Family portraits

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  • Published 21.09.08

Swirling speculation leaves her untouched. Manju Kapur refuses to read reviews of her novels. She shuns social gatherings and given the chance, she wants to change chunks of her life. “People talk about having no regrets. How can that be?” asks the author, sitting in the spacious drawing room of her Lutyens Delhi bungalow that seems a world removed from the middle-class life of the protagonists in her latest novel The Immigrant.

There are, nonetheless, autobiographical touches. The author, a bureaucrat’s daughter who married her right-across-the-road neighbour Gun Nidhi Dalmia, draws on her father’s bureaucratic days to create a parallel with her protagonist’s father.

Set in the 1970s, the story takes the reader along on an immigrant’s journey. Nina Batra, a 30-year-old Indian woman, marries an Indian dentist settled in Halifax, Canada, but after marrying and moving to the cold climes of Halifax she discovers that her husband suffers from sexual dysfunction. The backdrop to the story is the dark years of the Emergency.

“When you are writing, you write about yourself. You write about the times you have gone through,” says Kapur as she draws on her years of study in Halifax. “Further I lived through the Emergency years. It was a phase that imprinted itself on the psyche of the people who lived it out and it gave just the right amount of push to my characters, the need to migrate. So there is this sense of no return,” she notes.

A lifetime of reading and more than half of it teaching English literature comes through in Kapur’s books. She traces the social and economic forces of the times and juxtaposes them with gender relationships within the frame of a family. In fact, the family is the centrepoint around which her stories revolve.

Difficult Daughters, her first book written in 1998 which fetched her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Eurasian region, is about a young woman during the Partition torn between family duty, the desire for education, and illicit love.

Her second novel, A Married Woman, came in 2003 and dealt with a marriage that’s falling apart. This time the backdrop is the Babri Masjid episode — a time of turmoil and despondency. Her third novel Home, published three years later in 2006, was about the life of a joint family running a cloth business in Delhi’s busy Karol Bagh area.

“My imagination works around the family. There’s so much to say about it. Issues of gender, power, social values are all played out in the sight of the family,” says Kapur, who has broached topics like sexual dysfunction as in The Immigrant and lesbianism in A Married Woman.

“But those were never my focus. They were part of the plot. When I read about the reviews of A Married Woman concentrating on the lesbian aspect to it, I was taken aback. If I had any second thoughts, it was writing about the Babri Masjid incident,” she says.

One of Kapur’s biggest strengths is her refusal to stand in judgement on human foibles. In The Immigrant, Nina Sharma ée Batra has an adulterous relationship with a classmate but there’s no moralisation about her predicament. Says Kapur: “When you create characters, you actually live so long with them that you become far more forgiving with them than you would be with those around you.”

The need for some ‘headspace’ has made her take leave from her full-time job as a professor at Miranda House. The author who started writing at the age of 40, right after the birth of her third daughter, reminisces how during her teaching days she would be busy working on her drafts and then reworking them during holidays.

So she is on an indefinite sabbatical, behind which lies the confidence of being an oft-published author. And even as she misses interactions with her students, she points out: “It’s so tough writing and working. Behind writing two hours every day, goes 10 hours of space for one to mull. Now I can pay my full attention to the next book which I actually started writing in 2004. It doesn’t have chapters or sections at the moment. It is one long trying at putting together the story.”

As unassuming as she comes across in a simple cotton sari and an elbow-length blouse, her personality is mirrored in her no-nonsense, no-frills writing that she agrees suits her temperament. “In the ’90s when I started, I used to write differently. I experimented with magic realism. After all, we all like to think of ourselves as Rushdie’s heirs,” laughs Kapur. “Then along the way I realised that it didn’t work for me. I started writing simply, so that it wasn’t attention seeking.”

The fact that she likes to court anonymity is evident and you won’t find her at social dos or even book launches. Kapur is a homebody of sorts. She potters around the house — there’s even a cow on the sprawling compound — and takes care of the garden in ‘fits and starts’.

And when she is not sitting in the large colonial library of Delhi’s prestigious Gymkhana Club working on her laptop writing her new novel that looks at the subject of custody, she just reads, often for four or five hours each day. There almost seems to be a loose parallel in The Immigrant where the protagonist’s husband Ananda accuses her of thinking of herself as a heroine in a novel.

Ask Kapur how self-critical she is and she chuckles in reply before giving an instance of her breaking into the literary scene with Difficult Daughters 10 years back. It was a ‘ruthless’ experience of sorts when the novel that she had taken three years to complete was rejected eight times. Each time it met with a rejection, she edited and rewrote.

She adds: “I always wanted to be published. For at the end of the day it is so important for a writer to be published. Would you otherwise pay attention to the craft, to the polishing or go through 14 drafts?”