An extract from Nikita Lalwani’s novel ‘The Village’

In the lead up to xx minifest we shall be posting teaser extracts of writing from our artists so that you can see how great they are and remember to buy tickets. Today we publish an extract of Nikita Lalwani’s novel The Village. Nikita will be appearing in conversation with Carole Burns at xx festival at 3pm this Saturday 27 October.

‘ (An) extraordinary novel … Lalwani writes with wonderful clarity and intelligence.’ The Times on The Village

Nikita Lalwani’s second novel The Village was published by Viking UK on 7 June 2012. Set in a village modelled on a real-life open prison in India, The Village is a gripping story about manipulation and personal morality, about how truly frail our moral judgement can be.

Below is an extract from Chapter 1:

1.

The security men are watching Ray. They regard her with a perfect indifference. There are three of them, of varying heights, their belted khaki safari suits finished cleanly with the bright gloss of winter sunlight. They loiter at the entry gate, two of them standing arm in arm, dwarfed by the high peepal trees behind them, the branches against the sky. The earth around them is pale and heavy, the color of gram flour, interrupted rarely by weeds. They do not seem self-conscious. The third guard sits on the knee-high wall that forms the boundary of the hamlet, right against the road that connects the local farms to the main town. He is older than the other two. His hair seems paint-stained, the white unnaturally thick over the gray brush beneath. The badge on his cap glints in the sun. Ray can see the light flash as he turns, even at this distance. His posture is correct; a long neck lends him significance as he twitches abruptly to take in his surroundings, alert and urgent.
She sets about unpacking the equipment on the veranda, looking up and back at the three of them every minute or so, a reflex that she is unable to control. They are the people who met her upon arrival, just one hour ago, but they seem so different from the vantage point of the hut. She looks to see if they are still staring, hoping that they might now be bored of it. She remains in dialogue with them like this, brief flickers of acknowledgment, collisions of sight that are barely noticeable, until she can do it no longer. She takes the kit back into the hut.
The car had been sent to meet Ray at Delhi airport, a few minutes after midnight: a battered mini Maruti in baby blue, bobbled white towels smoothed over and tucked into the backseats to defend against passenger sweat. It was a five­hour road trip to their destination, and she clutched at sleep as they hurtled through the dark cylinder of night sky. She was childlike in her fatigue, screwing her eyes up at the lights of oncoming trucks, hugging the camera bags to protect the equipment from shock turns, the violent bends in the road. Finally, as the engine began to slow, she passed through the gates of the Ashwer compound in a state of vague hallucination, her breathing muffled by the heat as she shook herself awake. The car was being followed by a string of kids. She could see them through the back windscreen in school tunics and shorts, fluttering together and apart like the ribboned tail of a kite.
The compound itself was a semicircular shape, the road forming the straight line, the huts nestled in the curve of the crescent. Beyond a small hillock, a thin slick of a river was visible behind the settlement, the banks dotted with distant figures and scattered patches of brightly colored material. Between this area and the road stretched a dry acre of desert soil, populated by little other than the trees and occasional farm animals—a handful of buffaloes were resting on their haunches beneath the shade of a central tree, a cluster of thin, hunchbacked goats stood nearby, shaking their floppy ears, their skin camouflaged in patterns of brown and white.
The three security guards were there to receive her. Two of them set about dispersing the children, who were crowding around the car now it had stopped. The third opened the car door and summoned a tall teenage boy, dressed in a white vest and cotton trousers, to unload the luggage. Ray lifted her own suitcase out of the boot, in spite of protests.
“Your colleague has taken breakfast,” said the guard who was dealing with the bags. He was a short young man with a trim mustache and round face, mahogany skin that was firm and clear, uninterrupted by facial expression. He spoke with a slightly nasal tone. Helping the boy balance the pieces of kit on his head, he said, “This boy . . . he will take you to your quarters.”
Ray stared at the cushioned blue camera bags and radio-mic briefcase stacked on the boy’s head, his long arms reaching up to stabilize them, the sweat beginning to streak down the back of his neck, just dissolving at the top of his vest.
The guard handed the boy a tiffin.
“No, no!” said Ray, moving forward. “I can carry that, don’t worry.” That he should be expected to carry her food in addition to everything, it was too much.
The guard dismissed her with a raised hand, closing his eyes in an expression of tolerance and shaking his head simultaneously. The boy released one hand expertly from the items on his head, bending his knees slightly to take the weight. He extended his left arm so that the guard could hook the top handle of the tiffin over and thread it through to his armpit. It hung from his shoulder, the layered steel column jutting out at an angle. The guard patted the boy on the back, as if to acknowledge that the job was not an easy one, and gestured at him to start walking.
