Author Nikita Lalwani ventures into some dark zones to shed light on some bright spots there

So, The Village has hit the cities! And Nikita Lalwani, the gifted, the much-feted author, can continue to smile. The book is getting favourable reviews. It is early days yet and Nikita is humble enough to talk of the plot, how the novel does a tightrope between the reality of a documentary and the limitations of the same in ushering in social change. She talks of three persons, each of whom brings a different mindset to work in a village in India where a system of open prison is in place. In some ways, the plot of an open prison reform, strikes a chord with the moviegoers well versed with a film like Do Aankhen Barah Haath that talked of something similar a little over 50 years ago. Little wonder, the Rajasthan-born, Cardiff-settled amiable author, is happy to talk of The Village. As an author, she strikes a pretty picture; the work though speaks for itself.

There is an ongoing debate about the conflict between real Bharat and media's India. To what extent do you think The Village opens a window to real Bharat?

Much of India is still rural, and The Village is set in that particular environment – you don't see much of India as a global player or city life, the new money that forms a slice of the Indian economy. With regard to the ‘real Bharat', it's of course for the reader to decide, especially an Indian reader. The novel operates at quite a detailed level in terms of the practicalities of daily life – of living in a village which is also a prison: sustaining yourself and your family through revenue from work of some kind in the local market or on site, sending your children to the local school in the early hours of the morning, cooking food and washing dishes or clothes in the small space of the hut where you live. That kind of thing.

The Village, in some ways, takes us back to the days when the concept of open prisons was mooted as part of reformative justice in India. In 1950s, there was even a Hindi film Do Ankhen Barah Haath by ace director V. Shantaram that tackled a similar subject. Yet the novel's worth goes beyond nostalgia. Isn't it more a comment on the value system of the society?

The Village is modelled on a real life open prison which I have visited in Rajasthan a couple of times over the years. There have been very few escapes since the camp was set up, over 50 years ago, and no reoffending as far as they know. Such dramatic statistics got me thinking about the meaning of such a place – what did it say about punishment and rehabilitation of life prisoners, I suppose the novel is an attempt to explore some of those questions.

Does not Ray, a principal character, get caught in twin identities of Britain and India? Isn't it partly because there are questions asked about her presence? An outsider everywhere?

That is a very interesting way to view her. I think she is an odd shape, for sure, in terms of fitting easily into either culture. She'd like to be ‘Indian' in a simpler way than is possible once she arrives on site. As she becomes more involved with the inhabitants of the village, her identity is very much in flux, much like her personal sense of right or wrong.

The three lead characters, each of whom has a distinct value system, however, seem to operate in a world of moral anomie....

I think the way in which we create moral codes when we are in a group is very interesting – what is deemed acceptable by one set of people who have come together may not be acceptable to another group. This tension is very much at the heart of The Village – Ray wants to ‘do the right thing' but she fluctuates as to what that actually means or should mean, with complicated consequences. The other two members of her team are much more certain of their value systems, as you have pointed out, and they choose to act accordingly.

The book is spun around a documentary. To what extent do you think a book or for that matter a documentary, however realistic, can help in changing the boundaries of people's lives? They certainly cannot replace an activist...

I think documentaries have the power to harness activism in a very egalitarian and accessible way. They can certainly make you feel something for a person you may never have considered before. That kind of power can be dangerous of course, if it is not thought through. Compelling stories require conflict, tension, resolution, and a documentary where these things are not presenting themselves organically may need some manipulation during filming, to make it good viewing, which opens up questions about ‘truth' and the representation of reality – things that were very much on my mind during the writing of The Village.

I know it is cliched, but does not the success of the first book bog one down....maybe in the inner recesses of mind one knows there is a benchmark....?

Yes, this question is very valid! I was not bogged down by the success of Gifted, I think, as I was aiming to write a very different kind of book with The Village – a broad canvas with many characters, but I was often suffused with anxiety about being up to the task of really saying something about this extraordinary place I had visited – the open prison. That anxiety often held me up and caused periods of block – I wanted to do the subject justice. When I emerged from those tunnels of silence, I would write in a much more meticulous manner and was really much happier with the result – I suppose that is part of the writing process.

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