Indian reality
Reviewed by Charu Soni

Lanterns on their Horns
By Radhika Jha.
Pages 471. Rs 399.

WHAT do you do with a novel filled with a cast of rural and urban caricatures peppered with banal observations that are paraded as insight into the "transformation in the heart and body of India"? You set it aside and quickly reach out for a daily newspaper.

Radhika Jha’s second novel, Lanterns on Their Horns is lofty in intent but sadly, despite the author’s anthropological and journalistic grounding, devoid of ability to convey the intricate complexity of Indian reality. This is the author’s third book after her debut novel Smell (which won the French Prix Guerlain and has been translated into 16 languages) and a collection of short stories titled The Elephant and the Maruti.

This novel is set in an imaginary rural hamlet of Nandgaon, somewhere south-west of Mumbai by the capricious river, Narmada. To her mind, Nandgaon represents an "ideal" Indian village where every house is exquisitely painted, no election posters or graffiti disfigure the walls, and people breathe as one—"the way all India should be. Maybe it is the way it once was".

No caste, jati or gotra rear their ugly heads in this village. But there is a headman (patel), a shopkeeper (banya), a village idiot, meddlesome women and yes, a chatty barber (nai). Not to forget relaxing evenings by the hookah. And of course, a river and a road that bring destruction and rebirth.

The absence of social hierarchy and the politics it breeds, we guess, is because the author wants to tackle the larger issue at hand, that of "epic confrontation" (as the book flap informs us) where the "overarching issue of modernisation—the ethics of it, impact the traditional way of life". Her metaphor of choice is the cross-breeding of the Indian cow with a foreign breed, to produce, not only more milk but also a more just society.

"We are making what we never meant to be. I think the gods never meant for us to be rich this way. They will find a way to make us pay," a character announces midway into the tale protesting at the very idea of cross-breeding. The ethical debate has its reasons. So, we move along with the writer and embrace the irony of existence of Gandhian organisations such as the Kamadhenu Institute for Rural Development.

But to read her, you have to first get over the irritation of clich`E9s. In Jha’s rural and urban world, painted trucks are "garish", village folk walk with "unhurried grace", the salesmen are "smooth talking", Ambassador cars are "official looking" and white women are "attractive blonds".

Having overcome this hurdle, you have to allow yourself to be handheld as she takes you through the linear narrative, announcing the stations: Manoj, The Cow, Ramu, Laxmi, The Headman, The Flood, After the Flood and so on.

Anthropology is also given its due space with retelling of myths. We learn that "God had been wonderer all his life. That’s why they built him Kashi. That’s why it was called home for the homeless." long the way, Jha reflects on our big cities, small towns and villages. Of cities she says, it is where people cut each other’s throat, not for money but pleasure. Everywhere there is competition and there is no place left for tradition, for the old values of family and respect for elders. On the other hand, "if you’d ever stuck your toe into a village you’d have seen that the big problem they have is not knowing what to do with their time. Alcoholism is rampant, they are totally degenerate".

Good and evil are both black and white. Words flow randomly, unedited, uninterrupted, and incoherent. To no apparent logic or rationale. Ideal village or degenerate village? Congress topi or Gandhi cap? It makes no difference. The ramble goes on, "Do you know why there are so many temples in a city? Because people in towns need their religion more than people in the villages. And you know why? Because they have been squashed in the city, reduced to a fraction of their original size."

And by the time you come to the page that reads that education gave us ideals and that made us weak and vulnerable, whereas villagers have no such illusions, therefore, they are stronger, there is no option but to give up.

The book reveals to us a writer, who though gifted with fertile imagination and occasional flair for inventiveness ("water rushed in, sealing panic into his lungs like cement" or "surely Manoj could root out cowardice curled like a snake in his heart"), finds herself lost. Maybe it’s not her fault, but that of the market that seeks to impose "creative writing skills" and meld them with "creative" themes to produce a bestseller. You can almost hear the editors of publishing houses hustling and cajoling, "We need an epic, can you produce one?"