Lanterns on Their Horns, By Radhika Jha

Seductive story of the new India
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The Independent Culture

Radhika Jha's second novel is about transformations in the heart and body of India. This new India will impact on us all, despite the lack of interest we showed in 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 bus ride away from the real town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. It follows outsiders Laxmi and Ramu in their 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 high milk-yield-producing seed of a foreign breed.

This really is a novel about profane Indian cows, and yet nothing is quite as it appears. The traditional electricity-free village is the double of one flooded by Narmada river waters. A heavy monsoon inundates this new village too, forcing a return to the ruined site. Once there, Laxmi, the educated daughter of a suicide farmer, 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 free to poor farmers. 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 as to tone.

Lanterns 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" underway. This wonderfully warm and properly grounded novel is a great place to become familiar with it.