Millennium Post

‘Read as much as you can’

Nikita Lalwani, whose first book Gifted was longlisted for Man Booker Prize
in 2007, talks about her latest book,
The Village, and becoming a writer.

A BBC film crew is sent to India to make a documentary about an Indian prison that is different. There are no walls, the prisoners hold jobs and their families live with them. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it seems like an ordinary village, which is all the more unusual when you consider that 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 are sorely disappointed.

This is Nikita Lalwani’s second book, The Village, following the critically acclaimed Gifted. Cardiff born, but raised in India, the author has something in common with her creation Ray. Nikita also knows what it’s like to straddle two cultures.

In an exclusive interview with Millennium Post, Nikita talks about her book, her success stories in rehabilitating Indian prisoners and the state of women’s rights in India. Excerpts:

How would you class The Village in terms of genre?

It’s a kind of contemporary morality tale, a closed community story.

How is The Village different from your last book Gifted

The subject matter is entirely different with larger cast of characters and different landscape.

Are open prisons considered successful in rehabilitating prisoners?

The prison village that I visited, on which The Village is based, is very successful in rehabilitating lifers, over the past 40 or 50 years.

Some of the killings committed by female prisoners are clear cases of self-defence against abusive husbands. Why do you think India still falls short on women’s rights?

It’s a complicated issue and varies from case to case. Sometimes it is economic, and to do with inequality, for example with dowry. At other times it is a similar form of abuse that you might find in any country, just with a different outlet or format to contextualise it. Rituals and traditions frame it. A lot is changing in India and there are many activists working to empower women in terms of asserting basic rights.

How has being longlisted for the Booker affected you and your writing?

You always think these things don’t really affect you, but they must do somehow, subliminally. I think it just made me more visible in practical terms, for example I was lucky enough to get a readership in diverse countries and be part of the dialogue.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I used to love all those blazing Amar Chitra Katha comics, Panchatantra, etc. And the Narnia series by C S Lewis was my favourite. Mythic stuff interests me.

Who are the writers you look up to?

I’m not too sure if I could class it as ‘looking up to’, but I admire the work of Mavis Gallant, James Salter, Doris Lessing, J M Coetzee and Salman Rushdie.

Who/what inspires you to write?

Odd stories and details of life that I encounter and can’t stop thinking about. The attempt to understand events, decisions made by myself and other people.

What advice would you give to new writers?

It’s simple. Read as much as you can. Not just for pleasure, but to learn, with a watchful and analytical eye. Try and understand the structure and rhythm of the books that you love.

What are you working on now?

A new novel, which is still in the nebulous early stages.
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