Interview: Nikita Lalwani at 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival with new novel The Village
Booker Prize-nominee inspired by visit to open prison in India
This article is from 2012.
In 1998, Nikita Lalwani visited an open prison of convicted murderers in India, with the view to making a BBC documentary. What she saw there haunted her for years, eventually working its way out as The Village, the superb follow-up to her acclaimed debut Gifted. ‘I was obsessed with the place,’ Lalwani admits. ‘It’s totally hidden and no one has heard of it, even in the prison industry. Hardly anyone ever re-offends or escapes even though there’s no real security. It preyed on my mind in terms of what that says about punishment and rehabilitation. I kept thinking, “why is no one running away? And why is no one re-offending?” Those were the two things that haunted me. What does that say about why we kill people, or crime in general if it’s just a one-off thing?’
In her compelling novel, the themes of trust, culture clashes, relationship breakdowns and moral dilemmas with explosive consequences are treated with playful and beautifully tragi-comic storytelling. ‘The reason I write fiction based on real life events is often because you can’t answer the questions, and so you find yourself writing a novel as a way to do it. I feel I’ve got to a place now where I’m more at peace with the questions that prison posed. But do I have any answers? No,’ she laughs, ‘well none that I can articulate.’
The Booker Prize-longlisted Gifted was not an easy work to follow, and the enormity of telling this next story with its multitude of characters and scenes, and the aforementioned unanswerable questions almost tipped this mild-mannered writer over the edge. ‘It was like going into the vortex with a hurricane,’ she smiles. ‘I was tying myself up in knots over it for the first year and a half. I wanted to stand up and be equal to the task but ended up making the task bigger and bigger and it was really quite a painful process.’
Now a journalist, teacher and author, Lalwani describes The Village as ‘somewhere between an exposé and a confessional’ of her time working in the television industry. And the cynicism she portrays can, at times, make for pretty disturbing reading. ‘Ray [Bhullar, the book’s protagonist] was a useful way to explore a lot of the things that occurred to me while I was at the BBC. The situations she finds herself in and the kinds of decisions you have to make just become the norm when you’re trying to make your name in the industry. It was so dubious a lot of the time; the way in which people were portrayed and dealt with and expected to deliver on camera and the ideas you can plant in their heads from the questions you ask. But it has to be that way because otherwise you have no tension or jeopardy on screen, and art is jeopardy. It was a great disillusionment.’
She seems much more at peace nowadays with her fiction-writing career. ‘You can make whatever you want happen there; with documentaries there are so many ethical issues. It’s just finding the right format to tell a story, and now, writing novels seems to be the easiest way for me to tell the kind of stories that I want to get out.’
Nikita Lalwani (with Anjali Joseph), Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 16 Aug, 3pm, £7 (£5).