Sunday, December 27, 2020

Dark Themes and a Droll Touch


A London – based banker, Anil Singh, finds himself in the boondocks when he finds out that he is the sole heir of an uncle who was murdered in distant Palanpur. Thanks to a girlfriend who is an Indophile, he is persuaded to return to the village and try to make sense of a world that is far removed from his own. Not blessed with the skills of a Sherlock or a Poirot, he nevertheless figures out that the poor Dalit woman who has been arrested for the crime had nothing at all to do with it. While he is concerned about the fate of his uncle, investigating his murder takes a backseat as he takes a stab at photography in order to put together a coffee book, makes an even more half – hearted attempt to farm the land he has inherited, and tries to lend a helping hand in a little village ravaged by poverty and hopelessly oppressed by the caste system. There is a whiff of romance as Anil divides his time between his many tasks and the affections of his white girlfriend and a native beauty, he is drawn too but who can never be a part of his world.

The author of Rumble in a Village, Luc Leruth has based his narrative on economist Jean Dreze’s detailed notes from his sojourn in Palanpur, during 1983 – 84 as part of a research project. Like the author, the protagonist Anil, frequently dips into his father’s notes about his own family’s colorful past and less than honorable role in the history of Palanpur, made for the ostensible purpose of writing a novel, so that he can get a better handle on a way of life that is alien to the Londoner and truth be told, to the vast majority of urban India. In this way, the novel hops between Anil’s exploration of his roots and his father’s account of the seamier side of dreary Palanpur and its sordid secrets harkening back to a time when the British were hard at work raping and looting India, ably assisted by crooked and corrupt Indians who thought nothing of enriching themselves on the misery of those they screwed over from among the poor and lower castes without losing a moment’s sleep over it.

A light – hearted approach is favored by the author which is an odd fit for the dark themes being explored. There is gruesome murder, caste – based discrimination, grinding poverty, ceaseless exploitation, senseless deaths of children and the weak, torture, rape attempts and more, yet the horror of it, fails to land like a punch to the gut owing to the breezy approach and an imprudent reliance on narrative contrivances that fail to cohere in an organic manner. This is particularly apparent in the epilogue, which is supposed to be a touching epistle penned by a grateful student but reads more like a clumsy afterthought on the part of the author.

Opening with murder, Rumble in a Village becomes a leisurely ramble with a steady procession of assorted characters who are gone long before the reader can engage with them in a meaningful manner or fully appreciate their arcs which were instrumental in shaping the evils that continue to plague not just Palanpur but India today. Perhaps, the problem is that folks like Anil and his girlfriend who wants to come to India to see Devi, the Goddess and Shiva’s consort, wash her blouse in some Indian river, cannot hope to truly integrate themselves into the fabric of rural India, despite their best intentions given their unwillingness to distance themselves from their own backgrounds of privilege and plenty.

Which is not to say that the material itself is not intriguing because it is. What it lacks is emotional resonance and one cannot help but think that it could have been so much more, based on the promise offered by its premise.

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