Manju Kapur’s gallery of life

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In the contemporary publishing scene, author Manju Kapur cuts an unusual figure. Having published her first book at 50, she takes her time over each one that follows and consistently defies all markers of literary success



It’s a murky Saturday morning on the eve of Diwali, and I’m sitting with writer Manju Kapur in the drawing room of her home on Man Singh Road in Delhi. I’m here to talk to her about her new novel, The Gallery, recently published by Penguin Random House India. But having followed her work over the years, I have questions that span beyond this one book.

In the literary world, the appearance of a Manju Kapur novel is like sighting a comet. Each of her books has an intense, often painstaking, gestation period. When it comes out, there’s a certain amount of attention from a loyal readership (“largely female and older,” as one of her editors put it). But once the hubbub dies down, Kapur retreats into her cocoon, only to re-emerge with a new novel a few years later. This cycle has repeated since 1998, when she published her first novel, Difficult Daughters.

In the contemporary publishing scene, where youth and saleability are touted as the magic ingredients to success, Kapur, 75, cuts an unusual figure. She came to writing fiction in her 40s, after teaching English literature at Delhi’s Miranda House College for 30 odd years. And that, too, after many false starts.

“I always thought literature was so exalted—I could never do it,” Kapur says. “But after the rush of the 1980s and 1990s, Salman Rusdhie and Amitav Ghosh and others, I thought, chalo mein bhi try kar leti hoon (okay, let me try as well).”

So, she gave herself two years to finish her first book. In the end, it took eight. “That’s such a dreadful introduction to my writing process,” Kapur laughs. “I have never managed to write a book in two years.” It took her all her 40s to write Difficult Daughters. “I was a teacher, I had three children, and I ran a house very badly,” she says.

For a while, Kapur laboured under the belief that long years of teaching literature must give her some advantages, perhaps a clear understanding of how it’s all done. “But I was proved totally wrong,” she says. “It’s like a doctor looking inside the body and seeing what makes it work. You need training to do that, you need experience. I have been writing now for nearly 30 years, and I know I still have to work at it. I can’t churn out books, each book is different and a learning experience for me.”

And yet, as with every fine writer, Kapur’s struggle may be all too real, but it never shows. The Gallery, her seventh novel, has a screenplay-like pace (no wonder so many of her novels have been adapted for the screen), its story galloping ahead with light-footed ease. Kapur looks visibly thrilled when I remark on her nimble storytelling in this book. She is prone to peals of laughter, and every time she laughs, her reserve gives way to a genuine curiosity about the world. She bursts forth with questions, even as she answers the ones I throw at her. It’s rare to find such a harmonious coexistence of self-deprecation and self-assurance, diffidence and charisma, in a writer of her stature.

In the 21st century, where book advances don’t amount to much, and generative AI (artificial intelligence) can mimic the voice of any writer, most young authors don’t usually have the luxury of time or resources to spare on their books. But crucially, they lack patience, and the appetite for failure it takes to get to the finishing line of publishing a book. The 24×7 circus on social media, the 40 under 40 lists, the ups and downs in the best-seller charts every week can make writing feel like a workout in a jungle gym—a zero sum game, where only the savviest, canniest, and the shrewdest operators can survive the predators.

When Kapur’s first novel came out in 1998, India had just tasted literary success on the global stage, with Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning debut novel, The God Of Small Things (1997). The next year, Jhumpa Lahiri, an American woman of Indian origin, won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of short stories, The Interpreter Of Maladies. In contrast to these 30-something literary celebrities, Kapur’s first book, Difficult Daughters, entered the world as she was hitting 50.

Kapur’s writerly journey reminds me of the British art historian and novelist Anita Brookner (1928-2016), who, like her, spent many years teaching, before publishing her first novel, A Start In Life, at the age of 53. Since then, she kept up a steady rhythm of one novel a year, well into her 80s, and won the Booker Prize for Hotel Du Lac in 1984. “I’m so jealous when I look at her books,” Kapur jokes.

Not only did Brookner follow a fixed publishing schedule, but she also wrote relatively short novels. In contrast, Kapur typically spends several years writing, editing, deleting, rewriting, and polishing her work. “I don’t think I’d have been a writer, if there were no computers,” she says, thankful for the ease with which she can cut, copy, remove or move around text. The final result is, quite intentionally, a longish book.

