About The Author
Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff.
Her debut novel, Gifted, was published in 2007. Her story of a young maths prodigy struggling to cope with her family's expectations was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel and won the Desmond Elliott Award (the prize money for which she donated to human rights campaigners LIberty).
Her second novel is The Village. It sees a BBC documentary crew making a series of prison life travel to an open prison in India, where all the inmates have been convicted of murder. Despite the seriousness of their crimes, the prisoners live with their families and are free to come and go from the camp to find work, so long as they obey curfew. The prison in the novel is based on a real-life example.
Amongst the film crew are Ray, a British Indian who finds herself caught between two identities, the more cynical Serena and Nathan, their presenter who is himself an ex-convict. As the crew record life in the camp, they find themselves struggling to remain objective and begin to conduct themselves in questionable ways.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Nikita talks about success stories in rehabilitating Indian prisoners, the state of women's rights in India today and how manipulative television has become.
Questions & Answers
Your first novel was in contention for was a contender for number of prizes; did this success make the second novel easier or harder to tackle?
I don't think the prizes affected me as I was trying to write a different kind of novel with this one, with a much bigger cast and landscape. But I was affected by the reach of the idea, having to learn how to step up to it in a way, and do it justice. I went through many twists and turns with this book, at times tortuous, and then hugely relieving by the end, when I finally got to the nub of it.
You took a postgraduate course in Broadcast Journalism. How did this help with writing The Village?
One of the themes of the book is subject and object, watching and being watched - attempting to document or manipulate reality. That all began on that course I suppose.
Ray seems caught between her British and Indian identities. Is this because she's justifying her presence both to her hosts and to her colleagues on the documentary?
That's an interesting way to put it. I think she aspires to be something that requires more self-knowledge than she is able to access. Identity is part of this, she would hope it was much simpler to be 'British' or 'Indian' in any given situation, than it actually is.
Early on, Ray hopes that the documentary will be in service of the "greater good" but she becomes increasingly cynical. Do you think documentary making is still capable of this or has it become inherently parasitical?
I think documentary as a form possesses a huge power to effect change and communicate human emotion to a large audience, and those kinds of films will hopefully always be around. We are fascinated by 'true' stories, and a well-made documentary can make us care about people we may never have considered before. Ray is making a television programme and is gradually drawn in by the need for conflict and drama on screen to the detriment of the community around her. I do think that a lot of observational television has become extremely manipulative and heartless, yes, it has lost its boundaries.
Why is Nathan, the former prisoner who intended to be the documentary's on-screen presenter, better able to go with the flow of the unusual situation than either of his colleagues?
I suppose he is used to fractured situations, sitting with discomfort, he can see a universality in the way in which people interact with each other, it doesn't unnerve him.
India seems to operate a number of open prisons; are they generally considered successful in rehabilitating prisoners? And does the issue of corruption, with the wealthy usually able to avoid punishment, undermine its integrity?
The prison village that I visited, on which The Village is based, is very successful in rehabilitating lifers, over the past forty or fifty years hardly anyone has run away or reoffended. In terms of corruption I am sure that it has its place, but as there are less hierarchical elements than in a traditional prison, it seems unlikely that it affects the place much.
It is clear that some of the killings committed by female prisoners are clear cases of self-defence against abusive husbands. Why do you think India still fall 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. Much is changing in India and there are many activists working to empower women in terms of asserting basic rights.
Can you tell us what you'll be working on next?
I've started a new novel, which is still in the nebulous early stages. Tricky to say more than that at the moment!