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The Village Reader’s Guide

By Nikita Lalwani

The Village by Nikita Lalwani


In 1998, Nikita Lalwani first encountered the setting and atmosphere that would inspire The Village. Below is a closer look at Sanganer, one of India’s “open–air prisons.”

The Open Prison

The wall dividing the compound from the outside world was just a couple of feet high, a wall low enough for children to climb onto and run, a place where you could sit and dangle your legs. Pet rabbits and chicks nibbled at the ground near a water pump, where women were chatting, holding tureens and earthenware pots. Kids ran about flying kites and playing gilli danda, the local game of throwing sticks; bullocks and goats lazed in the shade of large trees. The sky was flushed with pinks; a row of white stone huts glimmered in the winter sunlight.

I first arrived at Sanganer, a village fifteen kilometers from Jaipur in North India, on a warm January morning in 1998. Sanganer Camp is an open prison “village” that is home to around 170 families. Each family includes a prisoner serving out a murder sentence of, on average, sixteen years. There are only two or three prison guards assigned to look after the site. The prisoners are expected to stay at the camp between the hours of six p.m. and six a.m. Other than that, they can come and go as they please, and they earn a living in the surrounding town, with which they are expected to support their families. There is no real -security, just the roll call at the beginning and end of the day. And yet in the past decade there have been only sixteen -escapes—​a -relatively minuscule number. The recidivism rates are even more impressive: there have been no documented cases of reoffending in the half century since the prison was opened.

After that first visit in 1998, Sanganer became a place that would exert a peculiar power over me, eventually finding its way into my novel The Village. Like a closed community in a J. G. Ballard novel, the camp seemed to have created its own parameters for morality. But unlike the setting of a cautionary Ballardian tale, it has not descended into a dystopian maze of human failings. On the contrary, when I returned, a decade later, it seemed to be alive and well, prospering as a community.

When I was there I asked, Why does no one run away?

Where will they run to? came the answer. If you provide everything that a person is seeking, then where is the need to run away?
And why does no one reoffend?

Where is the need to reoffend? came the answer. If you reunite a man who has been serving time in a traditional prison with his wife and children, then he won’t want to reoffend. He won’t want to throw all that away again.

The concept of family is central to the idea of the prison village at Sanganer. Developed by Governor Sampurnanand in 1963, on a reclaimed refugee camp left over from the partition of India in the forties, the place is founded on some of Mahatma Gandhi’s core principles: that convicts should not be labeled, that they deserve a second chance, and that restoring responsibility through the family unit is the best way to facilitate this. It’s an extension of the Gandhian idea of swadeshi—-an India made up of self–governing, self–reliant, self–employed village communities, deriving their livelihoods from their homesteads. He is said to have seen traditional prisons as responsible for a kind of slow death for prisoners, causing irreversible damage to the prisoner, and the spouse and children the prisoner often leaves behind. The mantra at Sanganer is “Trust Begets Trust.” You trust them, the governor told me, and they will return the trust.
As a prisoner, you may transfer from Jaipur Central Jail to one of Rajasthan’s twenty–three open prisons after serving six years of your sentence and demonstrating good behavior. Serial killers and those convicted of sexual crimes are not eligible. And there is another condition of entry: you must be reunited with your family; you cannot transfer alone. This does cause some problems for female prisoners, who often find that their husbands have remarried while they were serving the first part of their sentences, and so the rules are modified slightly for them. But most of the offenders at Sanganer are male, and they must be prepared to support their wives and children by providing a home, and finding a way to earn enough money to run the home and send their children to school. As a result, Sanganer is full of entrepreneurs.

As with any government organization, there are insinuations that bribery can help your way into the camp. But during my visits I was struck by the varied backgrounds of the inhabitants in terms of wealth. There are a large number of inhabitants on the poorer end of the scale working for low incomes (a man operating a phone booth in town, a vegetable seller, male and female tailors, a primary school teacher), as well as at the more affluent end (a homeopathic doctor and a restaurateur).

“No one has ever called me prisoner,” said one inmate, a man who ran his own quarrying business. His employees were laborers from the local town who were not prisoners. “They have treated me with respect, they have not looked down on me. When I applied for the loan to start my business, I put Sanganer jail as my address. I’ve bought a plot of land in the main town; when I finish my sentence I’m going to settle there. I’m marrying my daughters here; this place is now my home.”

The huts at Sanganer have all been built by inmates, using bricks, plastic sheeting, and corrugated tin. The building costs are funded by them, so there is no cost to the taxpayer. If anything, the prisoners are expected to pay tax on their earnings. In spite of their varied backgrounds, though, there is not much to differentiate the inmates in terms of living conditions. Holes in the wall function as windows, and all family members sleep in one room on charpoys, beds made from woven rope. Some people have a small television balanced on a chest of drawers, and there is a basic kitchen sectioned off at one end of the space, and occasionally a refrigerator. Dishes are washed under a low tap near the ground; laundry is beaten out under the same tap.

Time and time again, the families that I spoke with talked of one thing: the education of their children. “I’m no saint,” said one inmate to me, a man who had killed a family member in a property dispute. “But now I have got a chance to send my children to school again. I’m trying my best, and they are the ones who have a second chance.”

