Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory

I did this short review for The Hindustan Times (on their website here). As is probably obvious, I wasn’t very impressed by Sankaran’s novel.

 

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Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory explores the intersecting lives of two people in Bangalore. Anand, a Mysore boy who now owns a successful factory, needs more land to expand the business but wants to acquire it in the most above-board way possible. Kamala, Anand’s domestic help, struggles to provide her intelligent son with the sort of future he deserves.

Despite the vast gulf between their situations, Anand and Kamala’s lives parallel each other in a number of ways. Both are proud of their exceptionally clever children, both face difficulties related to the rising cost of real estate in their shared city. The whole book is told from the perspectives of these two characters and as a result we’re given the impression that they are both kind, honest, proud and a little too good for the people around them. Kamala is unfailingly nice to the frequently unpleasant women with whom she works, and Anand is the patient husband and polite son-in-law to a selfish wife and her overbearing father.

The problem with this is that the book itself rarely challenges these perceptions. As a result neither the main characters nor most of those around them achieve any particular depth or complexity. Anand’s wife Vidya comes off the worst here. To Kamala she’s a spoiled and capricious employer. To Anand she’s a figure of contempt; we’re not allowed to believe that anything she does, from attending a music concert to taking an interest in social work, is done sincerely.

There’s something rather Dickensian about all of this; we know from the start who is good, who is bad, who is worthy of our sympathy and who of our mockery. Harry Chinappa, the controlling, blustering socialite, is bad. Anand’s property agent, who evinces a genuine love of the land is good. The corrupt politician’s henchman is bad. The widowed mother whose only interest in life is her son is good. And so forth. The book’s adherence to the narrative of honest man in corrupt world comes close at times to validating Anand’s father’s belief that People Like Us (a belief that, in context, seems to be as much about caste as anything else) are not cut out for such dirty undertakings as ‘business’.

Sankaran does partially salvage things with occasional flashes of irony, and a comic understanding of people in conversation. This is clearest in some of the interactions between Anand and his friends and co-workers. And Bangalore itself is evoked occasionally through cliché (its traffic, its Pink Floyd fans) but manages to feel like a real city, even if few of those in it are real people. The Hope Factory is, in the end, an effective book about a changing city; I only wish its characters didn’t feel so incidental to it.

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