A provocative, thought-inducing and extremely interesting second novel written adeptly by the talented Nikita Lalwani – The Village is a bifocal representation of a fictitious open-prison set in a rural area in India (prototypical of genuine open prisons that have been operating in India for years).
Lalwani tells the story of Ray Bhullar – an uptight, fractious and paranoid British-Asian who has come to Ashwer (an open-prison village residing 48 families) to film her first commissioned work for the BBC. Accompanying her is the tyrannical Serena who is the producer of the shower, and the overconfident, hotshot Nathan who is an ex convict and the presenter of the show. The three share an extremely temperamental equation – which primarily consists of Ray vs. the other two – that progresses within the plot. Insofar as the story is concerned, Lalwani has attempted to varnish a beautifully conceptualised story and managed to execute it tactfully.
Ray is insecure and contentious and in her attempts to ‘fit in’ with the villagers, she speaks broken Hindi, labels herself as a vegetarian and even spends time with the villagers – Nandini in particular – as if they were her kinsfolk. Serena just wants to stir up some zesty trouble to get useful content for the show whereas Ray wants to depict the truth. It is in the clash of their interests that the lives of the villagers are hindered and the humdrum of their daily antics obstructed.
The reader feels a high level of empathy for the villagers even though the reader is aware that within them reside murderers and convicts. To the reader, it is the Brits who are the intruders, outsiders, the people whom don’t belong in this society. It is a battle between autonomy, freedom and the right to truth. Depiction of the villager’s lives is of vital significance for the crew, but at what cost is this depiction being made?
There are other central characters that help stimulate interest – such as Nandini and Jyoti – and remind the reader that this is a prison and people who reside in it have committed acts that the majority would consider immoral. However, as the plot unfolds, the reader begins to question the moral value attached to crimes that result from dogmatist and chauvinistic aggression aimed at the accused. It becomes a battle of emotions, morals, power and principle and the importance of humanity. The reader begins to question the intentions of the Brits to the extent that they become the bad guy, manipulating the villagers for their own selfish gain.
Eventually, when the climax settles and Ray does something unforeseen, the whole novel comes together and the reader can’t help but applaud the creative ability of Lalwani.
Lalwani is an exceptional writer and she is setting a wonderful trend for South Asian writers to experiment with diverse styles of writing that remain effective. This novel is definitely a must-read for anyone who wishes to gain valuable literary skills and gain so much more about painfully well-written literature such as The Village.
The level of description of every day, hour and minute that Ray resides in Ashwer is enchantingly illustrated. Lalwani’s method of conceptualising has settled on an extremely high level and the quality of her prose is remarkable in its presentation. I can’t begin to explain the extent to which each page was brimming with alluring chronicles just waiting to be read.
This novel was definitely one that has outshone in the category of literary fiction. However, I do feel that where literary form excelled, the story, the empathetic emotion derived from the plot and the way the plot unfolded all took a backseat. Of course, any reader would appreciate the level of skill that an author has in being able to depict places, events and people as well as Lalwani managed to. However, one cannot ignore the importance of a story that the reader can understand, characters that the reader is able to relate to and empathise towards and relationships that the reader can value.
At times, I felt that the descriptive element took the spotlight and I was watching the events unfold through a thick-skinned lens rather than experiencing those events with the characters themselves. At other times, I felt that the shallow, counterproductive and unbalanced relationship between the three Brits overshadowed the relations between the villagers and the stories of some characters. I understand the importance of depiction; however, I feel that if it had taken a backseat intermittently, then the reader could have had the opportunity to meet more characters, to indulge in more stories. And that will be my only complaint with this novel.
Other than this I can affirm the magnitude of literary knowledge and skills that I obtained from reading this one compacted text. Thank you Nikita!
I highly recommend this book for all kinds of writers who engage in critical reading and wish to dissect a rich, valuable piece of text that they will learn so much from.
Until next week,