“I don’t see characters in isolation, I see them in a context and, often, that context, for me, spans two-three generations,” Kapur says. “To understand men and women, you have to look at where they came from, their parents, and the people and places that formed them.”

A STYLE OF HER OWN

Born in 1948, Kapur is a spry 75, a picture of elegance in a purple sari. The spacious drawing room we are sitting in is filled with the works of the great masters of Indian art (her sister-in-law, Yashodhara Dalmia, is a renowned art historian). It feels like the perfect setting to talk about The Gallery, which is, among other things, about the difficult, and demanding, process of making and selling art.

But art isn’t merely a mode of monetary transaction in the novel. Rather, it is also a currency for change and freedom for women who would otherwise never have the courage to cross the Lakshman rekha behind which society expects them to stay. You can even read the title as a metaphor—The Gallery is the gallery of life, like Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage,” where men and women are painted with fine brush strokes and held up for the scrutiny of the readers.

“The title gave me a lot of trouble,” Kapur says. “My work is associated with families, but I wanted this book to reflect a larger world. It is about women going out, finding jobs, finding themselves, and finding ways to be independent. That’s why I called it The Gallery.” She adds that for a brief while, she toyed with the idea of calling it A Gallery Of Her Own, as a nod to Virginia Woolf, but both her publisher and her agent shot it down.

Once you get past the title and the ornate frame on the cover, you enter a world that’s very much Kapur’s own. At the core of The Gallery are two nuclear families, one a mirror image of the other, in a sense. Successful lawyer Alok Sahni lives with his wife Minal and daughter Ellora in Delhi’s posh Golf Links. Not content with being just a wealthy homemaker, Minal decides to open a gallery from home. It is her way of earning for herself without stepping outside the house (there are some ironic twists in that regard, though). On the premises of the Sahni’s bungalow live another family: Krishna, who works as a peon at Alok’s office, his wife Maitrye, Ellora’s nanny, and their daughter Tashi, all three immigrants from Nepal.

As Ellora and Tashi grow up to be close friends, their parents’ lives become entangled in a web of distrust and suspicion. There’s conflict and acrimony, but there’s also civility and tolerance. For without Maitrye’s support, Minal won’t be able to run her business. Both Ellora and Tashi get an elite education—girls’ education is a running theme in Kapur’s novels—but it doesn’t bridge the social gulf between them. If Kapur is subtle at highlighting the differences between these four women, she is truly masterful at joining the dots between their private sorrows and loneliness. Each of these women feels wronged by her family—an institution which is the cornerstone of Kapur’s writerly DNA.

In the long history of fiction, families are as ancient and ubiquitous as the trees. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” thus begins Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But, to me, Kapur’s take on families feels more in line with Freud’s view that, “All family life is organised around the most damaged person in it.”

In all her novels, the root of damage goes back generations, and isn’t necessarily traced back to the men either. Women, too, act as agents or instruments of patriarchy, often unwittingly, as pawns played by an iniquitous system. The protagonist of Difficult Daughters, Virmati, faces the harshest retribution for her defiance of social norms from her mother, Kasturi. In A Married Woman, Aastha’s mother hands over her inheritance to Aastha’s husband for safekeeping. In the end, Aastha has to beg him to give her money that’s lawfully hers to buy a car for herself.

In a 2017 TED Talk hosted by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan in Delhi, Kapur made a brief appearance to speak about relationships between men and women. Speaking in chaste Hindi, she starts with the family. “We spend most of our lives with our families,” Kapur says, “And when women get married, they are told they haven’t just married a man, but his whole family.” Words like “adjustment” and “compromise” are infused into the consciousness of young girls from an early age. “I’m not talking about big crimes here, but the little insults and hurts of everyday life,” Kapur says, ending her talk to a standing ovation.

A 2017 TED talk by Shah Rukh Khan, during which Manju Kapur made an appearance.

A 2017 TED talk by Shah Rukh Khan, during which Manju Kapur made an appearance.

By the time she gave this talk, Kapur had published five novels, two of which had been made into popular TV shows and mega serials like Yeh Hai Mohabbatein (based on Custody, 2011) and Pardes Mein Hai Mera Dil (The Immigrant, 2008) by Ekta Kapoor. (More recently, in 2021, Kapoor’s AltBalaji turned A Married Woman into a web series, starring Riddhi Dogra and Monica Dogra.) In spite of writing and publishing in English, Kapur brought something to her novels that was powerful enough to become fodder for prime-time TV for the masses.

