A few months ago, in ‘Ethnicity & Authenticity’ I promised to discuss Indian women writers who deal with the issues that affect the lives of urban middle-class women. So we arrive at Manju Kapur, the doyenne of that genre, whose fifth novel Custody was recently published in London.
Manju Kapur is a ‘storyteller’ in the old-fashioned sense, in that her novels are strongly narrative and descriptive, but also in the sense that the stories are compelling and told with conviction. Difficult Daughters, her first novel, published in 1998, was based on the experiences of her own mother and details the mainly domestic lives women lived at the turn of the century. The book takes us from the early 1900s to the 1950s and while chronicling the history of her (wayward for the times) mother, as well as the family and friends around her, Kapur tracks the changes that education brought about in the lives of women.
Here is an author who feels strongly about education and about the place of women in society. You could say her background is ideal for the books she writes, or, vice versa, the books reflect her own arc of thought: she was a teacher of English for many years until novel-writing became a full-time profession, and as an intellectual woman living within the strictures of Delhi society, both past and present, she is well-placed to empathise and record the inner unspoken lives that surround her.
Education was a big first step towards emancipation for women in India in the early 1900s, although as Kapur makes clear in Difficult Daughters, emancipation was not the goal that the early founders of schools for girls had in mind. As ‘enlightened’ people themselves, they felt it was right to begin to educate their daughters. However, as learning became less of a male preserve, many communities also began to be turned off the idea of sending their girls to school because of the sort of ‘thinking women’ education was producing. These women were less accepting of their defined roles; more vocal and more assertive than their mothers had ever been. But once a trend is set in motion there is no going back. Although in Difficult Daughters Kapur illustrates that well educated men were seeking brides who could not just do the housework but with whom they could connect on an intellectual plane, she also clarifies in novel after novel that, in North India at least, emancipation is never the goal for a woman, not even today.
Her two novels A Married Woman’ and Home (published in 2003 and 2006, respectively) follow the evolution of educated women into the 70s, 80s and 90s, concentrating again on the lower and upper middle classes. They are, after all, the part of society to whom society itself matters the most. They define the social customs of their time by the prevalence of those customs within their communities. The middle classes are those to whom it matters what is said about them. Keeping up appearances and preserving family honour is a significant part of life.
Kapur explores the dilemmas this throws up for women who can’t obey the norm; she does this without ever becoming strident or making an argument for one set of values versus another. Although she clearly believes in emancipation, she writes lucidly about how this sought-after liberty destroys society’s traditions. The effects of women hankering for a life outside the home and sometimes achieving it are not always pleasant for the old order.
The rebellions of Kapur’s protagonists, housewives and teachers, are actually tiny rebellions if seen from a world view. So a reader may find the main character in A Married Woman, Astha, to be too submissive, too bound by expectations, not aiming high enough with her ambitions and being miserable without quite understanding why; but here is exactly where Kapur sticks to the truth. These limited rebellions, this desire for careers or artistic endeavour or fulfilled love or some form of self-satisfaction through other means than their households bind her heroines together into a single narrative history of passive Indian womankind in the 20th century. Kapur explains through her patient narration how this passivity is bred into the Indian woman’s psyche from childhood onwards.
If this sounds very earnest, it isn’t really. Kapur is good with humour. She enjoys the contrast between the glamorous Hindi movie heroines who stalk the planet like they own it before turning into simpering brides for the final scene and the stark reality of the endings she herself bestows on her rather staid heroines. Bollywood, that important part of culture, receives its own cameo in Home, where the young protagonist, Nisha, dreams of her romance with her hero-like boyfriend in terms of standard movie scenes.
But unlike the majority of Bollywood’s offerings there are no set piece scenes or major dramas in Kapur’s novels; the upheavals all take place in undercurrents. The serious mishaps and tragedies that strike the protagonists are heavily underplayed, as if the author is deliberately distancing herself from any hint of sentimentality. The characters themselves face the unravelling of dreams at the slow realistic pace of real life and they learn the inexorable truth the hard way.
In her first four novels the one rebellious option girls brought up in loving conservative families can come up with is refusing to marry at all if they are not allowed to marry a man of their choice. This in itself is a ‘safe’ rebellion, just in the way that the married Astha is able to conduct an affair with a woman, a somewhat safer rebellion than an affair with a man. Kapur understands the extent of rebellion in the middle class she sets her novels in: these essentially well brought-up good daughters want to please their families, not tarnish their honour; they want to remain safe in the arms of familial male protection; they want to maintain their reasonably comfortable lifestyle. After they have pushed the envelope and suffered an interval of consequences they must learn to subside into family conformity or risk losing all of those things. The exception so far is the latest book, Custody (set in a more modern India at the turn of the 21st century), in which Kapur offers no ideological directive, but ensures in the ending that Shagun, the adulterous wife, pays a punishing price for her new love, while a similar penalty is inflicted on her former husband.
