The long-awaited follow-up to the critically acclaimed, Booker longlisted Gifted, a provocative novel about an experimental open prison in India and the havoc a team of journalists wreaks on the delicate moral code of the inmates.
After a long journey from England, Ray Bhullar arrives early on a winter morning at the gates of a remote Indian village called Ashwer which will be her home for the next three months. The door of the hut she will share with Serena, her English co-worker, is a loose sheet of metal, the windows simple holes in the walls. Beyond the lockless door, village life goes on as usual. And yet, the village is anything but normal. Despite the domestic chores being carried out, cooking, fetching water and sewing and laundering linens, Ashwer is a village of murderers, an experimental open prison. And when Ray and her crew take up residence, to observe and to make a documentary, it seems that they are innocent visitors into a violent world, on a mission to hold the place up to viewers as the ultimate example of tolerance. But the longer Ray and her colleagues stay and their need for drama intensifies, the line between innocence and guilt begins to blur and an unexpected and terrifying new kind of cruelty emerges. A mesmerizing and heartfelt tale of manipulation and personal morality, Nikita Lalwani's new novel brilliantly exposes how truly frail our moral judgment can be.
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NIKITA LALWANI was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. Her first novel, Gifted, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction. Nikita was also shortlisted for the 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. She lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 five-hour 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.
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Book Description Penguin, 2012. Book Condition: New. Ships from the UK. BRAND NEW. Bookseller Inventory # GRP74011725
Book Description Penguin, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. 256 pages. 7.64x5.04x0.87 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # zk0141030402
Book Description Penguin Books Ltd. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110141030402