For me, that “something” is her visceral understanding of the workings of the Indian family system, especially large joint families, where fealty and friction, love and hate, are often two sides of the same coin. “I’m interested in exploring how the financial, political, and moral values of a family are reflected in the lives, bodies and choices of its women,” says Kapur, who is married into a large business family herself. (Her husband Gun Nidhi Dalmia is a scion of the prosperous Dalmia family). “I have daughters, and I taught at a women’s college for years. All around me were women and the difficulties they encountered in leading fulfilling lives.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, when she was teaching at Miranda House, Kapur saw from up close the challenges faced by young women in a rapidly modernising India. There was tremendous pressure on women to marry, have children, and run a good home. Their education wasn’t a road to autonomy or earning a living. “My students were just fledglings, they were so young, with so much to worry about,” Kapur says, “So, for me, literature became an interesting tool to get into their lives.”

If she were teaching the novels of Jane Austen, for instance, Kapur would link the plots to the lives of her students in 20th century India, even though all of Austen’s heroines dated back to 17th and 18th century England. “I was always connecting the dots to their own lives, their choices, to keep it relevant,” Kapur says. “I’d tell them, look how choices are being made, what would you have done in this situation? I tried to make them think, which is what I believe is the role of a teacher, and hopefully I succeeded.”

Kapur’s empathy for, and understanding of, the lived realities of young, vulnerable women is strewn through her novels. As Rajni George, who edited Kapur’s novel The Immigrant (2008), says, “Manju may not have been seen as a fashionable writer in the era that marked the rise of Jhumpa Lahiri, who had already conquered the domain of immigrant fiction. But she had something new to say, in her typically understated yet powerful fashion, from within the skin of the immigrant woman fresh from India.” She conveyed this experience through a series of “memorable descriptions, like that of an Indian woman wearing jeans for the first time, causing a most foreign sensation as she has worn Indian clothing for her whole life,” George adds.

SHADES OF GREY

Curiously, some readers may experience Kapur’s novels as something of a “foreign sensation” as well. If you browse Goodreads, you will notice a baffling range of reactions to her work. Most of Kapur’s readers are women, they come from India and beyond. Many of them leave good reviews, commending her style, characters, and depth. But some are uncomfortable with the shifting moral centre of her plots, even exasperated by the lack of an unambiguous message in the end.

An irate reader of Difficult Daughters is left exasperated by the moral ambiguity of her plot: “Not really sure what this book tried to convey. Women need to rebel by becoming a second wife to a third-rate man, when they have the potential to be the first in something? Virmati met many, many interesting women who were out there doing things. Why did they not influence her? It’s rather hard to believe she wanted to be a second wife to this lecher of a man who hits on his students!” This isn’t an isolated sentiment either, but one that resonates with quite a few others as well.

Difficult Daughters is, undoubtedly, a difficult novel to digest. Loosely based on the marriage of Kapur’s parents, it is the chronicle of an era, deeply researched from a decade’s worth of records from The Tribune archives. Living in 1930s and 1940s India, the men and women in this novel are a product of their times, as all of us are, and Virmati, more than anyone else, is an outlier. She defies her family, rejects her comfortable life, to become the second wife to an already married, older, man. To decry her decision as a mistake is to deny her the agency of choice. Just as it is myopic to dismiss her husband as lecherous, disregarding his attempts, however clumsy they may be, to rise above society’s censure.

“When I write about men, I don’t want to make them into villains,” Kapur says, even as she acknowledges the imbalance of power among the sexes. “Men are as much a product of their environment as women. I try to be empathetic towards men, to make them understandable to others. You may not like it, but these are attitudes that surround all of us.”

If you read carefully between the lines, men are almost always the butt of jokes in her work, like Ananda in The Immigrant, or Alok in The Gallery, both self-centred, pompous and spoilt brats. The great sci-fi writer Ursula le Guin, who reviewed several of Kapur’s novels, described her sense of humour as “mild” and “bittersweet”, “like a good vermouth.” As she wrote in 2009 in The Guardian, “It is a kind of gently pervasive and delicious flavour, like that of ginger or coriander used with a light hand.” This aromatic metaphor beautifully describes the treatment that most men get in Kapur’s novels.

