“… Sanskrit poetry, our highbrow literature, is… patriarchal—the way Kalidasa and those ancient poets objectified women. Our mango breasts, plantain thighs, and pomegranate lips. You’d think we’re just piles of fruit stacked up in a vegetable market!”
It is a delight when men speak of patriarchy. Ken Langer’s debut novel A Nest for Lalita gives the pleasure; an excerpt of which is shared above. Set in early 2000s, it is a gripping murder mystery against the backdrop of changing Indian polity, religious fundamentalism, corporate greed and women’s rights.
The story of A Nest for Lalita revolves around the lives of Meena Kaul, who heads a haven that shelters rescued survivors of domestic violence, and Simon Bliss, a world-famous American ‘green’ architect. Industrialist Madhav Behera, also the founder of the shelter home, wants to expand the building in the memory of his lost love Lalita, a Dalit (‘backward caste’) servant, who was doused by her husband. Intending to simultaneously promote his company’s air conditioning system, he commissions Bliss to design the new center. As the stock market crashes, Behera faces financial crunch and is obligated to accept funds from the right wing Hindu Democratic Party (HDP), which aims to woo the women voters. Kaul and her deputy Gita are reluctant knowing the party’s regressive attitude towards women empowerment. Behera’s inclination towards HDP is attributed to a terror attack in Mumbai that killed his niece and the Congress government in power did not indict anyone. In A Nest for Lalita, the HDP wants to bring back Sati practice and the tradition of Devadasis (masquerading teens as lords’ wives, but made sexual slaves for the priests and pimped to industrialists for party funding and favours).
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The American author has spent some academic years in India in the 1970s, in Varanasi and Pune. He earned his Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University in 1978. Langer served as Special Assistant to the Dean of Harvard University, Vice President of Brandeis University and consultant to the US Department of Energy. In 2002, he founded EMSI, an international green building consulting company.
Langer might have left India long ago but his novel A Nest for Lalita shows his deep association with the land. He lucidly describes the vibrant colors of India: the culture, attires, people, the majestic lords – that one can’t help but imagine throughout.
With the good, he also digs into the bad and the ugly in A Nest for Lalita. “Indian men are babies. They run off to prostitutes because they can’t handle liberated souls… And you know what goes on under those red lights… Men, four and five times their age, tie those poor girls up and fuck them in the ass. Twelve and thirteen-year-olds — innocent kids, sold into the sex trade by their parents. They’re forced to do it five times a day. It’s rape. Worse than rape, if that’s even possible,” says Gita in A Nest for Lalita.
A socio-political context to India is incomplete without mentioning the entrenched caste system. Langer attempts to explain it in A Nest for Lalita in what he must have thought is a distinct way to, however it ends up seeming forced. “Streets have their own caste system. Oversized lorries and sacred cows are the Brahmins. Don’t mess with them. Then come Mercedes and other luxury automobiles—the Kshatriya warriors. After that you have Marutis and all the other mid- and low-priced cars—they’re like the Vaishya farmers. Finally, the Shudras, the bottom feeders, common scooters and rickshaws. Everything on two wheels or legs is untouchable,” reads one section in A Nest for Lalita.
The author of A Nest for Lalita flags the misuse of Hindu mythological characters to suffocate the women, and to appropriate political narratives. Women have been asked to prove their chastity as Sita for thousands of years; on the other hand, Mother India is the Sita who needs to be saved from “the demon Secularism”. The way A Nest for Lalita sways through the uprooting of secular ethos with the changing Indian polity, this work of fiction has an uncanny resemblance with contemporary India. It is also the reason why Langer was apprehensive if the book will have a peaceful release in India.
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A Nest for Lalita also addresses the paradox among so-called educated liberals. Kaul’s husband and Gond’s prince, Kesh, on one hand is disgusted by all the atrocities that women undergo domestically; on the other hand, he drools over women to explore his sexual fantasies. Kaul is aware of it, yet does not question the wedlock, a commitment of monogamy. In fact, in her vulnerable self, she ends up cheating on her husband too. Behera’s air conditioning system does not comply with the new green building standards that Kesh is trying to bring. Taking advantage of Kesh’s desires, Behera cracks a deal with the former by giving him unlimited access to the Devadasis.
Langer channels his background of sustainable architecture, Sanskrit poetry and Indian culture into A Nest for Lalita, his debut novel. In fact, to compensate for the guilt of studying male-driven Sanskrit love poetry, he made Meena, a strong woman character and a saviour of other women, the protagonist. A Nest for Lalita is one of those books that one would desire to finish in one sitting.
Swati is a policy fellow and an independent journalist. She writes on Gender, Health, Environment, Disability rights and Media. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.