Saturday, 24 February 2007

Home: Manju Kapur

During the last trip to India, I had bought Manju Kapur's new book, "Home". I had earlier read her "Difficult daughters" and liked it.

Kapur's book is set in Karol Bagh area of Delhi in nineteen sixties and seventies. That was one reason, why I wanted to read this book as I had grown up in the same area and I could identify with some of the characters of the book very easily. In that sense the book does not disappoint. Once I started reading it, I could only stop when I had finished it. Reading words like "Ajmal Khan Road" or the descriptions of sari shops in Karol Bagh, evoked quick images of real places and persons that I had known.

The book is about the Banwari Lal family. The shop owner Banwari Lal, his sons Yashpal and Pyarelal and their wives and children and it explores the world of joint families. This world of joint families is not the large happy make-believe families of Suraj Barjatya films. It is a world trying to grapple with complexities of adjusting your aspirations and individualities with those of the others inside closed walls of the house, facing challenges of generational changes, trying to accomodate growing children in narrow personal spaces and even narrower working spaces.

This world of joint families does have altruistic elders, a mutual support system and intimacy that makes joint family living such a pleasure and a pain, but the book does not dwell much on these aspects, it rather focuses on tensions and rivalaries, almost a Darwinian struggle of finding your own space for catching the sunlight and growing up, escaping the shadows of the others, who came before you or who have more rights than you.

The book has a large set of characters, the patriarch, his wife, two sons, their wives and children, a dead daughter and her family etc. The first part of the book focuses on a few of these characters, esepcially on Sona, married to the elder son Yashpal and her sister, Rupa, married to a teacher, Prem Nath. Sona, beautiful, insecure and anxious can't have children while younger brother Pyarelal's ordinary looking wife Sushila quickly has the required sons, Ajay and Vijay. Ten years after the marriage finally Sona has a daughter, Nisha and then a son, Raju.

Death of Banwari Lal's daughter and their decision to take the daughter's son, Vicky in the house with them and Vicky's relationship with Sona, is the subject of the first part of the book. Sona, childless at that time, is expected to take care of Vicky. Vicky's adolescence and his first sexual experiments with his young cousin, Nisha make the family send Nisha to live with her childless aunt, Rupa. Nisha grows up and falls in love with a boy of another caste, and when the family finds out about it, this relationship is quickly snubbed out. Manglik Nisha can't find a husband and remains a spinster in the house, till she decides to set up her own business of making readymade clothes. Success of this business coincides with her marriage to a childless widower and the book ends with her pregnancy and the decision to leave the readymade clothes business.

In terms of characterisations, Kapur paints with a large brush with expressionist brush-strokes, giving a few details here and there and leaving you to fill in the rest from your own imagination. Except for Sona and Rupa, and to a lesser extent, Vicky, Yashpal and Banwari Lal, all other characters in the first part of the book remain shadowy figures. For example, Pyarelal and his wife Sushila, are cardboard characters, there is nothing distinctive about them that you can remember after finishing reading the book. In the same way, the second half of the book concentrates on Nisha, excluding almost everyone else. This helps you to focus on the main story of the book, even as it creates a feeling of dis-satisfaction about other persons in the book.

So compared to another large family story like "A Suitable Boy" by Vikran Seth, here family is just a setting and the story still remains limited to a few main characters and is not a proper joint family saga.

Kapur uses fairly simple language. There is hardly a phrase in the book that you stop to re-read to savour the words construction or profound ideas. Her language is just a tool to tell the story.

There are a few episodes of sex scattered throughout the book. Though it is still does not reach the level of explicit sex in the Harold Robbbins or Sidney Sheldon books written more than thirty years ago, but compared to the staid world of women writers of Indian literature (I confess that I still haven't read anything by Shobha De!), it does seem daring.

Vicky's violence on young Nisha or Nisha's own experience with her fumbling boyfriend, both are explicit enough to make us understand why her character feels and behaves the way she does. Another sex scene between Rupa and Premnath, does not serve the story in any way but it makes the two characters more real. The book throws in an occasional "chutiya" in colloquial way, probably for authenticity.

Overall, the book is a good read, even if I had liked "Difficult daughters" much more. Once you finish it, it does not leave any strong characters in your mind, rather it is all about persons who were shaped by their destinies and they could do little to fight it or to shape it in their own ways. So, after a few days of reading the book you will just remember that it was a good read, but may forget the characters and the story.



  1. 'A Married Woman'bhool gaye?

  2. I agree.. I feel that the ending should have been more compelling.. it puts nisha as a normal female who in the ends gives up her ambitions for the "family" and has no regrets.. I was completely let down by the ending when i finished reading the book at 3 AM in the morn..


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