Friday, October 16, 2009

Low Interest Rate

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.


The problem with polemical novels is that they’re more polemical than novel. Barring exceptions such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, novelists who come to the keyboard with a well-defined agenda in mind produce work long on argument and short on characterisation. These are precisely the issues that bedevil Kota Neelima’s Death of a Moneylender.

The theme here is the predicament of the Indian farmer and of how the rest of us – particularly the noble men and woman of the Fourth Estate – misrepresent their plight and pander to vested interests. The author’s knowledge of the subjects she writes about is never in doubt; it’s the turgid story-telling and over-wrought prose style that make the novel a disappointment.

Death of a Moneylender deals with the change in the mindset of Falak, a talented, cynical journalist dispatched to the village of Bapat in south India to cover the death of Desraj, a moneylender found hanging from a lamp-post. Conventional wisdom dictates that he was the victim of a disgruntled villager, but as Falak probes deeper, he finds that Desraj was a moneylender with a difference: he actually cared about the plight of farmers, helping them with not only soft loans but also progressive means of farming.

Almost from the start we’re exposed to the novel’s flaws. There’s too much telling and too little showing, and reams of stilted dialogue. (An example of the latter: “The rapidly decreasing agricultural land in this country cannot support a rapidly increasing population solely dependent on it”.)

Neelima attempts to thicken the plot as well as flesh out Falak’s character by having him dip into a copy of the Rig Veda from time to time, and by providing him with a former girlfriend, the idealistic Vani. Both devices, however, are too convenient and heavy-handed – Vani, especially, is too much of a stock figure too make much impact.

As the narrative progresses, the only point of interest remains the circumstances surrounding Desraj’s death, which, it has to be said, are resolved quite satisfactorily. As for the rest, characters ranging from sympathetic police officers, photographers, other moneylenders and virtuous farmers appear and disappear, but not without imparting pearls of wisdom on the state of farmers, the hollowness of current agricultural practices and how the nation is letting down its sons of soil.

In his controversial On Moral Fiction, novelist and writing teacher John Gardener wrote, “True art…clarifies life, establishes models of human action, cast nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns”. Death of a Moneylender tries to do all of these things, with its aims falling far short of its grasp. The sincerity of intention is not to be denied, and much of the information to be found here could make for a forceful piece of non-fiction. But a compelling novel, this is not.

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