The Hope Factory: A Novel

Image of The Hope Factory: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 23, 2013
The Dial Press
Reviewed by: 

“The Hope Factory is something of an anticlimax after the promise displayed by The Red Carpet.”

Lavanya Sankaran, a former investment banker who lives in the southern Indian city of Bangalore (now Bengaluru), won considerable acclaim in 2005 for her first book, a well-received collection of short stories called The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories.

Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka and also a city that has earned some fame (and notoriety) for being India’s main outsourcing and IT hub (it is often dubbed “India’s Silicon Valley”), is a bustling Indian metropolis in which elements of tradition and modernity, the foreign and the domestic, and the global and the local uneasily rub shoulders with one another.

The stories in The Red Carpet offer a timely and often humorous look at the cultural tensions released by the impact of globalization on a traditional south Indian society.

The Hope Factory: A Novel, like its predecessor, is also set in Bangalore. Like the short stories, it shines a light on the intersecting lives of the haves and have-nots with a motley cast of minutely etched characters who inhabit an upwardly mobile, status-conscious society. Their tragicomic struggles to triumph over adverse circumstances and realize their dreams and deepest aspirations illuminate an urban Indian reality that is both entertaining and, at times, disquieting.

In The Hope Factory, Anand K. Murthy, the owner of Cauvery Auto, a factory that specializes in manufacturing automobile parts, is seeking to expand his business through a critical partnership with a Japanese company, and in order to do this he needs to acquire some land.

The land dealings take a series of unanticipated twists and turns involving brokers, union leaders, local politicians and a closely averted bribery scandal, drawing into their vortex Anand’s entire family and jeopardizing his already contentious relationship with his overbearing, wealthy, and manipulative father-in-law, Harry Chinappa.

Alternating with Anand’s story is the parallel and contrasting one of Kamala, a dutiful, pious, widowed housemaid in Anand’s home, and her young son, Narayan. Kamala, like Anand, is seeking to realize her dreams in a city that is in the throes of change, but she is always on the brink of falling through the cracks of the wide gap between the rich and the poor.

Ms. Sankaran’s novel describes this gap graphically, pointing out, for example, how in Bangalore, “the transition from grime to rich suburban grace was marked and sudden, divided by a gutter and nothing else,” and emphasizing the contrast between a wealthy businessman’s “shiny little hatchback, . . . the metal glossy, the padded interior cool with air-conditioned comfort,” and a backdrop of “tar and dirt and fetid garbage . . .”

Supporting the interlocking narratives of Anand and Kamala is a gallery of colorful characters that mirror contemporary Bangalore society and that dramatize the clash between traditional and modern elements in Indian society: the mysteriously desirable Kavika, foreign returned and liberal, to whom Anand is irresistibly attracted; Vidya, Anand’s wife, who is eternally locked in combat with her retinue of house servants; Anand’s entrepreneurial and sometimes philandering friends, epitomes of the “new” Bangalore; and the prime movers of the land-acquisition plot: the Landbroker; Gowdaru-saar, a local political functionary; the powerful and important Sankleshwar; and Vijayan, a popular film star, proclaimed to be “The New Hope for Democratic India.”

The narrative is packed with lively dialogue, and the plot moves forward quickly and sure-footedly. Sankaran has an undoubted gift for caricature, nowhere more in evidence than in her descriptions of the villains in the novel (“If the Landbroker was a cinematic hero, then Gowdari-saar looked indistinguishable from a Kannada movie villain: large to the point of obese; his pock-marked face sporting a mustache of magnificent proportions; frizzy unruly hair that haloed out around a receding hairline”).

There are passing references to the impact of outsourcing and globalization on the city, and occasional reflections on how the city has changed as a result, reminiscent of The Red Carpet.

Noteworthy also is the attempt made by the novel to foreground the lives of the laboring, impoverished underclasses and paint a realistic portrait of life on the Indian street.

But it must be said that unlike the stories in The Red Carpet, The Hope Factory is a less adventuresome undertaking and takes few risks with either novelistic form or content. The characters and the plot largely reinforce conventional stereotypes about contemporary south Indian society and together do not push the envelope of novelistic inventiveness.

The speech and inner thoughts of the characters, while rendered gracefully in English, sometimes border on banal. And while it is not always easy to render the Indian vernacular in idiomatic English, the words that Sankaran puts in her characters’ mouths sometimes appear to come from a bygone era (“‘You rascal,’ she said. ‘Scoundrel. Despoiler of your sisters and mothers.’”). At other times, in contrast, there is a liberal (over)use of the F-word and other obscenities—meant to symbolize a Westernized, modern sensibility—that is frequently jarring.

Despite being a much-awaited literary event, The Hope Factory is something of an anticlimax after the promise displayed by The Red Carpet. It is packed with a lot of intrigue that, in the final analysis, does not add up to something that could be called new and exciting. The numerous crises in the novel are neatly resolved by the author, and the characters live “happily ever after.”

One would be hard pressed to call The Hope Factory a major literary achievement in the canon of contemporary Indian writing in English. Instead, it is at best a mocking satire of corruption in Karnataka and of the indolence of Bangalore’s upper classes and will probably be of greatest interest primarily to that demographic.