“Lunch tiffin delivery is at twelve noon daily,” he said to Ray. “Dinner delivered at seven P.M. Breakfast at seven A.M. As per arrangements of Thakur Sahib. Your tiffin is pure veg as per request. The others in your team are designated non-veg.”
Ray thanked him and walked quickly after the boy, rolling her suitcase along the earth. The bags teetered on his head. She wanted to trust him, but anxiety propelled her forward. The kit was so delicate; there was no way he could know what he was carrying. He was weaving his way quickly through the central expanse of the field, already under the shade of the first peepal, his bare feet slapping down in quick repetition so that he was walking in a style that was almost running, heaving his gangly form in a jerky motion to accommodate the weight on his head. She pulled her suitcase forcefully on the uneven ground. It was too heavy for her to carry, in spite of her remonstrations to the guards, and now she winced at the drone. Birds circling above squeaked tightly, innocently. As they approached the settlement, she saw a white bullock rubbing itself against a small tree, horns flashing.
She was surprised by the harmony and calm of the scene before her, even if it did fulfill her expectations, adhering to the descriptions she’d fashioned for the program pitch back in London. There were no pictures of Ashwer online; instead she had based her idea of the place on a couple of articles from the local press, blending these particular details with the images of rural India that had entered her subconscious from watching television over the years. She mistrusted the sense of familiarity, and yet it did feel how she’d imagined. She looked back across the dusty field at the guards. They were now bathed in the blush of morning light, tinted with the color of pale peach flesh. It caressed them, this light, softened their forms as they sat on the wall, legs stretched out in poses of relaxation, a couple of them smoking.
She entered a matrix of short earthen paths, closer to the boy she was following. Around fifty dwellings faced one another in four huddled rows, separated by low fences roughly hewn from thick branches and stuffed with straw, leading to a tall iron water pump. Some homes were built of brick or stone, but many were not—their walls were made from the same corrugated sheet metal that formed the roofs of other accommodation, long gaps visible at the joints. Others had thatched roofs in straw and wood. The front yards stored rolled-up plastic sheeting and thick bundles of spindly twigs in baskets or old wooden crates. A pylon at the back of the area lunged up toward the clouds.
She could hear sounds of people from behind closed doors, but there were only brief glimpses of the figures in the houses: a snatch of crimson sari through the hollow space of a doorway, a chunky man in checkered lungi and sweater drinking tea on a plastic chair, posters of Hindu gods and goddesses hanging from a clothesline against an interior wall. The noises were powerful. She heard the rattle of machinery, steel dishes, voices that she could decipher only by tone—jokes, commands, questions. Hens fluttered and dispersed with the same vocal forcefulness. She could smell fresh cow dung and baking parathas on the smoke in the breeze. A bony teenage boy washed himself in the front yard of one home, standing in his briefs and pouring water from a bucket over his head with a jug, both utensils made of thick plastic with a marble-effect swirl of pink and white. A huddle of five rabbits chewed on sparse leaves in a pile of branches near him. He grinned with familiarity at Ray’s rushing companion, the smile faltering when he saw Ray a few yards behind. She looked at the ground, unsure as to what the most respectful response should be, her cheeks flushing.
They reached a white stone hut at the end of the right-hand row, the door fully open. Inside, the boy slowly lowered himself down to a squatting position, calves straining to prevent the equipment from falling.
“I . . . Can I help?” said Ray. “Mein . . . help . . . karoon?”
The boy dislodged all the luggage safely, unhooked the tiffin, and stood up, taking a handkerchief from the back pocket of his trousers. He began wiping his neck in broad strokes. She could see his features properly for the first time: a sloppy fringe, defiant jawline; the preoccupied face of an adolescent perched precariously on an overgrown body.
Mein chala, madam?” he said. I’ll go, madam?
He squinted as a drop of sweat slid into one eye. She felt a sharp contraction of guilt.
Aap . . . pani lahenge?” said Ray. Would you . . . like some water?
She looked round the room and saw a bottle of mineral water, half full. She pointed at it and turned round. He was already outside, back on the veranda.
“Um . . .” said Ray, worried that she had only large notes, recently changed at the airport, no appropriate tip. Surely it was insulting to tip him, anyway. You could not assume that someone wanted your small change. In his case, she had no idea if this was part of his job or if he was just part of the welcome committee. Maybe he had to go to school now? Or work?
