The Village by Nikita Lalwani

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The Village by Nikita Lalwani

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A riveting and powerful punch of a novel daring to ask big questions as western prying-eye television invades an Indian village/penal colony. Be warned: if you read this book, you'll never be able to watch another documentary without wondering.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670917082

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A BBC film crew is sent to India to make a documentary about an Indian prison with a difference. There are no walls, the prisoners hold down jobs and their families live with them as a condition of acceptance. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it seems like an ordinary village which is all the more unusual when you consider that they all share the same crime category; all the prisoners have been convicted of murder. The programme makers (20-something British-born, Indian director Ray, ruthless producer Serena and ex-convict-turned-presenter, Nathan) are expecting an eventful shoot and, in return, the inhabitants are expecting a film unit exhibiting the standards for which the BBC has become world famous. Both parties will be sorely disappointed.

This is Nikita Lalwani's second book, following the critically acclaimed Gifted. Cardiff born but raised in India, the author has something in common with her creation Ray in that Nikita also knows what it's like to straddle two cultures. For Ray this is an uncomfortable, alienating experience; she's a 'whitey' to the Indian villagers and yet similar to the villagers in the eyes of Serena and Nathan, her colour and bilingual ability brands her as a 'native'. Serena and Nathan manage to alienate Ray further by just being together. Are they really distancing themselves from Ray or just bonding? Are Ray's observations interpreted via her feelings of isolation? That's for the reader to decide. Whatever the conclusion, there is a depth there in which Nikita intentionally communicates the no man's land occupied, by extension, many British Indians.

Going back to Serena and Nathan, they may be deemed a little over the top. Despite being guests of a more modest (in all senses of the word) culture, they use sex and take drugs openly. Hence they become almost cartoon caricatures but perhaps this was the author's intension. Such emphasis brings them into even sharper relief against the 'criminals' surrounding them. The villagers are, after all, convicted killers and yet seem exemplary by comparison, leaving us to muse that not all the innocent are guilty and vice versa, especially as the story moves towards its sickening crescendo. (That sounds needlessly intellectual, but you'll understand as the novel unfolds. It's certainly not an arduous read.)

Ms Lalwani ensures that the villagers themselves aren't kept at a distance. Their suffering jumps social and cultural divides as their stories are told with poignancy and sensitivity as the village counsellor Nandini (herself a murderer) acts as a cultural guide as well as almost guardian of the villager's feelings. Murder as escape, murder as self-preservation, hardly any of the villagers have committed murder without provocation which is probably down to the sort of personality that would thrive in that environment rather than anything amiss with the writing. Having committed the one crime they need to in order to regain their humanity, the villagers are no longer a threat. Again this contrasts sharply with the fact that Nathan and Serena (and to some extent, even idealistic Ray) dispose of their humanity so readily. (I'd love to discuss that further but fear I'll be in spoiler country.)

There are some people who seem a bit single dimensioned (e.g. the Governor, Sujay Sanghvi) but to be honest it's not the individuals that you remember. The stories and rich culture that exists even in material poverty will linger, definitely, but the lasting resonance will be the loneliness of those who long to belong. We'll remember (and see around us) how, for many, misery and manipulation equate to entertainment and we'll remember the futility of judging by labels. For, what Nikita Lalwani has illustrated so unforgettably in The Village is that it doesn't always take walls to imprison; sometimes one's feelings or the perceptions of others can be just as effective.

I would like to thank Viking for providing The Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If this has piqued your interest for further novels based around Indian culture, then perhaps you'd also enjoy The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. If you'd like to read more about the immigrant experience from a different angle, then maybe White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

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