Mixed read

Written by PALLAVI SINGH | Updated: Jan 31 2010, 05:05am hrs
If only India had more villages like Nandgaon, the fictitious village at the heart of the narrative in Radhika Jhas second novel, Lanterns on their Horns. Jha attempts to tackle the troubling questions posed by the interplay of tradition and modernity through this near-ideal hamlet, whose peace is shattered after the village simpleton (Ramu) marries the beautiful and educated Laxmi who is from another village. Nandgaon has managed to keep itself free from strife by the simple expedient of cutting off the road that leads to the village and adhering to the benevolent patriarchism wielded by its headman, Gopal Mundkur.

The catalyst for change is provided by the idealist Manoj Mishra, who hopes to cure rural India of its poverty with the help of artificial insemination, by inter-breeding Indian cows and foreign breeds and creating supercows, who would flood the hinterland with milk. Gopal Mundkur towers over the narrative as the representation of a tortured symbol of an era which is fast slipping away. (Because of all hed done, there was kindness in Nandgaon still, he thoughtyet they were willing to throw it all away.) And finally, there are the cows and bulls themselves, full blown players (Nandgaon had a single heart and the heart was the herd) in a story which uses them as the metaphor to define everything an agrarian economy holds dear.

Lanterns on their Horns is at heart a conversation about modern India and it sags under the weight of the many issues that come with the territory. While Radhika Jha has an undeniably charming and evocative turn of phrase, there are too many voices competing for ones attention. The usual suspects, the farmer suicides, the Green Revolution (the book is set in the late 60s), the inertia of the bureaucracy, the insularity of caste all put in an appearance here, but the central strand of the story is not compelling enough to be able to hold it all together. And while there is nothing particularly wrong with exploring the idea of a village that has turned its back on progress (The city meant hungry people with money in their pockets), it does give a dated and mawkish feel to the story.

Compelling in some patches and grating in others, Lanterns is a mixed read at best. It is in the exploration of greed and ambition that it picks up pace, going beyond the clichs of city versus village and touching upon the greater human condition that makes us susceptible to both self-destruction and open to progress.