24 June 2009

Book Review: Home

Author: Manju Kapur
Publishers: Random House
Year Of Publishing: 2006
Price : 395
Pages: 337

Family Matters

In this story set in Delhi's Karol Bagh family, every kind of tradition - no matter how outdated--- is followed. Honour comes above all individual aspirations and a woman's status in the family is solely judged by her ability to give heirs.
At a time when joint families are out of fashion in India, Kapur's choice of subject for 2006 is a bit suspect. But then given their perennial appeal on television channels, maybe not. And Kapur writers well, keeping the narrative engaging for more part. Yet, to see this household as a microcosm of what today's Indian homes represent would be a mistake. The long explanations of Karwa Chaut, the mythological tale of Savitri and how she brings back her husband Satyavan's life back from Yama and so on - all weaved within the story - give the awkward feeling that Kapur intends in some ways to cater to a foreign gaze or expatriates who staunchly preserve the idea of India being untouched by time and still rooted in age-old traditions.

Yet, for all its familiarity and a certain feeling of datedness, Home manages to sustain as a narrative purely because of the vivid characters that are introduced and enumerated in such colourful details. Also, being a woman, Kapur can penetrate better into the petty jealousies, insecurities and compulsions that play a major part in the joint-family set up. The author is acutely conscious of the complex mental make-up of her women characters and reveals the many unsaid emotions that they experience. Compared to the women, Kapur is less preoccupied with the men, so they largely remain in the sidelines.

Even if joint family as a concept is fading, Home's appeal is retained somewhat because all said and done, many of the values and conventions that it upheld haven't entirely disappeared. Also, it's an interesting character study or sorts, in a setting where human proclivity is understood better than anywhere else.

The story kickstarts well with Kapur tracking the fortunes of two sister - Sona and Rupa. The former gets married into a well off trader family, Banwarilals, while Rupa marries modestly to a junior government officer. Each one believes the other is luckier, with Sona especially whining about the step-motherly treatment she receives for being childless. The first 100 pages or more are free flowing, with standard descriptions of how newly married life would be in a joint family. The entire premise of this family life (as well as the book) is based on a woman's ability to bear a child, preferably male - so every daughter-in-law who comes into the Banwari family finds her status judged according to this one standard alone.

This obviously becomes repetitive after a point, and it's a surprise how the novel still manages to keep you glued. There are some bright spots for sure. Kapur cleverly overturns situations just when you think you know what's going to happen next. And it works because the rest of the novel doesn't shy away from stereotyping. So Sona's childless state is coincided with the death of Sushila- the daughter of the house and she leaves behind Vicky, her only son. One would imagine Sona to be delighted but she shows disdain towards the boy and finds it painful to accept him when he is thrust upon her by the elders. At this point, one can't fully comprehend her emotions and you presume Vicky would turn out to be the dark horse of the family. But none of that happens. And in fact, Sona's fears of the boy's nature are justified. This is one of the plus points of the novel.
The best and most poignant part of the novel is the character of Nisha - the prized daughter of the family --- who is the only one to put up a mild battle against the regressive attitude of her family.

For most part, Kapur presents the joint family system as both the preserver and destroyer of an individual. In Nisha's case, the effect is adverse and the irony is heightened, as her life takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Fate delivers a cruel blow to her, first when her love is thwarted by the family, as the boy is low cast and poor and second, when she suffers from a peculiar skin disease that robs her of her initial good looks. Meanwhile, from being the centre of the family's attention, Nisha is suddenly relegated to a inferior position because other younger daughter-in-laws come into the family. Nisha is unmarried, not as pretty as earlier and this is the time when the joint family set-up especially seems to crush her spirits.

The ending again beautifully brings out how life can look up again - with a slight readjustment of one's expectations after suffering a blow. Nisha finds her happiness when she least expects it. But this is a conditioned 'happiness' and she succeeds in the terms she has been taught to believe in. The system wins.
Manju Kapoor's attempt throughout the novel is only to 'show' but never 'tell', so the whole book is pretty much descriptive of what goes on, rather than any incisive, ironical commentary. The authorial voice is hardly there, so you are left to gather what you want from it. This is somewhat disconcerting - because it makes the narrative dispassionate and detached even at places which could do with some sharp satire. This makes the tone of the book very flat and it's only in the second half -with Nisha's character - that the irony gathers some steam.

The novel works because it holds your attention and you are keen to follow the fortunes of all the characters. Also, it's nice to see Kapur using very simple language, with the understanding that her characters are actually speaking in Hindi. No frills, nothing. It's basic English that adds a nice texture to the setting.


gouri dange said...

Your honesty and hard work (old-fashioned words in journalism!!) in your reviews makes them valuable to anyone reading. I got a complete sense of this book. I'm curious to read it now, not for its own merit, but because you write in this nuanced way about this and other books. thanks sandhya

janaki said...


2 new books that you may like to read : Molly Fox's bday - you will love this and "baking in kigali" - both feel good and nice !

sandhya said...

Janaki, will check out the books for sure

Thanks so much Gouri, glad you found the review useful.

日月神教-任我行 said...