How morals and manipulation collide in an open prison.
The Gifted writer — gifted used literally as well as metaphorically — Nikita Lalwani’s debut book was a 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 long list and a Costa short list on its way to winning 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 the 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 with 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 descent, a virgin and strict vegetarian. Serena, the domineering producer, and Nathan, the ex-criminal and eccentric presenter, are the other members of team.
Initially, things go as planned by Ray i.e. to make a documentary following professional and personal ethics. But, 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 and, in doing so, 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.
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. 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 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 reality shows?
The Village; Nikita Lalwani, Penguin, Rs.399