Lanterns On Their Horns, By Radhika Jha

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The Independent Culture

Radhika Jha's second novel is about transformations in the heart and body of India. The implications of this new India will affect us all, despite the lack of interest we showed towards its national election this year. Jha bridges this chasm with a highly affecting and finely crafted story.

Lanterns On Their Horns takes place in an invented village a walk and bus ride away from the real town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. It follows outsiders Laxmi and Ramu in their existential struggle with a benign but absolute headman whose power is concentrated in a fine herd of cows. Battle commences with Ramu rescuing a fugitive "junglee" cow, which Laxmi allows to be artificially inseminated with the seed of a foreign breed that produces a high yield of milk.

This really is a novel about profane Indian cows, and yet nothing is as it appears. Even the electricity-free village is the double of one flooded by Narmada river water. A heavy monsoon inundates this new village too, forcing a return to the ruined site. Once there Laxmi, the educated daughter of farmer who committed suicide, and Ramu, an orphaned goatherd, get rich on their insurgent milk. The centre of village life gravitates their way.

Jha begins with the miracle sperm itself, and how the fumbling idealist Manoj Mishra invests his Mumbai-wife's dowry in spreading this miracle to poor farmers free of charge. However, her story is about the empowerment of Laxmi and Ramu; people destined for exclusion and exploitation in the old India. Her strength lies in conjuring the quiet and earthy life of a relatively thriving village. She inhabits the voice of Ramu's "junglee" cow brilliantly, but the jaunty satirising of the Kamdhenu research institute is a little tedious. Indian writing in English rarely lacks voice, but can misfire with tone.

This is a seductive novel about the potential change beckoning hundreds of millions of Indians: a witness to India's complex interiors, and the revolutionary "churn" under way. This wonderfully warm, properly grounded novel is a great place to become familiar with it.

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