The Bangalore that’s presented in the pages of The Hope Factory, a book by Lavanya Sankaran, is a familiar city, constrained by bureaucracy, corruption and of course, the limitation of class. The author describes the flesh and bones of this metropolis by way of two parallel stories: that of Anand, an upper middle class entrepreneur whose dream is to expand his factory by buying new land in the city, and Kamala, who works as a maid in Anand’s bungalow, and purposes her life around that of her son, Narayan.
“It’s a personal exploration using whatever talent sets I have, and what I am capable of,” said Sankaran, who worked on the novel for the last six years. “When you’re writing literary fiction, you are not just being a sociologist, you’re being a political analyst, an economic analyst; it’s more multi-layered.”
Sankaran examines the impact of industrialisation and the resultant urbanisation. “We are seeing this huge urban boom – the expansion of cities in what were earlier fields, slums,” said Sankaran, referring to Anand’s plan to buy up for farm land for his factory and Kamala’s home being swallowed up by the city gradually “It’s happening, not just from one generation to the other. It’s happening every five to ten years now.” Through her two protagonists, Sankaran explores the country’s many contradictions – the haves and the havenots, the middle class and the poor, the individual and the family – while steering clear of stereotypes that are often a mainstay in Indian literary fiction. For instance, while Anand is busy negotiating with the Japanese for a new automobile contract, his staff insists on following auspicious temple rituals for the deal to go smoothly.
To colour the character of a young entrepreneur, Sankaran shadowed people who worked in industries to figure out how Anand’s daily life would play out. “If you’re writing about something, you have to do it with an understanding of all the issues involved,” she explained. “But to construct characters that are complete in themselves, that is the crux – one of the reasons why it took six years. I didn’t want to handle anyone with the stamp of a stereotype.” This is Sankaran’s second book – her first, The Red Carpet, is an anthology of short stories about Bangalore. This time around, the city she visits could be any metropolis in the country. “You can think of something complex, and India will out-bizarre it,” laughed Sankaran. “I wanted very everyday characters, driven by very everyday concerns. They are not victims. They are reaching for opportunities. They have to manoeuvre the obstacle race of life.” Sankaran deftly evokes empathy for her characters. In fact, Kamala, who is a single mother and has migrated to the city, turns out to be a strong feminist voice who defies the usual fatalist behaviour expected of her.
What makes Sankaran’s book a refreshing read is that it’s not melancholic. Her characters brave the odds of migration, single parenthood, scheming relatives and keep moving forward. “This is a country that doesn’t give up,” she said. “There is poverty, poor infrastructure and incredibly bad governance, to corruption on an epic scale. Yet we deal with it, we wake up and continue. That’s one of the reasons why I like the title… because India is the hope factory. But, hope is a doubleedged sword, there is epic failure on the other, you can’t look at one without the other.”
By Bijal Vachharajani