This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 12 August 2013
The Hope Factory is Lavanya Sankaran’s debut novel after her acclaimed short-story collection, The Red Carpet. The novel is set in Bengaluru, erstwhile Bangalore, better known to the outside world as India’s Silicon Valley. The city is home to Infosys, India’s pioneering software company, and a growing multitude of corporations that provide outsourcing services, telemarketing, business consulting and software engineering. It has been at the forefront of India’s economic development—concrete buildings supplanting fields, multistory residential complexes elbowing out leafy bungalows—besieged by lagging infrastructure and widening income inequality. Such a city is rife with stories.
The novel begins with Anand in his office at Cauvery Auto, a company he has assiduously built over the years, nervously anticipating the arrival of his largest customers. They are to bring with them representatives of the Japanese parent company on a factory tour. If all went well, Cauvery Auto could end up supplying the international market, a welcome prospect as Anand is looking to grow his business. Acquiring land for industrial development was increasingly difficult in the city but Anand is hopeful of organizing something.
At home, his whimsical wife Vidya rules with the help of three domestic helpers, one of which is Kamala. Maneuvering between the shenanigans of the cook Shanta and the other helper Thangam, Kamala must accomplish her chores without upsetting Vidya-ma, swallow the occasional scolding and strive to provide for her son Narayan and keep him off the streets and in school.
The Hope Factory tells its story in two voices through alternating chapters. One voice is that of Kamala, the domestic worker and single mother, struggling to make ends meet on her meager salary. The other is the voice of Anand, industrious entrepreneur, dedicated father and flustered spouse looking to maintain marital harmony in the face of an overly obtrusive father-in-law and a wife whose whims match the volatility of teen fashion.
While Kamala and Anand are separated by many markers—social and economic—they are also strivers, both hopeful that their individual endeavours will pay off with a more prosperous future. Anand’s hopes are tied literally in his plans for the new factory while Kamala is vested in providing her son with higher education, a factor that will lift him out of their penury.
Sankaran is a competent writer moving fluidly between the urbane Anand and the anxious Kamala. Not that Anand does not have his anxieties. He has risen from a humble background, his wife is increasingly distant from him, his father-in-law is a social bully content to flaunt his “connections” in Anand’s face, the landbroker appears shifty and Anand spends restless nights wondering if he’ll be able to procure the land he needs to expand his factory without which Cauvery Auto’s overseas venture will be aborted.
Adding to Anand’s travails is the arrival on the scene of Kavika, an old female schoolmate and friend. Kavika has returned home after a long foreign stint, with a child, no discernible husband, and allusions to a mysterious past. With her cropped hair and easy manner, Kavika is a counterpoint to Vidya, a fact that Anand seems to appreciate and mask.
Anand’s demeanour around Kavika harks to an adolescent crush that he never outgrew. Moreover, Kavika shows much enthusiasm for Anand’s venture compared with the lackadaisical response of his wife; will the mutual interest develop into something more? Matters get complicated when Vidya appears just as smitten by Kavika, opting to cut off her hair and favouring the handicraft clothes that Kavika wears. The growing friendship between the women throws Anand into Kavika’s presence frequently, something he anticipates with a guilty pleasure. The triangle as a narrative hook unspools slowly.
Meanwhile, Kamala has been advised that if her son is to succeed he must study in a private school, the government run school being a dud. Her big worry is that she cannot afford her son’s education in a private school even as the shack she rents appears ready to be seized for property re-development. But Kamala is a plucky woman who knows how to seize the bull by its horns. Years ago, when thrown out of her house after her husband’s death, she managed to leave her village, fend her way to a big city like Bengaluru and find employment—all with an infant suckling at her breast. She decides to approach Anand-saar for a solution to Narayan’s education.
The Hope Factory proceeds at a leisurely pace for a major part of the novel, Sankaran focusing her eye on the minutiae that bring the narrative alive: the quibbles of the household staff, the zeal of Anand’s employees, the flipflops of the real estate broker, the frequent whims of Vidya, the loving interaction between Anand and his two children. The storytelling evokes R. K. Narayan, the Indian writer who chronicled the intricacies of ordinary Indian lives with a sharply observant yet compassionate gaze.
However, the last one-third of the narrative cranks up as the land deal Anand is pursuing gets embroiled in the quagmire of politics, and the crisis at Kamala’s landlord’s heightens. Anand has won the order from the Japanese but he is yet to acquire the requisite land. In what seems like a departure from the methodical, precise man he has been presented as Anand indulges in chicanery of the kind that would put his flamboyant father-in-law to shame, and saves the day for his factory, his workers, even Kamala.
Sankaran’s prose is richly satisfying, her characters fully fleshed, yet I wonder how much of their struggle will stay with me. One question this reviewer couldn’t help asking was what would have happened if the messy tangle of land-politics-people had unspooled further, the writer forsaking succumbing to a tidy resolution?
The kernel of the novel is an erstwhile sleepy town scrambling for metropolis status, engendering a messy sprawl in its wake—rather than a gasp of recognition at the mirror held to view, it evokes deja vu. A pity, as there is much to admire in the book, just nothing new.