He took his leave by flicking his head up with a questioning expression, to indicate that he was waiting for her consent.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you for—”
He nodded and left before she could say any more.
There was a note from Serena on a small wooden cabinet.
Filming bits and pieces around the place—cutaways, GVs, just getting used to it. Team meeting tomorrow night once Nathan arrives? N.B. Governor walk and talk in the morning.
Serena had been here for twenty-four hours, and seemed to have made very little impact on the space. Her suitcases were under the bed she had occupied for sleep—there were two of them in the room, at opposite ends—wooden frames bound tightly with thick woven rope. A book lay on her pillow with some folded pajamas. There was a metal cabinet next to her bed, and a small wooden desk supporting the shooting scripts, travel documents, and a location schedule in which airport details had been highlighted with a luminous marker. Nathan, the final member of the team, would arrive tomorrow. Serena was due to coordinate his pickup.
Ray sat on the other bed and checked her mobile phone. There was no signal. She looked around. “A one-room hut with outside latrine” was how it had been described to her on the phone during the planning phase. It was an accurate description, but nothing had prepared her for simple details: the lack of glass in the windows (a series of holes in circles and hexagons, the size of her palm), likewise the absence of a lock on the “door” (a curved sheet of metal) that she pulled into place so that the gap at the joint was as narrow as possible, just two or three inches.
Wires sloped against the walls, seemingly at random, suspending a low bulb and trailing down to the ground. The walls were painted in turquoise; the floor seemed to be a treated version of the earth outside: a hardened texture, dusty, colored like slate rather than sand. She rammed her heel against it a few times. Maybe it was mixed with concrete. The kitchen area was a couple of feet wide and ran the width of the hut to the right side. It was sectioned off from the rest of the room by a low stone divider that also functioned as a work surface, supporting a stove and a few dishes on one side. There was a tap in the wall with a bucket underneath. Washing powder had been left by the bucket in a string of small transparent sachets. It had a bluish white tint, much like the external walls of the hut. She could see very little other furniture in the room. In the left corner there was a hanging of thin primrose-yellow muslin, drawn back to expose a bathing area: a tap in the wall near the ceiling, six feet from the floor, and a wide corner hole ready to drain water into the ground.
It gave her a little thrill, the sparsity of the environment, the uneven bristle of the rope underneath her thighs and hips as she unlaced her trainers and sat cross-legged on the charpoy. Their hut was just like the others. It promised sincerity, somehow; the chance of empathy with the people they would be filming.
Ray lay down on the empty bed. The heat was on her, a rash of disaffection that went against her best intentions, running all over her body, underneath her combat trousers, the long-sleeved jersey top. The air was dense, utterly devoid of movement. She craved nudity, the ability to remove all of her clothes and cool openly in the stillness. Even her thoughts felt soaked in sweat now that she was alone, able to relax. She stared at the ceiling, wondering at the sound that rain would make on the tin during monsoon. Torrential rain, running in rivulets through the grooves—hammering, battering on the metal, seeping in through the spaces, and trickling down the walls. Again, there was a small charge, the recognizable curlicue of excitement in her chest. They would live like the locals, deal with these eventualities in the established ways.
She pushed herself up and took her top off, began to unhook her bra. She looked down at her breasts, which felt suddenly huge, licked with sweat, the dark nipples like eyes on the hunt, ready for something erotic. Noise seemed to swell outside. It was the innocuous soundtrack of industry. People were cooking, working, tending to animals, washing dishes and clothes. Children were shouting out as they set off for school. She put the garments back on, confused by decorum, how to place her privacy, aware that she was very close to everything outside, possibly even visible if someone walked past, looked in for a moment through the gap in the door or one of the window holes.
She felt claustrophobic in her privilege, opening the tiffin and unslotting the three compartments in the steel tower. Food would be delivered to them every day while they were here, and they were to leave the empty tiffins for collection. Bottled water was to come with every meal. They were unlikely to use the kitchen area. She began to eat, ripping a chapatti and dipping it in green dal before using it to scoop up some fried okra. It tasted good, full of salt and satisfyingly spiced.
Then she washed her body as quickly as possible. She pulled the muslin tightly across the shower corner of the room, concealing herself even though she was alone.
She emerged from the hut, a small camera in her hand, A4-sized rucksack on her back containing notes and a shooting script. She was likely to bump into Serena, and didn’t want to have to return to the hut to get material.
