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In a past job I used to visit India several times a year for work and I got to know some of my local colleagues quite well. We understood each other on most things but there was always a colossal culture gap in one area of our lives - our views and experience of marriage and family were totally alien to each other. We could talk for days but for me to get my head around the idea of arranged marriage and living in an extended family was every bit as difficult as them trying to understand how I could have married someone my parents didn't know or approve of and then live a life pretty much separated from both our families. And as for my husband and me not wanting children, that was just too much for anyone to get their heads round. For my part I couldn't understand the very Indian concept that you marry a stranger and 'love will come' and I struggled to see past my Western ideas of romance and passion. Imagine trusting your parents to pick your life partner - it's just too scary for most of us to consider but statistically as a society we seem to do a pretty lousy job choosing for ourselves. 'Home' has been the first book about Indian family life that's come close to teaching me about how and why the Indian system works and why family is so important but equally so difficult.
The book is set in Karol Bagh, an area of New Delhi that's probably familiar to most backpackers or budget travellers as the place with all the cheap hotels. But to Dilliwallahs (as the locals are known) it's a solidly middle-class shopping area. The Banwari Lal family have a fabric and sari shop which employs most of the family and is the sun around which their individual planets resolve, exerting its gravitational pull on all the extended family. Banwari Lal, the patriarch of the family, had to flee his home during Partition and sold his wife's jewellery to set up the business. To describe it as traditional would be an under-statement. He and his wife have three children - two sons who work in the business and a daughter whom he effectively 'sold off' in a bad marriage to a violent man in order to get money for his business. The sons got a better run of things - Yashpal, the eldest married a pretty girl, Sona, after seeing her with her mother visiting the shop. The younger, Pyare Lal, made a good marriage to the daughter of another wealthy shop keeper.
Sona has a sister, Rupa, who made a happy but less wealthy marriage to a minor civil servant and lives very much in the shadow of her prettier sister. There's a clear message of 'big family = happy; husband and wife alone = failure'.
Sona, the beautiful wife, struggles to have children in order to establish her place in the family hierarchy and is palmed off with taking responsibility for Vicky, the orphaned son of the daughter of the family. When she finally succeeds in having a child of her own it's 'only' a daughter and one with a cursed horoscope at that - clearly this one's going to be trouble. A son follows a couple of years later and Vicky, the orphan, is cast aside and left to his own devices to fester and find various ways of taking revenge on the family. Rupa also has problems to have a child and throws herself into her pickle business (clearly only barren women can be successful in business!) before taking on responsibility for bringing up Sona's daughter, Nisha. Nisha has plenty of problems of her own, abused, over-educated, under-valued, she brings disgrace on the family through an inappropriate relationship that the family can't condone. Her brother marries a more 'modern' woman who's less inclined to toe the line and introduces further conflicts.
Manju Kapur is a professor of English at Miranda House, a prestigious girls' college in Delhi and contrary to the trend of Indian or Non Resident Indian writers who write with one eye on the overseas market, I would describe her as a writer who writes about Indians for Indians. Her first novel Difficult Daughters was published ten years ago and won her a Commonwealth Writers Prize but she's less well known outside her country than many of her contemporaries. I think this is largely because she doesn't pander to Western sensibilities. She doesn't give in to the temptation to give 'Home' a western ending in which everything worked out the way we'd expect it to - instead the outcomes are very Indian.
'Home' is Kapur's third book and it's possibly the least controversial of the books she's written. The first, 'Difficult Daughters' describes a young girl involved in a taboo relationship with her much older and very married neighbour; the second "A Married Woman" focuses on inter-religious bigotry and lesbianism (definitely not a typical topic for an Indian novel); and the latest 'Home' is quite pedestrian by comparison. Yes we get a bit of incest, a bit of self-harm and even unmarried sex but it's all set in a moral framework where transgression is punished either directly or indirectly. Live by the rules or suffer - that's the clear message.
There are many multi-generational sagas on the shelves of the bookshops and this is pretty typical in covering three generations - the old patriarch and his sour-faced wire, his two sons, their wives and children and the son of the deceased daughter. Clear hierarchy and status is used to keep the family together, to defend the family business, uphold business ethics, and squeeze everyone into the home to ensure that the money, effort and manpower is all directed to the communal good. It's a bit like an ant colony, all working away to keep the anthill stable. Children are political pawns in this game - to be married for the good of the family ahead of their own wishes. But strangely, with the exception of the deceased daughter, it seems to work.
At times it's hard to keep up with all the characters and hard to find a central character to cling to. If you aren't familiar with Indian writers you'll possible get frustrated by the use of local words and you'll not find a glossary at the back to explain what's what. But if you are into the Indian writing genre, there's little language that you won't have seen before.
Home starts out looking like a simple tale of 'compare and contrast' with the lives of the two sisters. Next we're hanging around listening to the bickering of the second generation and grudgingly inviting the outsider son of the dead sister into the family - inviting but far from welcoming. Just as we develop a sense of sympathy and empathy for Vicky he's sexually abusing his niece and being married off to a conniving wife. In the third generation there's hope for a central character in Nisha and for a few chapters she's carrying the story - falling in love with an unsuitable boy, going further than a nice girl should, losing her reputation and gaining a nasty skin condition. As Elvis Costello once sang ' the wages of sin are an expensive infection' but I don't think it was eczema that he had in mind. Nisha has the potential to be the modern heroine but will she just fall in line with the expectations of the family eventually and will fighting against it ever be worth the effort?
There are shades of Jane Austin in the 'poor sisters married well', the family interactions, the bitching and conniving, the gossip and superstition and the ruination of reputation - no wonder others have commented on the similarities of modern India and Austinian England. In this context you don't marry a man, you marry his entire family and who better to choose that family for you, than your own family. Kapur writes beautifully and draws the reader compellingly into the every day lives of the family and their business. For me this was an excellent exploration of the pros and cons of extended family, exposing the good and the bad, the benefits and the challenges in a way that previous family sagas had failed to do. It's a very different life from my own, but as a window on another way of living, I recommend it highly.
Also posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk