Rs 399 pp 240
Nikita Lalwanis first novel, Gifted (2007), was a touching, tender, funny and finely calibrated novel about a British Indian girl who, at the age of five, has been pronounced a maths prodigy by her teacher. It made the Booker longlist, was shortlisted for the Costa, and justifiably marked out Lalwani a finalist for the Sunday Times (London) Best Young Writer Award in 2008 as an author to watch.
The Village, her second novel, is at once a more measured and ambitious offering. It is set in a fictional open prison called Ashwer, presumably somewhere in Rajashthan. The prison is a social experiment which allows convicts who have been let out of conventional prisons for good behaviour to complete the rest of their sentences there. It is mandatory that the convicts live with their families and provide for them. Beneath the surface of this incursion into community living, eddy the cross currents of various conflicts; often hidden from public view, lie the always intricate, often frightening stories of Ashwers inmates.
Ray Bhullar, a BBC journalist of Indian descent, keen on making her directorial debut for television with a programme on how Ashwer works, arrives at this open prison. Along with Ray, we have the programmes producer, Serena, a flinty, thoroughly professional Englishwoman filled with the sort of certitude and self- reliance that Ray eschews; and Nathan, a former convict who will present the programme.
The tensions between Ray, Serena and Nathan on a number of levels and about a number of issues comprise the narrative engine of the novel. Ray and Serena disagree about what ought to be in the programme; about how one ought to go about getting the material one wants; about their attitudes to their jobs, their colleagues, the country from which they have come, and the country in which they are. Lalwani immerses her characters in a pool brimming with the contradictory tugs and pulls of professional, political and sexual impulses. She then watches them swim, sink or barely keep afloat.
The landscape alien to Ray and her colleagues, often extreme, just as often spectacular and spectacularly bursting with colours is less a backdrop than a character in this fine novel. Lalwanis grasp of it, especially of the quality and the texture of its light, is sure; and her depiction of it is filled with details that not only bring the landscape alive, but invest it with portentousness. The air had density, peppered with the sepia haze of rock debris suspended in the light. It was thrilling, combustible, like gun powder.
As she did in the case of Rumika, the endearing protagonist of her first novel, Lalwani is much at home in the interior world of Ray. In parts idealistic, ambitious, conflicted and confounded, but with a strong moral intelligence at her core, Ray is a beautifully realised character. And it is because of the manner in which Lalwani sets Ray up and develops her character that the dramatic denouement towards which the novel hurtles seems utterly credible and convincing.
The novel is peopled by murderers and felons, and it derives a great deal of its power from the manner in which Lalwani refuses to judge any of these characters. Despite the evident quality of her debut, Lalwani does not have in India the following she deserves. The Village ought to fetch her that.