No Man’s Land, by Nilesh Shrivastava, was a book I bought as part of a long-term plan to get to know Indian authors and writing. So unlike many of my choices it is set pretty much in the present day – the main action occurs in the late 1990s, with some flashback events set about twenty years earlier than that. Not everyone will like this book: it deals with the inter-personal relationships and conflicts in a small family rather than having grand political or military scope.
The crux of the story is a stretch of land between Delhi and one of the new technology cities which have sprung up nearby (Gurgaon, to the south-west). The land has traditionally been farmed and can provide an adequate though not lavish income: with the explosive demand for building work it now has the potential to be worth a considerable fortune. As such, it becomes the focus of a family feud.
Now, it is clear from occasional comments in the book that the plot draws from traditional Indian literature, in particular the Mahabharata. My knowledge of this is quite scanty, but fortunately I was able to get some pointers from Indian friends. I suspect that a greater familiarity with both the history and myth of India would open up other dimensions of this book which remained largely opaque to me. Even without that, though, there is enough here of humanity’s common sources of comfort and conflict that the story hangs together well.
For me, this was a four star book. I would have liked there to be more times when Nilesh’s obvious skills of lyrical writing came to the fore. One character, Shashwat, a family advisor and confidant, is well placed to offer words at a deeper level, but all too rarely does so. I found myself longing for more times when he was given the opportunity to speak. However, like the others he is to a great degree caught up in his particular fate – this is part of the tragedy of the situation that each character tries without real success to surmount.
This book worked for me in part because I am strongly motivated to read about north India, and especially the area around Delhi. I do feel that it would have been more powerful if the deeper background such as that of the Mahabharata had been brought into sharper focus. That would not only have satisfied my regular desire for historical fiction, but would also moved the characters onto a wider stage than they reached in No Man’s Land. All in all a good read, but one which could have done more with the material to hand.