~Where Divorce is Still Frowned Upon~
In India approximately 11 marriages in every 1000 end in divorce. At a shade over 1%, this is one of the lowest rates in the world. I decided not to look up the statistics on how many wives die suddenly from unexplained accidents in the home as a result of dowry disputes as that's another issue entirely. Let's just say that when things go bad, a trip to the lawyers isn't always the outcome. In Manju Kapur's latest novel 'Custody' she addresses the complex issues of the relatively rare (but quickly becoming more common) business of Indian divorce. It's not her first time dealing with controversial issues - in fact every one of her four previous books has contained plenty to upset her more conservative readers - and like each of those books there's a discontented woman at the heart of the story. But unlike the others, this time our sympathies are pretty firmly directed against the woman and in favour of the husband.
The tale of Raman (the husband) and Shagun (his wife) and the destruction of the marriage is - for India - a rather modern story even though it's set in the 1990s. It's also a rather upper-middle class story of people who don't have to live as their parents and grandparents did before them. Traditional ways have been eroded by the growth in economic independence which means many better-off couples do not have to live with their parents within the protective cocoon of the extended family. They can afford an affluent lifestyle, a nice place to live, staff to do the drudge work and top schools for their children because they benefit from the salary that goes with working for a big international company.
~It's the 'Real Thing' or is it?~
When we first meet them Raman and Shagun have a great relationship despite having a marriage which was 'arranged' by their families. Raman is a successful marketing exec at a company referred to as 'The Brand' (a very thinly disguised cover for Coca Cola) and Shagun is a strikingly beautiful stay at home mum who perhaps married a bit too young. Their son Arjun has his mother's looks whilst their daughter Roohi takes after her father. All seems fine in their family until Raman's new boss Ashok rolls into Delhi from the USA. He's a bachelor with a lot to prove, a fabulous reputation for his visionary management and an unfortunate eye for the ladies. Ashok's a man who is used to getting what he wants and taking no prisoners. He and Shagun are soon involved in a passionate affair, one for which both will give up everything to be together. When Shagun asks her husband for a divorce he refuses and she abducts their children. Thus begins the battle for 'Custody' at the heart of Manju Kapur's fifth novel.
An Indian marriage is a marriage of families and not just the husband and wife. In no time at all both families are drawn into the battle, forced to take sides against someone who had long been a part of their family. Lawyers and court submissions become the rhythm of their lives - lies are told, allegations are made, hurt is magnified as games are played and threats are made but there can be no outright winners in these circumstances. Shagun wants her children but she wants her new man more and despite her protestations that Ashok considers her children to be his own, it's pretty clear that he only wants them because she wants them. Raman is devastated - as the wronged party it's bad enough he's lost the woman he loved without losing the children too. And when Ashok looks set to be given a big promotion in the USA, the stakes are raised to a point where compromise is impossible.
~All's fair in love and divorce~
Ashok pulls strings to get Arjun into his old boarding school and Shagun uses her son as her biggest weapon in her custody fight. We soon see that the son has inherited more than just his good looks from his calculating mother as he tries to turn little Roohi against her father. The children become pawns in the game of attack and counter attack played by their parents, in which winning is sometimes less important than making the other person lose.
Meanwhile we look into a second marriage - that of Ishita, the daughter of a neighbour of Raman's parents whose happy marriage is destroyed by her in-laws' refusal to accept her infertility. Parental plotting follows to try to get Ramen and Ishita together but would a new wife who adores his daughter help Raman to win back his children or just introduce another challenge to an already complex issue?
Manju Kapur lives in Delhi where she is a teacher at an elite girl's school. She's never been afraid to shock her society with past story lines including one about a relationship with a much older man, another featuring a lesbian affair, one with a sub-plot of juvenile incest and wives generally cheating about all over the place. Her decision to tackle divorce is almost too conventional for her and may disappoint some of her more established readership who buy in an expectation of being shocked. Whilst the story is an unusual one in an Indian context and introduces a different slant on the role of the extended families in a divorce, for most international readers based in countries where divorce is sadly all too common, there's not too much to surprise anyone. I couldn't help but think of this as an Indian 'Kramer versus Kramer', a story that's nothing new if you take away the geographic setting. Many of us will know couples who've been through a marriage breakdown and whose stories are all too similar to that of Raman and Shagun and for that reason I found 'Custody' a little bit disappointing.