Kapur's debut novel, Difficult Daughters (1998), depicted the life of a protagonist who sought education and a career despite the constraints of the gender role her family would impose on her, and who became the second wife of an academic. Kapur's second novel, A Married Woman (2002-3) has a protagonist who despite an initially perfectly happy arranged marriage and satisfying sexual life, drifts into a lack of marital and familial contentment; she involves herself in politics and meets a woman who becomes her lover eventually. Kapur's next novel, Home (2006), carries on the theme of the discontented middle class woman, this time taking an unwed young woman as protagonist, who longs for a meaningful career, but is forced into waiting for marriage. Her family, in this novel, function both to sincerely support her as well as suffocate her. Kapur's insightful third novel illustrates beautifully the intricacies of living in a joint family, and how the family provides the woman with a powerful identity, but also traps her within it. By the fourth novel, The Immigrant (2009), Kapur has departed a little from her original themes by creating a diasporic protagonist -- her middle class woman protagonist goes to Canada in an arranged marriage. Like Astha in A Married Woman, Nina cheats on her husband, but not with a lesbian lover which would not directly threaten the sanctity of the Indian marriage and family structure, but with a male classmate. That said, Nina is not a mother, only a wife. In Kapur's recentest release, Custody, her discontented protagonist does not endure discontentment in marriage or cheat behind her husband's back, but simply leaves (and eventually divorces) her husband, abandons her picture-book-perfect family life, marries her love and moves to New York. The bulk of the novel discusses the subsequent complications and struggles for custody of the two children of that marriage.
Shagun, our most radical Kapur protagonist to date, is a stunningly beautiful woman, who is married relatively young to a kind and talented Raman. Despite a comfortable lifestyle and having two beloved young children, Shagun is swept off her feet by Raman's boss, Ashok, who is not particularly well drawn as a character, but Kapur lets the reader know in no uncertain terms that Ashok is single-mindedly determined to marry Shagun and have her entirely for his own.
Shagun seems to suffer very few pangs of conscience, and is more concerned with the pragmatic difficulties of extricating herself from her first marriage. She has flickers of guilt at the beginning, but increasingly prioritises her own pursuit of satisfaction and happiness, and seems to succeed in her second marriage and glittering life with the affluent and adoring Ashok. Raman moves through the predictable stages of bewilderment, disbelief, pain, betrayal, and fury as he learns of his wife's infidelity and understands how little he means to her. He fights her for custody of the children, who, to his credit, he sincerely loves and wants to keep central in his life. As does Shagun. (Kapur is not in the business of creating heroes/heroines or villains, and this steer away from the judgmental lends her novels their consistent note of veracity and social realism.)
Shagun is contrasted with Ishita, the middle class and more average (in all ways) Indian woman who desperately wants to be a wife and mother, and finds her highest contentment in these roles. Ishita who had been married and happily, was divorced on ground of being barren, and who initially imagines (along with her parents) that her life is therefore over, being labeled rejected goods and returned. However, this is not India of several centuries ago, and Ishita is able to continue living with some degree of dignity and even job satisfaction (in her volunteer work with abandoned street children), and is still loved and supported by her parents.
The two divorcees meet, empathise, and Raman eventually marries Ishita, who lavishes her love on Raman's young daughter, fully intending to replace the absent Shagun as the child's mother. Kapur details the unpleasant and tedious workings of the fight for custody, and the ways in which parents make pawns out of their children as they battle, and also how extended family are drawn into the battle. Kapur's fifth novel is highly contemporary, taking on the depiction of an Indian woman who is no longer willing to suffer and sacrifice for her family, but who is willing instead to dismantle the family and cause pain in pursuit of her personal contentment. Shagun is no incarnation of the virtuous and self-sacrificing Sita, but she may well be a representative of the 21st century urban middle class Indian woman. In fact, Kapur's women characters are increasingly sexually liberated women, and both Shagun and Ishita quite quickly embark on sexual relationship before their subsequent marriages to those men. Kapur's novel contains no hint of any lack of regard the Indian men hold their women in, for their sexual forwardness, and it is therefore not only her women characters who defy social convention and traditional moral standards, but also her men characters.
This novel also illustrates not only that there is life after divorce for both Indian men and Indian women, but that there is marriage after divorce, and how second marriages can work out quite nicely. This novel moves well beyond Kapur's earlier protagonists' struggle to reconcile themselves with discontentment within marriage, moving boldly into the relatively new and unchartered territories of Indian divorces, custody battles for children, break ups of families (nuclear and extended ones), and into the new world of ex-spouses, step-parents, and the making of new families and new extended families.
Book Description: Raman is a fast rising marketing executive at a global drinks company; Shagun is his extraordinarily beautiful wife. With his glittering future, her vivid beauty, and their two adorable children -- eight year old Arjun who looks just like her and two year old Roohi who looks just like him -- the pair appear to have everything. Then Shagun meets Raman's dynamic new boss Ashok and everything changes. Once lovers and companions, husband and wife become enemies locked in an ugly legal battle over their two children. Caught in their midst is the childless Ishita who is in love with the idea of motherhood. 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.
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