Ray is in an idealistic, somewhat confused BBC journalist about to make her first commissioned programme. Nandini is serving a sentence in an open prison in India for the stabbing of her mother-in-law. The programme needs to be sharp, punchy, capable of pulling the viewers in, and so Ray is given a crew consisting of the producer Serena and an ex-con turned TV presenter Nathan.
Had a crew shown up in some village in the West, it would probably be a different story. Our hunger for fame and obsession with television would draw the crowds in, only too happy to get their sob story on TV. But this Indian village doesn’t take too well to the visitors. The villagers have to be polite – they don’t have a choice, under the prison governor’s orders. But they are suspicious, and the fact that Ray is of Indian descent does not make them trust or like her any more. In fact, the only person that Ray seems to have gotten on her side is Nandini, an inmate too but also a counsellor in the prison, someone who seems to want to make a difference.
Ray may be naïve but it doesn’t stop her from quickly realising that Nandini’s story could become the highlight of the whole programme. But as she is half-grooming Nandini for an on-camera interview, her colleagues aren’t sitting on their hands. They have a plan, and as it unfolds, so will the depth of Ray’s discomfort at her task, and her identity.
This is Lalwani’s second novel. Her first one, Gifted, was met with praise and longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2007. The Village is subtle and multi-dimensional. There are the obvious themes of inequality and corruption that are rife in India and the sensationalist culture of British television, but there is also the theme of an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite belong to either of the cultures, and is not fully accepted by either. ‘I resemble everyone but myself…’ starts the novel with an extract from a poem Self-Portrait by A.K. Ramanujan. Ray looks like the villagers, she dresses like her English co-workers. She portrays herself as a ‘veg’ – a choice for the upper classes in India – until we find out about her secret rendezvous with chicken at a local curry house. She is horrified when Serena and Nathan tell her about their ploy and yet she persuades Nandini to meet with her ex-husband on camera, telling her that it would be beneficial for other women in a similar situation. Maybe it would, only Ray herself knows that this programme will never be seen by the women that might need the help.
Lalwani’s prose is subtle, lulling, calm. Even the most dramatic moments are written quite gently, and the impact of the events doesn’t sink in straight away, maybe in a similar way as it sometimes happens in real life. But gentle can still be strong, and The Village is definitely a novel worth reading, and thinking about.
Any Cop?: A thought-provoking novel about identity and the choices that we all make.