Picked up this book from a Sunday book swap in KL, and I picked it up because I haven’t read enough books written by women this year. The Village by the Sea is different from most Indian literature that I’ve come across. It seems to be the simplest book I’ve read written by an Indian author, at least in terms of its language and its plots. It is also quite transparent on the meaning it’s trying to deliver. The book is lean but eventful.
In some ways, The Village by the Sea is one of the better books I’ve read about India. The characters are a reflection of the direction India was taking at the time towards modernisation and industrialisation, and their story is about trying to find a place in the midst of all this. Adapt, adapt, adapt.
In the book, the tertiary characters are one dimensional but they add to the flavour of the book without being a waste of space: the village drunks, the witch doctors, the arrogant village rich, the arrogant city man and the Western-corrupted Indian aristocrats. The depth comes from the two main characters in Hari and Lila, the brother and sister that propel the story.
The landscapes of Thul is vivid in the prose with its seaside markets, its landscape full of wildlife, the din and chaos of Bombay is unsettling, the Sri Krishna restaurant is claustrophobic, the monsoon unforgiving — the settings all play a part in the paths of the characters. Desai writes her settings well.
The Village by the Sea is a pleasure to read because it is an easy read. However, there is an disconcerning message underlying the book that Indians will need to adapt and accept to the potential destruction to their old way of life. The villagers won’t beat the politicians who will steamroll through their paddy fields and poison their livelihood in the sea. This is inevitable and there is nothing to do but to adapt, adapt, adapt. This inevitability presents opportunities for those who can accept it, and find their own niche within.
I wasn’t too comfortable with this message. But since Desai published this book India had evolved past industrialisation and have themselves found their own niche (outsourcing, rock bottom priced software development, etc). Whether this is a destruction to the old way of life, and whether this is something good or bad, I really do not know.