What do you think of love marriages?' one character asks another, in Manju Kapur's Home. 'They are very bad,' comes the reply. 'Require too much adjustment.'
It is that brand of powerful understatement alone that saves the novel.
On the surface, you have what has always characterised much writing from India a plot about domestic spaces. Set in Delhi's Karol Bagh, it follows the lives and times of cloth trader Banwari Lal's family. A simple enough tale, where all the author does is tell you about the intricate knots that hold up joint families, and how a little tug at one end can have huge repercussions at the other.
In a nutshell, the reader is asked to follow two sisters Sona and Rupa -- both childless, until the former gives birth to daughter Nisha. There are smaller tales that flow from and around this relationship -- about husbands, sisters-in-law, mothers-in-law, poor cousins, and how each of these people work constantly towards grabbing and then holding on to their private niche in what is supposed to be a communal place.
There are references -- some oblique, others candid -- to child abuse and dowry death, stories about pettiness and jealousy, insights into arranged marriages and the power struggles that dominate most households. And yet, from what could easily meander into soap opera territory, Kapur salvages something of value by taking on the role of detached observer. It is a careful sort of detachment, created to draw attention to what lies just beneath the polished veneer of a seemingly united family. The kind of detachment that takes a long time to master and a sure hand to maintain.
Kapur has done her homework, of course. Her descriptions of the many rituals that families depend upon to enhance a sense of belonging are flawless. What also helps is the fact that this is familiar territory -- this exploration of the ways in which women are devoured by, yet try and manipulate, the system.
Her first novel Difficult Daughters -- which received the Commonwealth Award for the Eurasian region -- was set during the struggle for independence. An interesting aspect of it was the involvement of women in Gandhi's Swaraj agitations. Her second, A Married Woman, was about an artist using her canvas to confront the limitations of middle-class living.
When I asked Kapur if this examination of women's histories was a persistent theme, she e-mailed in reply: "I am interested in the lives of women, whether in the political arena or in domestic spaces. One of the main preoccupations in all my books is how women manage to negotiate both the inner and outer spaces in their lives -- what sacrifices do they have to make in order to keep the home fires burning -- and at what cost to their personal lives do they find some kind of fulfilment outside the home."
It is a reply that paraphrases everything Kapur has sought to achieve with Home. That tricky negotiation between inner and outer so familiar to women in India. Another interesting thing about the novel is its unashamed insistence on having an Indian audience in mind. There is no pandering to those unfamiliar with a region's vernacular or the rituals it gives birth to.
"I write with an Indian audience in mind because, if I don't, it will change the way I write," says Kapur. "Certain explanations will creep in. Things an Indian audience takes for granted will then have to be explained, and I believe this might make my writing laboured. I wish to be as clear, lucid and unobtrusive as possible."
Again, it is the 'unobtrusive' that wins her points. In literature, as in film, the point of view can make or mar the best fictional situation. Kapur, long a teacher of English at Delhi's Miranda House, has obviously been exposed to this aspect of criticism for years. "Pedagogic issues do tend to creep in everywhere in my writing," she admits.
She says initial drafts of all her novels have used Miranda House as a setting, adding, rather self-deprecatingly, "It seems my imagination works in somewhat limited ways!" She does say that the teaching of literature develops a critical sensibility though, "which makes one see the world in a certain way."
I mention to her that a large portion of Home reads, in effect, like a soap opera. "That aspect hadn't struck me until recently, when a reader pointed it out," she replies. "I suppose if you took the broad outlines of the story it would share similarities, but the difference would lie in the telling of it. My intention in telling this particular story -- the way in which I told it -- was to highlight the power struggles that go on in families -- the areas of control and ways in which spaces are constantly negotiated. I also wanted to explore variations that exist within the same family, which meant I had to have a pretty large cast of characters."
Again, to her credit, that large cast is managed quite well. While some fall by the wayside -- what happens to the unwelcome Vicky, for instance, or Sona's husband, both of whom are fairly important in the novel's first half? -- most other characters are given space to develop. Rather surprisingly, the second half of the novel focuses largely on one character -- Sona's daughter Nisha. She falls in love with a lower-caste boy, is forced by her family to give him up, starts a business and eventually relinquishes control for what is held up as the most important thing in a woman's life -- starting her own family.
Considering most of Kapur's protagonists challenge their existence, this is difficult to understand. Nisha tries to, but succumbs. Would the author call her a failure? "She does succeed in the terms she has been taught to believe in," says Kapur. "No, she does not break away completely from the family -- but again, that is one of my themes. That joint families can both destroy and preserve, simultaneously as it were, quite often."
Currently in the middle of her next book, Kapur isn't quite sure about whether she will one day attempt writing of another genre. She tells me that her content does, to a certain extent, dictate her style. I mention a recent conversation with Kiran Nagarkar, who pointed out that Indian literature has a long way to go before it can claim to 'have arrived'. Kapur agrees, but is hopeful. "If we are talking of Indian writing in English," she says, "it has to be remembered that the outpouring of writing is a fairly recent phenomenon. The good stuff will emerge; give it time."
What she thinks is lacking is a certain critical standard. "Sometimes, one is amazed at the stuff that gets published. Where is the rigorous editing that every book should be subject to?" she asks.
I have no answer to that one.