The book Death of a Moneylender is a refreshing change in Indian English writing. It is unfair to stereotype Indian English writing as westward looking, but over a period of time we see five distinct streams of writing in English.
- One strand is popular writing but representing the elite, but not quite literature - the books churned out by the likes of Shobhaa De and Chetan Bhagat.
- The second strand is that of writers like Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy who clearly write with Indian roots, but one gets the feeling that their audience is much more global and thus their local stories are also adequately globalised.
- The third strand belongs to writers who are truly global in their outlook and incidentally locate themselves in India - Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth.
- The fourth strand seems to be that of Indians with passport from elsewhere - writing about India and Indian experience either with nostalgia or with a touristy wonderment.
- The fifth strand possibly are Indians writing possibly for the local audience - writers who could easily have been Bhasha writers,but accidentally happen to write in English. I would put KR Usha, Shashi Deshpande in this category and for a good measure add Kota Neelima whose book I read recently into this category as well.
The book in question "Death of a Moneylender" should have been in the news much more than it has been, it should have had wider set of reviews and possibly discussions around it. However, in the era of news almost always being obsessive about "Breaking" News, the media possibly does not have the time or "bandwidth" to discuss something that is away from the urban sensibility, something that does not look "sexy" or something that deserves a bit of reflection, research and patience. In this context, it is indeed interesting to read this novel set in the context of print media. It was indeed a welcome change to look at something that is so subtly reflective of our contemporary times.
Neelima's novel starts off in a Newspaper office in New Delhi which receives the news of the death of a moneylender. This is not a normal death, of a normal person. This is the death of a moneylender, and his body is found hanging by the lamp post in the village centre. Clearly this is sensational stuff. It does make a good copy and therefore the newspaper finds it necessary to collect more details. It is therefore important for the journalist who has been assigned this beat to collect as many details, analyse the situation, report and draw the attention of the readers. In the process the journalist would also be looking for recognition for himself and a possible (or necessary) pat on the back from the bosses.
The novel that starts with the news of such a gory death goes on to examine several contemporary issues without much of a melodrama. The beat to cover this story is assigned to a young journalist Falak. Falak is a reporter who is ambitious and is in a hurry to climb the journalistic ladder. He has already got the necessary success in his current assignment, but is willing to stretch himself for the next kick upstairs. His old possibly ex-friend who is a journalist with another newspaper is the one who constantly reminds him of the difference between being a good journalist and a successful journalist. She almost appears like his conscience throughout the novel. For Falak it is a challenge to continue to be successful, while pining to be "approved" by this friend. But the lady does not see any dilemma in being good and successful. She believes that if one is good, success is incidental. However Falak is somewhat frustrated and impatient on this count.
The novel is glued together around the death of a moneylender. The fact that somebody is trying to investigate the reason behind the gruesome death is reason enough to keep the reader engaged, but Neelima uses this intelligently to weave several issues around this basic episode. For instance, the question that is often asked is that while we hear about farmer suicides, how many times do we hear about the suicide/death of a moneylender? And when that happens, why does this news hog disproportionately more column centimetres than that of farmers? Where is the balance in the reporting ethic of a newspaper and what twist do you give to such a tale? Neelima seems to ask all these questions intrinsically without actually verbalising them.
As Neelima opens up the internal contradictions and dilemmas of a journalist, she intelligently slips in issues pertaining to the basic issues haunting agriculture - economics/profitability of farming, the tensions in the relationships within a village, various issues emanating from the caste and class relations. Stories which the journalists possibly encounter in their daily life, but cannot narrate in their journalistic limitations of space and time are unpeeled in front of us.
There is a fundamental image that most of us carry about village moneylenders - that they are bloodsucking hoodlums who exploit anybody who comes their way. Therefore when there is news that a moneylender's body is hanging by the lamp post, this could be an indication of a bloody revolt. Therefore the story of such a death is something that will catch the imagination of a reader and this in turn could help us to look at the various facets of rural life. In unravelling this story, Neelima also helps us to re-examine the stereotypes we have in us - not only the stereotypes of moneylenders, but the stereotype of village life itself.
While Neelima has mastered the art of story-telling, I am not sure she has mastered the art of constructing a story. Possibly that might be one reason why the novel has not attracted as much attention as it should have. She seems to somehow believe that each one of the issues that are picked up should reach a natural conclusion. This urge to tie up the loose ends hampers the overall narrative. Possibly this might be the difference between somebody who basically writes fiction and somebody who has come into the world of fiction from the disciplined world of journalistic writing. A journalistic piece usually looks for an immediate solution, a current reality and a quick sense of accountability. However a novel usually does not have the necessity to have such a nice, digested capsule for the reader. The reader of a novel is typically willing to engage for a much longer time with the novel. Therefore it is indeed possible in this format for the writer to unravel the various aspects of a characters persona. While Neelima is relatively successful in bringing out Falak's personality with all the dilemmas and contradictions, her other characters are somewhat one-dimensional. For instance we get to know the fact that the moneylender who was hanging by the lamp post was not actually evil, pretty early in the narrative. So why did he have a gruesome death? While we do get the answers towards the end, this answer looks naive. And therefore one wonders if Neelima - through her character - has actually achieved the effect that was indeed intended. The character of the moneylender [though dead] just does not evolve in the novel, even though attempts are made to bring out his personality through reminiscences of various people - the moneylender in the end turns out to be somewhat of a one-dimensional character.
The subtle message that runs throughout the novel is that if a moneylender who generally was doing good could meet with such a tragic death, worse could be awaiting the other exploitative ones. This also makes a good headline. But Neelima does not engage with the collaterals of such an underlying theme. None of her characters even engage in alternative fall outs that could happen from this episode. Thus the richness of the un-intended fall outs is totally ignored and the ending revolves around the binary of good and bad, truth and fiction. The complexity of life is not necessarily a problem with a Yes and No answer and thus this novel stops at being a good novel without growing into a great novel.
As I was reading Neelima's novel, I realised the importance of construction in a good narrative. Irrespective of the lack of narrative maturity and flamboyance, the novel is of great importance in this era of breaking news, in the era where the visual media delivers judgements much before the courts could even examine evidence. This brings out the basic tenets of journalistic work ethic - that a story is to be analysed, examined and presented in a manner that reflects the events as they are unravelled. The novel does attempt to go beyond the regular framework of journalism and bring to the fore more serious issues and therefore should have been in the news much more than it has been. However, I guess Neelima will draw much more critical acclaim if she is able to effectively overcome the obvious limitation of a journalist and grow into a natural novelist.