[Did this profile for the August issue of Elle magazine]
“Deceptively simple” is an overused term from the critic’s lexicon, but it sits very well with the work of Manju Kapur. The cosy, unthreatening titles of her novels (A Married Woman, Home, Difficult Daughters), their linear plots and the stillness of her prose conceal an acute understanding of social hypocrisies. Though her work is not judgmental in tone, it’s uncommonly perceptive about human foibles. She can write lucid, conversation-driven narratives about joint families while also making sharp observations about the inconstancy of people and their relationships, as well as the subtler points of self-deception in a tradition-soaked society.
It would be simplistic to assume that a writer capable of looking beneath placid surfaces should have led a notably unconventional or difficult life herself, but I’m struck by the apparent relaxedness, even cushiness, of Kapur’s home environment when I meet her for this interview. She lives in a spacious house in Lutyens Delhi with her husband and their children. Our conversation takes place in a cheerfully lit living room that contains, among other things, a plasma TV and a worktable. On the porch outside sits a table-tennis table (“it spoils the view,” she says, “but the children insisted on it”) and a clay-tennis court is visible in the background. Kapur herself is on an indefinite sabbatical from her job teaching English at Miranda College, and now divides her time between her home and the library of the Delhi Gymkhana, where she goes to write.
Her own straightforward explanation for the nuanced, almost anthropological quality of her work is that it comes from a lifetime of studying and teaching literature. “Literature by women, about families, always has these larger considerations,” she says. “With years of studying texts, it becomes almost second nature to look beneath the surface – at social and economic forces, gender relationships and how they are played out in an arena that, in my writing, happens to be the home. But then, all sorts of things happening outside do affect what is happening inside the home.” Home – and the absence of it – are also preoccupations of her latest novel The Immigrant. Set in the mid-1970s, this is the story of a woman named Nina marrying an NRI dentist based in Halifax, Canada, and her many tribulations in the new country – including an increasing lack of purpose and her husband Ananda’s sexual dysfunction problem.
“In my work, I aim to show rather than tell,” Kapur tells me. A reader conversant with her books would agree that it’s difficult to put labels on them or to describe what they are “about”. Even when she tackles controversial subjects such as a lesbian relationship (in A Married Woman) or the sexual abuse – quickly covered up – of a little girl by her cousin (Home), she doesn’t make them the focal points of the story. This is why I was surprised to see the publicity for The Immigrant focusing on the sexual dysfunction angle, complete with a jacket description that mentions that 30 per cent of adult men experience the condition. Doesn’t this make it sound almost like a tract, a “topical” book?
“Is that really in the blurb? Oh dear!” Kapur cries out in faux-dismay, leaning across to look at the cover page of the manuscript I’m carrying. But she quickly recovers, explaining that the genesis of the book was her desire to explore the NRI sensibility, as well as to convey a sense of the darkness that surrounded India around the time of the Emergency – “when there was this idea that India was just not a place to be in, you had to get out, nobody could get anywhere here. It’s something I grew up with too [Kapur herself studied in Halifax for a few years in the early 1970s, but unlike many migrating Indians of the time, she did return], and we all have family and friends who have had those NRI experiences. Of course, once I had the period and setting ready, I had to have some kind of crisis!”
When Kapur starts writing, she has a theme in mind but not a story: “The story takes shape gradually.” Revealing something of the tortuous, tentative way in which a book may arrive at its final form, she says, “In this case, I didn’t want Nina to get pregnant, and then I had to have a reason for that. Baby is out. Why is baby out? Infertility wasn’t enough of a reason and I didn’t want anything as extreme as impotence – there was more dramatic potential in a lingering dissatisfaction, which led me to Ananda’s sexual problem.” This in turn meant adding to his back-story, and numerous revisions were required before the final structure of the book emerged.
It isn’t surprising then to learn that Kapur’s laptop contains dozens of files with multiple draft of her novels. “I’m very good at cutting,” she says, “Fast and ruthless.” It all began when one of the many publishers who rejected her first novel Difficult Daughters sent back a note that said “it meanders too much”. Kapur chortles as she remembers how “that one word, ‘meanders’, inspired me to cut 30,000 words from the manuscript!” It was painful initially, she admits, but after eight years of not being published, the pain of cutting was much smaller than the pain of not being published at all. “I chose the lesser pain!”
Since Kapur’s work is characterised by a grounded, no-flourishes writing style, I’m surprised to learn that she was quite the experimenter in her early days. “When I first started writing stories and poems,” she says, “magic realism was all the rage, thanks in large part to Rushdie. I tried to write like that but in my hands it seemed inauthentic and laboured, and so I gave it up. Intuitively, I took the raasta of not standing between the reader and the story – I wanted to make it as transparent and seamless as possible.” Her first book originally had footnotes, a story within a story “and lots of other stuff I thought was very innovative – but it all had to go eventually!”
She also has a reputation for being a reticent writer; regulars at the ever-increasing book-launch parties in the capital would have a hard time placing her. Given this, what does she think about the recent developments in Indian publishing, such as the elevation of media-savvy young writers to pop-celebrity status even before their books are out? “It’s hard for me to see writing as a social stepping stone,” she says, “it’s such a solitary activity, whereas being in society means being gregarious. Of course, younger people have more energy, and if they can party and write, good for them. But if it interferes with your writing, I would say just don’t do it. As a writer, you have to serve your art, old-fashioned as it may sound – and personally I do this by not meeting anyone!”
And yet, The Immigrant is going to have an unconventional pre-launch at a Gurgaon call-centre of all places, probably in an attempt to reach out to a wider readership base. “Oh, that’s all Random House,” Kapur says wryly, “but it might be interesting to see what it’s all about. My maid’s daughter works at a call centre, I know a lot of young people who do, and I am all for anything that promotes reading among people who aren’t habitual readers. It’s a wonderful habit – it encourages introspection and thinking.” It’s vital that writers constantly read as well, she feels – “not just to keep up with contemporary fiction, but also to expose yourself to what words can do, to remind yourself that there’s always a new goal to reach.”
Why has she given up her day job? “Having had a few books published, I’m more confident with my writing now,” she explains, “and it had become difficult to write and work at the same time.” Earlier, when she was teaching, the way she wrote was dictated by term time and holiday time. “During holidays I would do the huge revisions, shaping, tightening, trying to bring together everything in my head. During term time, when my head was full of teaching, I would work on first drafts. You need to put down those words in the first place. That would be easier to do, to come home and just write 500 or 1,000 words that could subsequently be modified. But the fashioning, or making the thing into an artistic coherent whole” – she waves her hands around and raises her voice dramatically as she speaks these last four words, aware of how affected they sound – “that could only be done during the holidays.”
At a time when many writers are carrying their laptops to wifi-enabled coffeehouses in busy marketplaces, Kapur prefers a quieter setting. She likes the solitude of the Gymkhana library and the fact that it doesn’t have centralised air-conditioning. (“My daughter studies at the India Habitat Centre library and has to take along a shawl!”) Another advantage of the very traditional, colonial-era Gymkhana is that the Internet hasn’t encroached on its premises. “I prefer not to spend much time online,” she says, furthering the theme of the writer as solitary animal, “it’s too much of a distraction.”