Against the grain

Against the grain

The saga of Indian English fiction has had many twists and turns. It has been often mourned that somewhere along its journey, it lost touch with its rural moorings and found a cushioned spot in the nooks and crevices of metropolis and megalopolis. But giving the lie to this allegation, many engaging yarns have been spun from the backyards of Indian lives in the villages. And seemingly seamless continuities of lives from rural to urban milieus and their hidden scars became sinister fodder for many a writerly imagination.

Manju Kapur’s Brothers, with its cover soaked in red, perhaps allegorises this journey of not only our fiction but also of a nation’s dreams to rise above its villages, and spread its wings under urban skies. The novel opens with an attempted murder in the Gaina family; a fratricide, to be more precise. Fratricide is an all too familiar archetype to the readers of the Mahabharatha and the Bible; it is also the story of the bahu of the family , Tapti, educated, sensitive and sophisticated.

The plot thickens with the scent of political intrigue when the murdered brother is none less than the chief minister of a state. Manju Kapur has already proved her credentials as a skillful storyteller, carrying us into the lives, places and inner spaces of her characters with remarkable ease and sureness. But in Brothers, she takes on a larger terrain spatially, temporally, and thematically. With the murderer in jail and the other in a coma, the narrative winds backward through generations to trace the primal impulse of a crime originating in a tragic sense of failure, jealousy, adultery, tabooed passions and the seduction of power.

And the roots go further down than one life; Kapur reveals the layered history of a family’s aspirations, longings and ambitions to become successful and influential in the last two centuries. And they become synonymous with the male desire for wealth and power. The destinies of Mangal and Himmat are embedded in the dense and rich tapestry of life in Rajasthan; the hopeless state of agrarian living where your destiny is tethered to the vagaries of land and weather. The incessant urge to wriggle out of this impossible situation and hunt for better fortunes and larger possibilities is a tale told in many lands. Thus, the journey of these brothers is traced back to the adventure their uncle set on during the freedom struggle to craft his own life, his own political destiny and career.

Considerable research has gone to unearth the ways in which political movements, groups and community activities shaped a new male individual in the 20th century Rajasthan. Insightful as this search is, I wish the book had paid equally diligent attention to the making of a woman like Tapti, who is a far cry from her village siblings and even her urban sisters in terms of education, sense of dignity and sexual intelligence. 

Kapur’s narrative works at the microlevel to probe into the impact of larger historical waves on anonymous lives in cities and villages, tremors they set off in the land of hopes and longings. There is the imperative to move out of the confines of clannish collectivity with its tradition of child marriages and caste conflicts even as the values of family honour and assumptions of gendered behaviour haunt the men in the family. It is the story of a family caught in a time warp, tempted by the possibilities offered by an Independent India, but still conveniently clinging to its familiar habits when it comes to its women and children.

As the novel attempts to chronicle the movement of a typical family from 1906    to 2010, it becomes the story of middle class India’s efforts to acquire status and clout in a system steeped in corruption sycophancy, nepotism and chicanery. Milestones in Indian political history like the freedom struggle, Emergency, and student politics are invoked to indicate not only some major time shifts but also the curious reciprocity between central and regional political games.

Manju Kapur’s prose is mostly lucid, direct and sharp while pleasurably softening into a meditative sensuality and luminous candour as she moves into the intimate spaces of tabooed desire. But there are times when the pace grows heavy and slow trudging through the myriad details of history and Mangal’s despair. Perhaps that is the ultimate challenge of the novelist as Anita Nair bluntly put it at a recent literary festival — not to let the telling of the tale get drowned in too many incidents, whether factual or fictional.

At the same time, it is an ambitious project seeking to pack in public and personal histories, reason and emotion, family loyalties and individual failures, private despair in the face of a new sense of control a woman has over her body and mind. But Tapti belongs to a land that celebrates the legacy of a wilful Mirabai and the book subtly but strongly invokes my memories of reading Kiran Nagarkar’s The Cuckold many years back.