Archive for April 19th, 2011

April 19, 2011

Manju Kapur, Custody

I reviewed Manju Kapur’s latest book for TSG, here. Short version: I didn’t like it very much. Long, unedited version below.

**********************************************

Raman Kaushik is a nice middle-class boy with IIT and IIM degrees, a job in a multinational soft drinks corporation and an extended family in East Delhi. Shagun is a very beautiful woman about whom we know little else. The two marry and live quite a happy middle-class life for a few years before things get rocky, Shagun falls in love with another man, and a long custody battle begins. Manju Kapur’s latest novel chronicles the various intricacies around the dissolution of a marriage and a family.

The end of this marriage is explored from multiple angles, with Kapur shifting from character to character, point-of-view to point-of-view. This makes for a nuanced rendition of the situation so that the text as a whole never allows an easy apportioning of blame. Raman’s rage and bewilderment are both understandable, but it is equally clear why any woman might not wish to stay married to him.
Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t make it any easier to sympathise with the characters – perhaps it was never meant to. Raman’s tedious self-righteousness grates and is only occasionally relieved by a flash of personality. Shagun all but disappears two-thirds of the way through the book and from this point onwards is mostly seen through other people’s reports and her own cringe-worthily banal letters to her mother.
Ashok, Shagun’s lover and (later) husband, comes off worst of the lot. Apparently a business school degree renders one incapable of thinking in non-business terms, and any sort of marketing job fills one’s head with cliché. He thinks of Shagun as “a perfect blend of East and West” and reflects that “[t]o woo her would thus be that much more difficult: he must first create a need before he could fulfil it. But he was used to creating needs, it was what he did for a living”. Later, he is exhorting her to think “out of the box”.
Of the four major adult characters in Custody it is only Ishita, the woman whom Raman later marries, who comes out of the book as much of a person at all.
One unfortunate result of Kapur’s jumping from voice to voice is that the book itself ends up having no voice of its own. Kapur has been compared to Jane Austen for her detailed, sharp depiction of a comparatively small section of society but here, at least, the comparison breaks down. Austen is always definitely herself; in Custody Kapur is not. So when, for example, the text describes the new India where “[a]nything seemed possible if you worked hard enough. India was becoming a meritocracy, connections were no longer necessary for success” it’s hard to tell if Kapur is for some mystifying reason imitating Ashok’s trite patterns of speech and thought, or whether the triteness is unintentional. And surely Raman’s thinking of a carton of mango juice (which he is supposed to be marketing) that it “swam insouciantly about in the pool of anxiety that lay at the heart of his working life” is supposed to be humourous?
The focus of the book is very much on the Indian middle-class, and it is not an entirely sympathetic one. Mrs Kaushik, Raman’s mother, is depicted as entirely awful, and Ishita’s marriage-mad mother Mrs Rajora is only slightly better. (This is where an Austen parallel could be drawn – these women are both slightly reminiscent of her Mrs Bennet). Yet Kapur’s portrayal feels very much like that of an outsider and her barbs are at the most obvious of targets.
The elder Kaushiks put a grille across the passage, black granite tiles on the walls and floor of their section of the corridor and hung a small chandelier with dangling crystal pendants in the middle… Rohini declared she thought she was living in a palace her new home was so grand…

The real Central Park, not the falsely named builders’ creation in Gurgaon.

“Beti, why did you listen to him? What is the need for all this secret-vekret?”

As seen above (“secret-vekret”, really?) the cadences never quite ring true. The set of values Kapur associates with her subjects also appears inescapable. Ishita, who appears the one exception, finds herself at the end of the book consulting astrologers, changing her child’s name for superstitious reasons, and even reflecting upon the irony of it all.

Custody is admirable for its balance, for its depiction of its central relationship, and particularly for the authentic-seeming portrayal of the two child characters. But none of these quite make up for its obviousness, its lack of a sense of direction or the blandness for which it can have no possible excuse.

**********************************************

(Does anyone else have trouble writing the word “custody”? I always end up with “custory”.)