Where Have I Read This Before?

Manju Kapur
Random House India
Price: R 450, Pages: 415 (hardcover)

Familiarity can sometimes be comforting, they say. Which is why all of us seek familiar faces, voices, and spaces in the absence of other sources of comfort. The trouble is, for a writer, the thin red line between familiarity and repetition often becomes invisible, so what you get is one big sigh of having seen it all — or at least major chunks of it — before.

Manju Kapur does not repeat herself throughout this, her fifth book, but she does rely on certain old faithfuls who enhance our sense of déjà vu. Her award-winning debut, Difficult Daughters (1998), was a thoughtful study of the bourgeois, newly awakened Indian middle class, and the novels that followed, such as The Immigrant, followed suit, in placing the characters in posh, wannabe Delhi locales.

And so we come to Custody, where Raman, complete with degrees from IIT and IIM, works for a multinational. At home, his beautiful wife Shagun and two children, Arjun and Roohi, are models of perfection, until Shagun begins an affair with Raman’s boss Ashok. As she and Raman head for divorce, Kapur draws attention to the plight of the two children and their parents’ sordid battle for their custody.

Along the way, there are the mandatory aunty jis, and there is Ishita, another divorcee, who Raman is drawn to and eventually marries. However, as we are drawn slowly into their world of separation, pain, betrayal, anger, et al, a vital element that we miss out on is sympathy.

Apart from the children, whose pain we feel mostly indirectly, it is hard to be sorry for any of the others involved. Shagun is as petty and lifeless as she is beautiful, Raman seems capable of fusty self-pity and little else, Ashok is inexplicably unbearable, and Ishita, who starts out believably enough, becomes something of a cardboard cutout towards the end.

What Kapur does with these characters is endlessly balance and counterbalance, so we aren’t allowed to come to conclusions about any situation or character. More damagingly, perhaps, it also causes her to repeat situations and lapse into cliché-ridden dialogue that the book could well do without. The children draw attention, yes, but Kapur finds little that is new in describing the first awkward interactions between children and potential step-parents, or the signs of emotional disturbance that they exhibit.

It doesn’t help that most of the supporting cast are almost caricatures rather than real people. This is where you get the feeling that Kapur is overdoing her ‘focusing-on-a-small-section-of-upwardly-mobile-India-with-all-its-idiosyncrasies’ a bit. And she does with an obviousness that mars much of the pleasure of what could have been an engrossing read.

This book review first appeared in the Hindustan Times

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