- The author successfully delineates the conflicts of modern India which has one foot in ancient simmering conflicts and the other in the 21st century.
Ken Langer has had many incarnations. His complex relationship with India began half a century ago when he spent a college year in Benares (Varanasi). He went on to get his Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University in 1978 and spent two years in Pune as a postdoctoral Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies. He spent this time in India translating Sanskrit love poetry, and another two years in New Delhi as a consultant to high-tech and renewable energy companies. In his next avatar, he founded ESMI, an international green building consulting company, which pioneered the green building industry in China. Now he has turned to fiction with his political thriller, “A Nest for Lalitha.”
In his current avatar as an author, Langer has created a political thriller that revolves around corrupt politicians and corporate greed, built around an inter-racial romance. “A Nest for Lalitha” is a tale of passion set against the backdrop of a nation straddling the two worlds of the old and the new. His gift lies in his ability to take the reader into the sights, sounds and smells of the fascinating, noisy, polluted, democracy where religious extremism, political corruption and male chauvinism take center stage. Its four main characters are Meena Kaul, an Indian social activist and director of the shelter, Kesh Narayan, her aristocratic architect husband, who is chairman of the India Green Building Association, Gita Sen, Meena’s lesbian deputy, and Simon Bliss, a sustainable architect from the U.S who is commissioned to design a community center for the women’s shelter.
The novel’s central focus is Behera House, a women’s shelter with a mission to combat the nation’s rampant domestic abuse. But the problem arises when the shelter is offered a badly needed grant from an unexpected source, the HDP or Hindu Democratic Party, a right-wing political party. Meena Kaul, the charismatic director of the shelter is shaken when her deputy Gita Sen exclaims in outrage, “There’s no way in hell we’re taking their dirty loot, at least not while I’m here. It’s an ultra-right-wing cabal. If elected, they’ll destroy whatever progress we’ve made on women’s rights over the last hundred years.”
This dramatic observation made on the eve of the 2006 elections on the right-wing party appears eerily prophetic today, when the Hindu right has taken over the entire nation. What is most disconcerting about the grant offer is the fact that the HDP’s leader is a supporter of sati, a horrific practice outlawed a century ago under British rule in which widows threw themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres. It would appear problematic that the author zeroes in on a custom that has been seen in various Orientalist novels as a justification for colonization, from Jules Verne’s 19th century bestseller, “Around the World in Eighty Days” to the more recent M.M Kaye’s “Far Pavilions,” but for the fact that the sati in Rajasthan in the late 1980s was justified by the Hindu right-wing as a tradition.
It is important to mention here a fact that the author does not, namely that sati was not practiced across the country but only in a few ultra-patriarchal areas of the subcontinent, which in former times was made up of very different kingdoms ruled by monarchs with different ideologies, some of whom were very regressive but others extremely progressive. Moreover, it was practiced only in certain upper caste communities and not by the majority of the communities of the land. Additionally, the British had hesitated for a long time to take on what they considered the private cultural practices of the colonized country, in a move to assuage the concerns of the conservative hardliners and had ultimately moved against the tradition only when Indian social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy strongly championed ending the noxious practice in their writings. Roy had argued that Hindu scriptures per se did not condone or encourage sati, but that it was interpreted differently by conservative groups and his views resonated with the British argument that widows were coerced into the pyre for material gains.
But that aside, the author has successfully delineated the conflicts of modern India which has one foot in ancient simmering conflicts and the other in the 21st century, enrapt in a morass of turmoil with corrupt politicians, charlatan priests, and unscrupulous businessmen, not to mention a confused American architect.Langer’s artistry lies in crafting a novel that is both thriller and romance, interspersed with caustic wit and humor, Hindu mythology, temple dancers, green architecture, Indian politics, and harking back to his former avatar as an academic specializing in Sanskrit literature, its arcane poetry. Langer is definitely a writer to watch. I know I will.
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies, at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she works as Chair of the Dept of Ethnic & Gender Studies, and teaches courses on Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Prior to her arrival in the United States, she worked for seven years as a broadcast journalist for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-state. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers in the U.S and India.