All unhappy families may be unhappy in their own ways, except when one of them belongs to Manju Kapur’s latest blueprint of domestic disharmony, Custody. So schematic that if you summarized the novel there would be almost nothing left to tell, this 400-plus-page account of a divorced couple’s tug-of-love for possession of their children offers the reader a frustrated search for uniqueness in plot, character, setting, prose, dialogue—anything that can make it stand apart.
Raman—the hard-working, intelligent, dependable but uncharismatic corporate star—marries the stunningly beautiful Shagun, to be described later in the novel as a combination of Western style and Eastern heart. After two children and the upper-middle class urban Indian definition of happiness, the marriage falls apart when Raman’s boss Ashok seduces her. They fall in love thereafter. He is a knight in shining armour, offering her all—but what, exactly?—that Raman didn’t. Finally recognizing true love for what it is, Shagun leaves Raman for Ashok.
Custody: Random House India,415 pages, Rs 450.
Meanwhile, in a parallel story, soon to converge, Ishita is forced to divorce her husband SK—both the marriages are, of course, arranged marriages—when it is discovered she cannot bear him children. How Raman and Ishita’s paths will cross as Raman and Shagun slug it out for custody of their children, the 10-year-old Arjun and two-year-old Roohi, is drearily predictable. The fault lies squarely in the lack of credible reasons that make the characters behave the way they do. The pattern is imposed from the top, not worked out from within the people who make this story.
Every person under 50 in this novel is an embodiment of a single idea—the faithless wife, the magnetic CEO, the deluded husband, the thwarted mother-soul. As for those over 50, they don’t even need separate adjectives—all of them are helpless, whining, miserable old folk who live only to social-engineer happiness for their grown-up children. Naturally, all offspring of all ages are universally called beta.
Kapur makes every person in the novel move inexorably along the path she has charted for them. If her characters had any individuality of their own, they would surely have rebelled against her tyranny and responded to their situations like human beings, riddled with doubts, despair and uncertainty. People trapped in the circumstances that the writer creates with a few strokes of her pen should have been caught in two minds, and been wretchedly miserable in a way that would make the reader feel claustrophobic, persecuted and, ultimately, suicidal.
Like marionettes, however, Raman and Shagun move from marriage to betrayal to separation to divorce, punctuated by the mandatory heart attack signifying stress. Like a puppet on a chain too, Ishita becomes a fiercely possessive ersatz mother who triggers the custody crisis that finally breathes some life into the novel in the final fourth.
There are great storytelling possibilities in the way in which Raman’s relationship with his children, especially his son, becomes increasingly rocky. But not once do we get a peep inside the minds of the four adults and two children who populate this theatre to see what demons and angels reside in them, what agony and ecstasy they scale as they make their choices or have their choices thrust upon them, what makes their brew of unhappiness unique.
Kapur has a formidable reputation as a chronicler of middle-class India. That reputation would have been vindicated in splendid fashion had she given us an insider’s view of the lives of troubled people like you and me seeking happiness, or provided a gossipy or ironic or observant narrator’s voice, seeing from the outside but bringing a unique perspective to the storytelling. This novel offers neither.
At one point, one character asks another, “Did you ever assume a position besides the missionary with your husband?” Does the woman shoot back, “Who the hell talks like that, you crazy idiot?”, and put her clothes back on? Of course not. She lowers her head in shame at this definitive proof that she has not been happy all these years. Lacking the spark of real, complex, confused people, the characters of Custody leave you completely cold to the outcome of this battle in their lives.
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