For Manju Kapur, much applauded for her acute understanding of the Indian family situation in novels such as Difficult Daughters and Home, this is a first. With The Immigrant, she steps away from the busy, cacophonous cocoon of the traditional middle-class household into the solitary, silent NRI marriage.
Nina Batra, pushing 30 and a lecturer at Miranda House, New Delhi, weds Ananda Sharma, a dentist settled in Halifax, a small town in Canada. In the 1970s, when the book is set, this is the first step towards the realization of the Indian dream.
The Immigrant: Random House, 334 pages, Rs395.
Like Nina, her primary protagonist, The Immigrants thrusts Kapur into the company of strangers who are far more comfortable with the background and moorings than she is. The immigrant Indian has been explored from multiple angles in the past, by writers as distinct as V.S. Naipaul and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and perhaps most notably in recent times by Jhumpa Lahiri. That is not to say the subject has been exhausted, but its treatment now demands fresh insight, new nuance. That’s issue number one.
Two, the milieu. Kapur’s basic premise in The Immigrant strips it of people, the characters, the speech and the buzz that made immediate identification possible with her previous works and gave them the kind of life that is just one step away from reality.
It’s ironical then—or perhaps just a measure of Kapur’s immense talent and depth of observation—that one of the most compelling sections of the book deals with Nina’s lonely existence in her Halifax apartment. Her husband, familiar only through letters and a single pre-wedding visit, leaves for work while she’s still in bed, urging her to sleep late, insisting that in the West, it was the done thing for each one to help himself, be it making breakfast or carrying out house repairs. Nina divides her day between gorging on junk food, reading trashy supermarket novels and writing letters to friends and family in India. This is the 1970s, and international communication is limited to airmail and booked calls.
Half a world away from a place where she had her bearings, who is Nina? Kapur spells it out: “(All) she is, (the immigrant who has come as a wife) is a wife, and a wife is alone for many, many hours. There will come a day when even books are powerless to distract. When the house and its conveniences can no longer completely charm or compensate. Then she realizes she is an immigrant for life.”
Double role: Kapur teaches English at Miranda House College, Delhi. Random House India
Possibly more than in her previous work, here Kapur prefers to tell rather than show. There are some delicate passages, especially the exchanges about cinema and books between Ananda and Nina, that leave the obvious unsaid but, for the bulk of the book, the subtlety—if not quite of sledgehammer proportions—is of the woodpecker variety. Nina’s unstylish attire, Ananda’s erectile dysfunction, Masters and Johnson’s couple therapy, the dictatorship-democracy dance in India are dinned in with much insistence.
The second part of the book, as Ananda secretly signs up for therapy and Nina joins library science classes in an effort to find her feet, resembles a series of distantly delivered lectures. The novel loses its way here and again towards the end, the growing distance between the couple echoing the reader’s disconnect with their story. The idiosyncratic grammar doesn’t help.
For all its flaws, though, Kapur has a huge plus in her two protagonists. Through their trials and tribulations, not once does the author sit on judgement, even as they measure each other in their respective value systems. They just are two different persons thrown together by that great Indian institution, the arranged marriage (or arranged introduction, as Nina likes to explain it), and possibly, quite possibly, they would have worked in the intrusive society where it was founded.
Nina and Ananda, with their insecurities, complexities, fears and needs, are people we could know—and they needn’t even be in North America. As Middle India moves towards employment hubs, identities are being re-forged, individualities asserted and relationships stretched. The loneliness of the 1970s immigrant wife, dressed in sari and overcoat, is now shared by the MNC spouse in her tee-shirt and capris. They both crave a child who will give shape to their lives, nurture long-suspected talents and seek to stand out in a sea of similarly positioned women. Perhaps that is the immigrant Kapur needed to have examined.
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