Unlike the movies, Kapur’s novels don’t end at the end. They halt at the mid-way point in the journey and leave the reader to figure out the rest. For example, in A Married Woman, Astha has seen off her US-bound lover at the airport and now she returns home, heartbroken, yet knowing her place: mother to her two children; wife to her husband; daughter-in-law to her parents-in-law; artist; in that order. Home ends with the character Nisha giving birth to twins and accepting the futility of trying to retain control of her boutique business, which required daily visits to the tailoring factory she had set up in the basement of her parents’ home. Nisha, in addition to twin babies, has a mother-in-law to look after, a household to run, a husband who works long hours and her new home is at some distance from her parents. Nisha has already learnt the realities of life for a woman of her position in Delhi: she has had a love affair with a good-looking man she couldn’t marry because he was unacceptable to her parents – too poor and too low-caste.
In this instance, particularly, Kapur stresses the illusions created by Hindi films, where such barriers are routinely overcome by the sheer power of love (although it takes three hours of overdone theatrics to get to that happy end). In real life, these barriers of social status, caste, religion and economic situation are still insurmountable for many families or for young people in love. Kapur’s heroines, whether browbeaten by circumstances or their consciences, scurry into the security of their homes, their daily compromises, their daily caring duties. But reading the books, one understands the imperative behind this continuing passivity of Indian womenfolk: the desire to safeguard their families despite their inner lives being completely at odds with their outer lives.
If you live in India or have ever lived there you don’t need Kapur to point up these intricacies as neatly as she does. Not that these underlying rationalisations detract from her books. I believe they make her body of work stronger because her books serve as an important record for the day when the scenes she describes will be less common than they are now.
She has the eye of an historian, as, in further contrast to the movies, her stories are narrated dispassionately. Even while fixing her gaze on the passionate jealousies and rivalries that rule her female characters’ behaviour across three generations or more, she writes in an unfussy style with occasionally wise and beautiful turns of phrase. She dissects relationships with admirable forthrightness and she is fair to her characters – there is no one who is an outright villain. She can be wickedly damning with the honesty at the core of her observations, especially when picturing the stereotypical women each family contains: the spinster, the childless, the mean mother-in-law, the flighty daughter-in-law, the sister who ‘married for love’; this last whispered in a disparaging fashion. Even better, she depicts with sharp candour all the crotchety old women who seem bent on focusing their attention on ‘the miseries of this existence.’ Plagued by loss of husband and thus of status, by old age and the accompanying health problems, yet living often in the centre of family life and wielding the power that entails, Kapur is unflinchingly critical of these ladies.
Yet she balances out the rigidity of family structure by also portraying good-hearted men and women, dutiful, decent, honest people, and by identifying the strong bonds, the support systems and the traditions that hold and build families.
A feminist doesn’t necessarily need to shout to be heard. On responding to the question of whether she writes as a woman or a feminist, Kapur was quoted in The Independent as saying: “Often women’s fiction is called domestic or family-focused. It is a label that is not derogatory but a bit condescending.” She adds that, “Jane Austen is using a small microcosm to reflect every issue under the sun.”
Kapur is often referred to as the Jane Austen of India. In itself, this is a revealing compliment. Yes, the society Kapur describes is rigidly old-fashioned as compared to social values in western countries, but only because the India of the 70s, 80s and 90s was fifty years behind the UK in terms of urbanisation and modernisation. The themes she tackles actually range further than Austen’s, because Kapur is firmly rooted in the present and her books are evolving along with the social and economic changes in urban India.
The similarities with Austen are most evident in the early novels in which Kapur concentrates on the roles marked out for women from good families: their upbringing is solely aimed at their getting married at a young age to a suitable boy chosen by their parents and to commence forthwith with the housekeeping and childbearing, in particular producing male heirs. Their duty as home-makers and carers of the health and well-being of their husband and in-laws comes first and foremost.
Yet because Kapur is not living in Austen’s times she is free to discuss sex, quite a lot of it, and from a feminist perspective. She is not shy about discussing masturbation, sexual experimentation, infertility and sexual dysfunction. Infertility, in particular, is a running theme in all her books; it is a dark stigma in Home and also a source of anxiety for the next generation; a reason for disappointment in at least one aspect of life in The Immigrant; and in Custody it is the almost ruination of one girl’s life, prepared as she was for marriage and children and not much else. In a poignant end, [spoiler alert] her determined striving and wily calculations win the love and custody of her little step-daughter, while the biological mother is left out in the cold; perhaps as just chastisement for flitting off to pursue happiness and a more complete life in a far-off land with a new man.
Kapur herself gives us the best argument for using the domestic set-up to tell her stories. To quote her: ‘We all live in families and we are all shaped by them.’ Within these stories of families she touches on bigger themes, which include: the arrival of consumerism and the international conglomerates; the generation gap; the immigrant experience (from loneliness to re-invention); the practice of dowry (outlawed but always in vogue); the Babri Masjid controversy (fanned by politicians); the Indian legal system (life-sucking); the contravention of building laws (bribery); and ancient Indian astrology (inescapable).
Everything on the pages of her novels is deeply familiar; it is present and correct. In that sense she reminds me of her own character Astha, who creates a painting in which everything is put in miniature on one large canvas: the whole history of a contemporary political event, with small figures and symbols filling all corners of the painting in order to represent everything connected with the event. This is what Manju Kapur does in her books: she gives us the full picture.