Sunday, July 8, 2012

Out Of Focus

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai

THE VILLAGE Nikita Lalwani

Nikita Lalwani’s second novel, The Village, comes five years after her debut, the Booker-longlisted Gifted. Unfortunately, it’s as charmless as the first one was engaging. The novel’s premise is uncommon enough, but the characters and their predicaments remain fuzzy and underdeveloped throughout.

The village in question is the fictional hamlet of Ashwer, five hours’ drive from New Delhi. This happens to be an ‘open prison’ where those convicted of murder, along with their families, are encouraged to lead productive lives. In this location arrives a small BBC crew intending to film a documentary. Lalwani’s narrative hews close to the point of view of the crew’s young director, Ray Bhuller, a woman of Indian-origin whose past we are told little about. Much is made of Ray’s fractious relationship with Serena, the film’s producer, and Nathan, the presenter – who, somewhat improbably, is a former armed robber from London’s East End.

Though we’re introduced to some of the inmates and their backgrounds, their lives and the daily rhythm of the village never quite spring into focus. Space, however, is given over to portraying the country’s heat, dust, hues and clothes. There are other clunky choices, too, such as Hindi dialogue being followed by an English translation. (At one point, “thakur sahib” is transcribed, without irony, as “sir lord”.)

One also reads with incredulity of Ray’s reasons to film the documentary, revealed in a conversation with Nathan: she wants to portray the “beauty, honesty, trust, dignity and inspiration” of the country, going on to talk of dismantling colonial prejudices. All the more strange then, that she allows herself to be a part of the manipulation that follows in getting the inmates to reveal more of themselves than they’d like.

 Halfway through the novel, Ray’s boss e-mails her from London to ask for the specific storylines and conflict that she plans to feature in her documentary. It’s a pity the novel itself doesn’t make more effective use of such elements.

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