabited by so called low caste people and most of them are either menial labourers or are some kind of small time businessmen. The other village, Bhagatpur, has predominant population of high caste farmers. The main protagonist of this story, Ramu Hajjam, is a poor barber from Tesri who makes his living by running a roadside saloon. One day, Ramu the barber accidentally cuts Subedar Singh’s cheek. Subedar, a high caste man from Bhagatpur, beats Ramu badly for this small mistake. This incident infuriates Ramu’s only son Pawan and he decides to avenge the insult to his father. Pawan runs away from home and joins a Maoist group. The things change for the residents of Tesri and Bhagatpur as a bloody game of violence and counter violence unfolds before their eyes.

Thematically speaking, it is an attention-grabbing book as the Maoist violence and the anti-insurgency operations by the government always remain in the news. The author’s use of multiple point of views suits the story and the use of slangs adds local colour to the prose. However, his failure to do full justice to the two main characters is a negative aspect of this work of fiction. Ramu Hajjam, the chief protagonist, is well chiseled character but he does not get as much space as he deserves. By showing more of Ramu’s back stories, the author would have made this character more interesting and more convincing. Another major character, Achal Singh Mukhiya, the feudal lord of Bhagatpur, is shown as one dimensional creature as one never gets chance to hear his inner voices. In other words, Mukhiya gets the caricature treatment. Further, Pawan’s journey from a village teenager to a hardcore Maoist is too hurried.
Despite these flaws, the novel is successful in taking its readers to the hinterland where the presence of government is negligible and where the brutal inequality and appalling poverty breed extremist ideologies like naxalism. A decent first attempt by the author. This reviewer will definitely look forward to read his next book.