With general reoffending rates for crime in the U.K. reaching an all–time high, at fifty to sixty percent, we have to ask what impact traditional forms of incarceration are having on our population. In Discipline and Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault talks about why prison is always going to produce delinquents. It’s the nature of the system: it isolates inmates in their cells, even though man is a social being; it gives them useless tasks to do, at which they will never find employment outside. And prison also creates delinquents indirectly, because it makes the families of the prisoners destitute, so the children of prisoners are in line to become delinquents too. Sanganer has attempted to deal with these problems directly, in spite of the extreme risk it poses. People could run away so easily that the term “escape” would be rendered redundant. But they don’t: why leave when the life they’d seek is already there?

And yet pretty much every inmate at Sanganer has killed someone. Confronted with so many families who are able to rebuild their lives, I am troubled by the thoughts of the families of the victims, families who can never reunite with their missing members. It is unsettling to think of these families mirroring one another, a trapped nerve that twinges forcefully every time I think of the place. Any discussion of offenders has to include a discussion of the victims, surely. To separate the two would be naïve. Rani Shankardass, the woman who got me access to Sanganer, heads up PRAJA, the Penal Reform and Justice Association, and she agrees: families that have lost someone due to homicide are, of course, unlikely to be fans of a place like the Sanganer open camp. But where traditional incarceration breeds career criminals and mental health problems, Sanganer’s style of “nonvindictive justice” can help prevent future crimes, even if it can’t mend broken families. “In reality,” Shankardass says, “there are only a handful of prisoners in any normal prison that need to be regarded as risks. The rest are not.” Would a prison like this work in the U.K.? She thinks there are a lot of features that could be transferable: “dynamic security, rather than the harsh security of bars and chains; spaces where prisoners can socialize, a feature of life that is essential for mental well–being.”

I was recently asked to speak of my experience visiting the prison at an event in London that also featured former hostage Terry Waite and former prisoner Noel “Razor” Smith. Both spoke very movingly of how confinement affects the mind. The Mental Health Foundation quotes the current U.K. statistic that places the number of prisoners with two or more mental health disorders at a staggering seventy percent. It is an archetypal chicken–and–egg situation—-is mental illness the cause or effect of being in prison? Probably both, “Razor” Smith claims. He first went behind bars as a young petty criminal and learned his trade inside, graduating to more serious offenses upon his release.

In the years since I made my first visit to Sanganer I have wondered about how a prison of this kind might work at home in the U.K.: whether a certain way of thinking is exclusive to a nation like India, whether moral judgments like this can ever be exclusive to a particular place. Gandhi said that we should conquer our opponents with love; that forgiveness is an attribute of the strong, not the weak; that you can judge a nation by the way in which it treats its weakest members. This is a difficult ideal to live by, especially when there is death involved, the irreversible loss of a loved one through a killing. I have found myself haunted by the village, the questions it raises about our own moral judgments. How it challenges, by its physical presence, ideas of punishment and proves, by its success, that forgiveness can be a very powerful force. 

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. When Ray first meets Nandini, she seems caught off guard. What do you think she finds surprising or incongruous about Nandini? What did you expect Ashwer’s inhabi-tants to be like?

2. How does the language barrier function in the novel? Do you think that Ray’s ability to speak Hindi allows her to -understand and empathize with the inmates better than Serena and Nathan? In what ways could Ray’s fluency in Hindi be considered a handicap?

3. What do you think contributes most to the tension in -Serena’s relationship with Ray? How does Serena’s relationship with Nathan affect her interactions with Ray?

4. At several points in the novel, Ray experiences life as if she were filming it and able to control the world around her like a camera. How do you think Ray has been affected by her work as a documentarian? Does this tendency give her any insight, or create any blind spots?

5. At the governor’s party, he observes that Ray is “veg” and remarks that he didn’t know this about her. What do you think his comment is meant to imply, given all the connotations of the term? Why would he bring this up in front of people Ray has only just met?

6. Why does Ray get so upset when Jyoti refers to her as white? What is the difference between how Jyoti and Nandini understand Ray’s identity? How do their views compare to how Ray would identify herself?

7. Why do you think Nathan pulls away so violently at the riverbank? What effect does losing his friendship have on Ray? On the project?

8. When she reviews her conversation with Nandini about her crime, Ray realizes that she acted with a filmmaker’s instincts when she thought she was acting with empathy. Do you think Ray’s actions are ethical, or does she cross a line? How aware do you think Nandini is of Ray’s actions and intentions?

9. When Nandini finally confronts her husband, the meeting does not go as planned. What reaction do you think she is hoping for? What interaction is the crew hoping to capture on film?

10. After Ray follows Nandini and Jyoti to the river, Nandini insists that she leave. Why do you think her accusations affect Ray so deeply? Do you think Nandini holds Ray to the same standard as Serena and Nathan? Do you think Ray expects something different of herself?

11. What sort of future do you think awaits Ray after she leaves Ashwer? What future has she imagined for herself?

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