There was a man stitching with a large sewing machine at a table in the front yard of the hut opposite Ray’s. The machine rattled loudly. He wore a large turban of pale pink, a perfect coil of cloth. It dominated him, towering above his oval, pockmarked face. His hut looked similar to her own, the white bricks emitting a fierce sheen in the sun. A plaited cane door, half open, revealed a woman sitting on the floor, working a needle into a mustard sheet of cloth, part of her sari pulled over her head to form a ghoonghat, hiding her face. They both looked up at Ray, stared in her direction for a few moments.
Ray pressed her hands together in greeting, projecting an enthusiastic mixture of hello and namaste. She gave a nod that was exaggerated enough to be almost a bow. The man nodded back, his gaze flickering away from sustained eye contact.
She made her way to the water pump, feeling the dust in the atmosphere, peppery in her nostrils, the heat presenting itself with a new candor. A girl was filling a huge earthenware pot. Her age was indeterminate, somewhere from midteens upward, and she was using her entire body: jumping up and bearing down on the handle in a perfect rhythm, over and over, accompanied by a large wail from the machinery each time. Her long skirt, blouse, and cardigan were all complementary in shape and hue—three different shades of purple—and her ponytail bobbed with crazy asymmetry against the sky. Ray lifted her camera and switched it on, using her other hand to adjust the focus.
“Aren’t you supposed to ask her permission?”
Ray jumped, shuddering so that the shot was rendered useless. A woman was standing behind her, smiling.
“Sorry. I hope I didn’t disturb you.” Her voice was as angular as her figure, the English spoken in a zigzag of local accent and quick rhythm. She wore a long, loose kameez in rough beige khadi cotton that reached her shins, wide salwar trousers underneath.
“Of course not,” said Ray. “I’m so sorry. It’s my mistake. I didn’t want to bother her really, but yes—” She took a breath and addressed the girl at the pump in Hindi. The girl had stopped work and was now pouring some of the water from the overflowing earthenware mutka pot into a smaller tureen.
Aap ka filming kiya mein ne, bina puchhe. Aap ko . . .” I filmed you without asking. You . . .
Ray searched for the Hindi word and then inserted an English word instead.
Aapne mind toh nahin kiya?” You don’t mind?
The girl smiled and shook her head. She lifted the larger pot and began to walk back to her home.
“Everyone’s so polite here,” said Ray.
The woman laughed, cocking an eyebrow. “Why do you think? It is hardly surprising.”
“You think they need to be on ‘good behavior’ for this place to work?” said Ray.
“It is not about this place working, it is about you being here. Do you see anyone stick around when you start walking toward them?”
She was in her late twenties, tall and precise in her movements, her matte-black hair brushed into a long ponytail, thin and sleek down her back.
Ray looked around. There were a couple of figures visible, but they were at a distance. “Oh . . . You think it’s us, that we are scaring everyone away? It’s natural for people to be camera shy.”
The woman sniffed. It was a dismissive sound, mixed with a half laugh. “They think you work for the governor. Thakur Sahib, they call him. ‘Sir Lord.’ You’re going to be filming them for him. You have total and open access, I hear?”
“Yes, but we don’t want to offend anyone. I know it must feel like a great intrusion, one that you weren’t party to deciding, people coming and living on your land . . . Sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself—I’m Ray Bhullar, part of the BBC crew.”
“I’m Nandini.”
She took Ray’s hand, responding to the shake with a perfunctory slide, mostly fingertips.
Ray smiled, attempted a friendly tone of voice.
“Do you work here or are you a—”
Something about Nandini’s expression caught her off guard. She repeated herself, stumbling over the moment. “Do you work here or are you an . . . a . . .”
“Convict?” Nandini smiled. “Inmate? Prisoner? We have the same names here as in other countries, you know. You’re confused by the fact that I speak decent English?”
“No!” said Ray. “No, of course not . . .”
“I’m both. I teach and offer counseling here. I’m also on a sentence, which has thirty-eight months remaining on it.”
“I see. So how long was the sentence?”
“Fifteen years. Life. Like the rest. Shortened for good behavior. Everyone here is in for life. I thought you knew that?”
“Yes, I did . . . yes, of course. It is an extraordinary place.”
“Everyone here has killed someone.”

You can order The Village here in the UK.

3pm | NEW FICTION: NIKITA LALWANI

Nikita Lalwani

‘[An] extraordinary novel … Lalwani writes with wonderful clarity and intelligence.’ – The Times

Booker-longlisted prize-winning novelist Nikita Lalwani, who grew up in Cardiff, will read from her new novel The Village and discuss the book with Cardiff Metropolitan lecturer Carole Burns.

Nikita Lalwani’s first novel Gifted  was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It is currently being translated into 16 languages. In June 2008 Nikita Lalwani won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction, which she donated  to human rights organisation Liberty. Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff.

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