Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, a house-lizard on vacation

[Did a version of this review - about one of the most well-observed novels I have read in recent months - for Mint Lounge]

Reading Ratika Kapur’s new novel, I had the refrain from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” playing in my head: “You know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?” Or, “Mrs Sharma”. This book’s beguiling voice belongs to a 37-year-old woman who works as a receptionist for a well-heeled doctor, lives with her parents-in-law and her teenage son Bobby in one of south Delhi’s more modest crannies while her husband is away working in Dubai – and who could be on the brink of a relationship with a man whom she has met at the Hauz Khas metro station. Throughout her telling of this story, there are ambiguous moments that will make you wonder: is Renuka Sharma lying to us, or fooling herself, or being forthright in her own mysterious way? Does she know what’s going on? Do we?

Consider the passage where she tells us she decided not to go for a cricket match with her family: “I did not want to go, so I said that I was tired and had to take some rest at home.” But in the very next paragraph we learn that she went instead to meet her new friend Vineet. Stealth is involved – “since everybody was going for the match, I thought that this would be a good chance” – even though her tone is matter-of-fact and she maintains that this is a platonic relationship, nothing more (“he could have just been a Vineeta to me”). Or take the scene where Renuka, having spent a few days looking after her son who has been very ill, meets Vineet and feels she has to explain why she hadn’t been in touch. “I told him that I had been sick, and that was hardly a lie,” she says, “A child’s illness is also his mother’s.”

“Hardly a lie.” But we know that she is in no rush to reveal her marital status, and as the narrative proceeds the sophistries add up. Some words and phrases are tellingly repeated. She uses “Actually” and “Obviously” a lot, and defensive-sounding formulations like “I should say here that…” and “I don’t think that it was wrong” and “I think that what I want to say is…” In a different sort of book, this may have felt like unimaginative or careless writing. But the choices are deliberate, they are perfect for this protagonist, and for all its apparent simplicity this may be one of the most carefully constructed novels I have read in a while. It reminded me at times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work, his sympathetic but unreliable narrators: the bereaved mother looking back on her past in A Pale View of Hills, the emotionally repressed butler in Remains of the Day, the elderly painter defending his country’s belligerent history in An Artist of the Floating World. Kapur’s book has a similar tremulousness, a sense of a life being lived on the brink, even though the tone remains outwardly composed.

But this is also a very Indian novel, if there is such a thing. Mrs Sharma shows some of the contradictions you’d expect in a person living in a churning society. She is liberal in some ways, insular in others (note her throwaway references to Muslims, who, one senses, are another species of beings who exist on the periphery of her consciousness, barely registered except as her husband’s employers or as people who fly planes into buildings). She was encouraged by her parents to study and pursue a career; her husband always listens to her advice, she tells us, “even though I am a woman”; she condemns her son for the sin of drinking alcohol, but she understands and seems to accept that “like all boys, and all men”, he looks at dirty pictures on the internet; she shows sexual frankness, even admits to touching herself once in a while. Just when you think you have her pegged, another bit of information slips in and provides new food for thought. And one of the achievements of this book for me was that despite her many vacillations, I never felt like passing judgement – so credible are her responses to her circumstances.

I could mention so many small, marvelously realised moments in this story, but one I have close to hand just now is the one where Renuka and Vineet are talking, he is giving her advice about how to handle Bobby, and she says jokingly: “You know a lot about all this. How many children are you hiding from me?” The scene works on different levels: it could be a subconscious admission of guilt because, of course, Renuka is the one who is hiding a child from Vineet (at this point she is letting him think Bobby is her brother) – but her nervous joke, where she raises the possibility of him being a married man who is leading her on, is also a pointer to her real feelings, which she hasn’t as yet made clear to us.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is a lovely portrait of a person caught between duties and desires, conformity and self-expression, between yearning to fly freely and being the worried house-lizard who is afraid to take an outing (“who will hold up the ceiling?”). It is a low-key book, not the sort that is likely to be hailed as one of the year’s “important” publications (I’d be glad to be wrong about this), but it opens a door to a very particular inner world, while dealing with a universal human theme: the need to pursue little moments of pleasure in the midst of a difficult, responsibility-filled existence – and dealing with the guilt that comes with that pursuit.


  1. Thank you for this review, and glad to know she has a new book out. I was blown away by Kapur's "Overwinter," which i'd read a few years ago -- I knew then that she was a writer whose work I would definitely pursue reading.

  2. Reading Overwinter. It is what we can call a literary book, in terms of its descriptive prose. Of late, I have been finding it very difficult to read books with long descriptions of physical spaces or mental state. But, surprisingly, her writing is very relatable and I don't feel she is describing or using literary language in a shallow way, just to get attention. It's easy enough and good enough. And, it is nice to read a Delhi book, assuming the writer doesn't mind when it is labelled so. The other day I entered "Delhi" in Amazon search bar and all it showed was the book by Khushwant Singh. To my mind, Delhi is a terribly under-written city