Random house indial Rs 395 l pp 334
John Updike once said that a critic is most gratefully regarded when he dismisses a new book from any obligation to be read. That’s my privilege, today. Too bad it has to be with Manju Kapur. As a Delhi writer, she knows where I work, and can, I’m sure, find out where I live. Gulp. Her novels about ‘middle-class’ women are almost always risk-less, so I don’t wish to risk too much offence by writing a bad review.
Now onto her fourth novel, Kapur lacks the depth of her acclaimed debut, Difficult Daughters. She also fails to bring out the fine nuances in the lives of her characters, something she so admirably accomplished in her last novel, Home. Instead, The Immigrant suffers from a jerky narrative, predictable plot, and dialogues as flat as two-day-old beer. Just occasionally, there are scenes of brilliance but they are too few, too far apart to make any substantive difference.
The story, set in the 70s, is nothing new, which is all right — beautiful tales can be weaved out of similar plots and characters. So, here is our heroine — 30 and unmarried. Nina is a lonely English lecturer in Delhi’s Miranda House, living with her widowed mother in Jangpura. While mamma is anxious for the marriage of her “sweet, innocent, virgin” daughter, Nina has been “chewed, mashed into pulp and swallowed” by a serial lover. But happy days soon arrive. An arranged marriage with an NRI dentist and Nina flies to small-town Canada, after a short honeymoon in the Oberoi Hotel. There the usual immigrant-in-a-strange-world trick: a desi women in the land of peanut butter and cold NRI relatives. No one to talk to but the husband, and the only connect to home are the phone calls to mamma. Oh reader, sit back and pity poor Nina: “The immigrant who comes as a wife has a more difficult time. If work exists for her, it is in the future, and after much finding of feet. At present all she is, is a wife, and a wife is alone, for many, many hours.”
Nina’s life is only more miserable. Blame the West-stricken husband. Ananda, call him Andy, suffers from premature ejaculation — a disorder that the author exploits to dish out sex scenes so dysfunctional that you may not like to have sex for the next two-and-a-half weeks. Try this:
“She put her arms around him, slid her hands inside his pants, and caressed his faulty, furtive organ. ‘Please, darling, it will make such a difference to our marriage. Don’t you want to have better sex?’”
Yes, Ma’m, everyone desires that but at least in this novel, as Nina notes, one day, after browsing through a book titled
Male Sexuality, “sex was another country.”
The bad sex, an interesting twist however, serves as a rift to disenchant the couple from each other, and so is not the novel’s problem. The trouble is there’s no attempt to wade deep, really deep, into the complexities that could have rescued it from its underlying inertia. Theoretically, the scope of Nina’s evolution from being a weepy barren wife to a self-independent woman who has sex outside the marriage and is no longer dying to make babies is suitably sweeping but Kapur is unsuccessful in adding that je ne sais quoi that could have made the transition more gripping, more satisfying.
The author who so realistically drew out the world of Karol Bagh housewives in Home fails to go beyond the cardboard clichés of the immigrant experience in North America. While her characters try peeling off their immigrant’s identity — having steak, having sex with white people, Kapur’s own immigration to this genre fails. Unlike, say, Jhumpa Lahiri, her NRIs are less flavoured, less affectionate, less complicated, less convincing. Maybe Canada is too far for Kapur. Maybe she should return to middle-class Delhi.