Mild but bittersweet is how Kapur herself comes across in person as well. Her agent, Shruti Debi, who has worked with her since the first draft of her novel, Brothers (2016), says, “In all the years since, Manju has been remarkably consistent—always a saint, never a martyr. She worries but never complains. She is never competitive, never unkind about other authors. If she doesn’t like something she states it in the simplest of terms: ‘I don’t like …’.”

Among the things Kapur doesn’t like, Debi tells me, are some of the terms film and TV crew try to set authors. “I admire Manju very much for standing by her sense of fairness and walking away from an offer not because the money wasn’t right but because the framing of the rights was lopsided,” she says. “Younger novelists could take a lot from the shape, and sheer style, of her career. Think about the world more, and less and less about what the world thinks of you.”

But Kapur likes to end her involvement once the deal is closed. She doesn’t like to fuss about her books as they are being adapted for the screen. “Writers are solitary creatures. When my books are adapted for TV or film, I always refuse to get involved,” she says. “The fact is I can’t work with other people, that’s why I am a writer!” Her reaction to the final product is clipped. A Married Woman, the web series, which aired in 2021, “wasn’t bad”. Yeh Hai Mohabbatein (2013-19), based on Custody (2011), she found “peculiar.” Ekta Kapoor, the producer, in the case of the latter, had warned her it would be different, and so it was.

At the end of the day, it is her writing that matters to Kapur the most. “Writing is entirely self-driven as an activity. No one asks us to do it. It requires discipline,” she says. She still goes about it in the old-fashioned way: by reading extensively, interviewing others, travelling to places to understand their people and culture. George remembers Kapur as “always listening attentively and revising meticulously, the rigour of academic life very much a part of her work culture.”

To write The Gallery, Kapur made multiple trips to Nepal to better understand the realities of the Nepali family that is central to the story. While she did draw on the Nepali staff who work at her home, she admits that the barriers of class are hard to overcome. “My household staff are the people I have the most interaction with on a daily basis, but it’s not as though I have any real insights into their lives,” Kapur says. In the end, it takes years of observations, conversations, and imagination to make a work of fiction come alive.

And, most importantly, the routine of writing every day. Just one or two hours, no more, going up to about four hours, when she is editing and finalising a manuscript. “At the moment, I’m on the second or third draft of my next novel. I worked on it yesterday and I’m looking forward to getting back to it again today,” Kapur says. “When I don’t look forward to writing, I know something’s not working.” Today, thankfully, isn’t that day.

Manju Kapur's latest novel, 'The Gallery'.

Manju Kapur’s latest novel, ‘The Gallery’.

LATE BLOOMERS

Five iconic writers who, like Manju Kapur, took their time to publish their first book:

JAMIL AHMAD: This Pakistani writer defies every cliché in the publishing rulebook. In his 80th year, he published his first and only collection, The Wandering Falcon, a truly extraordinary account of life among the Pashtuns of the North-West Frontier provinces. The book, which took nearly four decades to get published, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. As the saying goes, better late than never.

ANNIE PROULX: Born in 1935, this American writer started out as a journalist and focused mostly on non-fiction until the 1980s. It was only in 1992, at the age of 57, that she published her first novel, Postcards, which won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It would take another five years for her best-known work, Brokeback Mountain, to appear in The New Yorker.

NIRAD C. CHAUDHURI: In 1951, when Nirad C. Chaudhuri published his first book, The Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian, he was a sickly middle-aged man in his 50s. Little did he imagine that this unlikely debut would become his passport to global fame, or notoriety (depending on where you stand) and a writing career spanning 50 more years.

SUNITI NAMJOSHI: IAS officer-turned-scholar-turned-author, Suniti Namjoshi holds a special place in the contemporary canon of feminist and queer writing. Her first book of fiction, Feminist Fables, was published in 1981, her 40th year. Since then, she has created her own unique brand of surreal, funny and satirical stories, many of which draw on traditional folklore and the epics.

TONI MORRISON: The Nobel Laureate spent years fixing other people’s books as an editor at Random House before publishing her own book, The Bluest Eyes, in 1970, as she was hitting 40. The rest, as they say, is history. A legendary figure in the history of Black writers, Morrison has left us with some of the most iconic works of fiction focusing on race, identity, social justice and human rights.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

 

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