The broadcaster Alistair Cooke once spoke about the “conflict between professional pride and human revulsion, between having the feelings and then having to sit down and write them.” The protagonist of Nikita Lalwani’s clear-eyed latest novel, The Village, does not see this conflict coming until it explodes in her face.
Optimistic young camerawoman Ray Bullar has just travelled from London to India to make her first BBC piece. The village of the title is actually a low-security “open” prison for well-behaved murders, and Ray, her bossy senior colleague Serena and presenter Nathan—himself an ex-offender, although not a murderer, he is quick to point out—are there to interview its inhabitants, who have killed for passion, property, personal vengeance, and self-protection: many of the women were striking back against their abusive husbands.
Ray’s British Indianness, or Indian Britishness, puts her in a difficult position, stuck between the locals and her white British co-workers. She speaks only hesitant Hindi but tries to translate; at one moment of difficulty, Serena snaps, “I thought you were fully bilingual.” Ray rhapsodizes to Nathan “that she was Indian and that the British audience would see this film and understand what being Indian really means. How much beauty, honesty, trust…there was in this country.” At the same time, she wonders if she should sleep with a weapon and discovers she is not immune from tourist hazards like “loose movements” and getting ripped off by the locals. The inmates are deeply suspicious of the visitors with cameras, especially Ray. One scoffs, “She lives with whites…When you’re around it long enough, then colour sticks.”
Ray is torn between her colleagues and her subjects in another way as well. Ray wants the piece to be “ethical and empathetic…a non-judgmental slice of life inside the prison system,” although once she meets some of the prisoners, especially Nandini, an inmate who’s training as a women’s counsellor, she starts to realise how impossible it would be to remain objective. But Serena and Nathan become increasingly desperate to find the drama they think will make for a compelling programme. Lalwani skillfully ramps up this tension, which becomes personal as well as professional. Eventually, the BBC crew’s need for a story leads them to meddle in the lives of the inmates, including Nandini, with terrible consequences.
Lalwani’s main character is as complex and nuanced as her novel. Ray is both idealistic and ambitious, eager to make good on the first commission she’s received in her five years at the BBC, both appealingly enthusiastic but prickly at times, “volatile,” as she puts it herself. Ray envies Serena her calm exterior, but the events of the novel show that this indifference is actually a kind of moral callousness, while Ray ultimately realizes, and tries to atone for, her enormous mistakes with a final, life-changing decision.