'The Village': A storyteller's dilemma in India

Novelist Nikita Lalwani draws upon her own experiences working at the BBC in the 1990s to tell the story of good intentions gone awry


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"The Village," the second novel by the British-South Asian writer Nikita Lalwani, explores the complex and freighted relationship between storyteller and subject in an environment especially susceptible to cultural misunderstanding and offense. This intelligent and disturbing book dramatically illustrates how the intense pressure to create a media piece that will captivate an audience can distort the best of intentions.

The story unfolds in the village of Ashwer, in rural India. The village seems typical of the region: modest houses, women in colorful saris cooking and caring for children, men and women engaged in various occupations, a few leaving the village each day to attend college or work at businesses in a neighboring town.


"THE VILLAGE"

By Nikita Lalwani
Random House ($26).


In fact, Ashwer is an "open prison village," one of many that have been operating in India since the 1960s, where the prisoners are free to come and go as they please.

Ashwer is unique in that the prisoners' families can -- in fact, must -- live in the village with the prisoners, and also because every convict in the prison has been convicted of killing someone -- perpetrators of "crimes of passion, property, and personal vengeance." Amazingly, in 20 years of operation, only one inmate has tried to escape, and none have reoffended.

This visionary model prison attracts a BBC film crew from a television series, "Doing Time," which aims to present a "nonjudgmental slice of life inside the prison system."

The English Serena is an experienced producer, overbearing and impatient; Nathan, the presenter, has himself served 13 years in various British jails, and is ever alert to opportunities to sample local drugs; Ray Bhullar, a first-time director, born in India and raised in Britain, is insecure, overly sensitive and feeling the burden of her dual identity.

Desperate to be embraced by both worlds, Serena finds that she is not fully accepted by either. Ray's idealistic and deeply held desire is to create an "ethical and empathetic" documentary, to show the British audience "what being Indian really means. How much beauty, honesty, trust, dignity and inspiration there was in this country. That it was more forward-thinking, this project, than anything you could find in the West."

She recognizes the power television has to shape the views and understanding of millions of people, and wants to make a start on "disemboweling the colonial legacy, the established hierarchies of East and West."

Of course, she doesn't stand a chance. Serena and Nathan push Ray to "make something happen" and to "charm" the villagers through her Hindi language skills.

Frustrated with her too-gentle and respectful approach, they enlist their BBC editor in London to send an embarrassing reminder to Ray that a compelling narrative requires "conflict, jeopardy, etc., usual stuff. ... What kind of revealing actuality will we see on screen? The more conflict we see with our own eyes, the better, but you know that, of course."

Not confident enough to follow her own instincts to make the "heartbreakingly beautiful" film she envisioned, Ray agrees to depict the tragic story of Nandini, an educated woman who serves as a counselor to fellow women inmates.

She was convicted of killing her mother-in-law in the course of defending herself against an attempt by her abusive husband to set her on fire. Nandini had befriended and helped Ray from her first days at Ashwer, but that provides no protection from the intrusive actions of the film crew, aimed at stirring up some drama on the screen.

Muting her humanity and empathy, Ray becomes "like a camera with my shutter open. She heard the internal narrator, harsh and unwelcome in her head: Bingo. It's a money shot." The outcome of their scheme is heartbreakingly awful.

Ms. Lalwani -- herself born in India, raised in Wales and educated in England -- draws upon her own experiences working at the BBC in the 1990s, during which time a visit to an open prison made an indelible impression.

It's hard to resist seeing Ray as a proxy for the author as she works through the moral maze inherent in the production of this documentary (Ms. Lalwani chose to leave the field), at the same time confronting issues of personal identity, complicated by post-colonial attitudes and prejudices on both sides.

The result is a sharply observed, highly personal book that serves as a caveat to both producers and consumers of all genres of media.

bookreviews

Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (eweiner100@gmail.com).


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