26 March 2011

Custody by Manju Kapur

Secret formula
The last book I took a day off for was Lost Symbol by Dan Brown – and only because I had a deadline. But every booklover knows the feeling of being drawn into a story and falling, helpless, into its clutches with such intensity that you resent every minute spent away from it and avoid every person or activity that draws your attention from it. As I’ve grown older and developed more restraint it happens less often so this book caught me unawares and I put everything aside, agog till I turned the last page.

This is Manju Kapur’s fourth novel and she has established a reputation for writing gripping stories that deal with the complicated relationships in Indian families. Custody is set in the late 1990s, a period that stands out as a time when India had suddenly begun racing to catch up with the rest of the world in technology and manufacturing capability; when it had been gleefully recognized as a lucrative world market – and when various forces had conjoined to sweep in swift social change too. The last two of these form the setting of this book. Some of its main themes are loneliness in marriage, the plight of children of separated parents, the breach between the realities of society and that of the law courts which are easily manipulated by the unscrupulous, and the wrenching agony of childlessness. As with Manju Kapur's other books, the background here is thick with the oppressive ideas that traditionally abound in Indian families: the necessity to put family obligations above personal happiness; parental manipulation equated with love; subjugation of a woman’s needs; rejection and pain not just from parents-in-law but also “children-in-law” – and more. Yes, this sounds like a grim place to be but I found the story and the way it is told simply irresistible.

One of the things I admire about Manju Kapur’s books is the authenticity of detail. It’s not just joint-family politics and delicate marital relationships that she excels at describing! So when her characters are corporate bosses, as some are here, the text will unobtrusively carry phrases such as “B and C towns”, “out-of-the-box thinking”, easy references to concepts of branding and an insider approach to HR. When they belong to an elite boarding school, the quality of the food, the old-students’ network, the psychological skill of housemasters are all described in a relaxed way, with casual but perfect accuracy.

Manju Kapur also has the skill to give us a detailed understanding of her characters without talking about them but just showing us, in her perceptive way, exactly who they are by the way behave. So the philandering wife is lovely to look at, but instead of feeling sympathy for her isolation I could only feel a condescending disgust for her shallowness and self-absorption – even without a single negative word of description. And even the characters towards whom I felt the author’s craft building an empathy in me turned out to be human heroes and heroines, revealing their weakness and vulnerability when pushed into the kind of corners Manju Kapur’s books abound with.

However, this is a book with a very strong narrator's voice and at times I found this to be sneering, which I did not like. And at times it was brusque and grammarless – but that I quite liked, finding it stylish and suitable to a fast-paced style.
For conversations between two people, the author has employed an idiom rather different from the idiom in which living people like these would, but more appropriate to a book that will doubtless have an international readership. However, there are occasions on which some of the characters – usually one of the old folks – will say something from a traditional Indian-English idiom that pointedly reminds you precisely who they are.
Some of the transitions in this book are just single words, sometimes briefly indicating the month or place and often using that meanwhile, back at the ranch device which English teachers tend to frown upon. It works well when you’re reading fast, gripped with the longing to know what happens next – but can a serious writer who wants to continue being taken seriously really do that? I’m not sure! Maybe it’s a very “today” thing to do – or maybe it only shows that this writer, having made her mark, now assumes that she can get away with being lazy and taking her readers for granted. I wish I knew.

Once I had escaped the clutches of the gripping story I began thinking about what had fascinated me so much and my first thought was that perhaps it was only the type of voyeurism that keeps people glued to saas bahu serials on TV. And since Manju Kapur is so accomplished at getting under the skin of her characters, I had obviously found a lot more to gape and ogle.
A second possibility was that all this lifelike churning had put me in mind of similar intense – if long-ago – experiences of my own with custody and nascent stepmotherhood which had served to transport me into an altered state of consciousness.


  1. Hi Saaz,

    Sometimes I get intrigued. This time it was your use of "philandering wife ". That was the first time I saw it applied to a woman, so I went to check. There are some references that accept it for both genders; but the overwhelming consensus seems to be that it is applicable only to men who play around with women they do not intend to marry. When applied to a woman, it seems to indicate one who loves her man (husband).

    So then I check its etymology, and find it is a composite from two greek words meaning "to love" and "man" http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/philander?view=uk. And from there I went to look at philanthrope, and found it the archaic term for philanthropist, meaning to love a human being. The relationship between a philanderer and a philanthropist? I love these little excursions.

    I couldn't find a word that applies for similar behaviour in women. Is that telling of the prevalence of partriarchy and patricentricity? Of course, there are other words (adultery, unfaithfulness, infidelity, etc.) that are applciable to both sexes, but I couldn't find one that applies exclusively to women. I excluded polyandry, since that has a different connotation.

    Words, words, words. (What did Eliza Doolittle say, exactly? Same place where there's that beautiful song "With a little bit of luck" where we encounter the p-word).

    Warm regards,

  2. Custody is the riveting story of how family-love can disintegrate into an obsession to possess children, body and soul, as well as a chilling critique of the Indian judicial system. Told with nuance, sympathy, and clear-sightedness, it confirms Manju Kapur’s reputation as the great chronicler of the modern Indian family.