Guest blogger Sukhmani Khorana interviewed New Delhi novelist Manju Kapur for Kill Your Darlings at Adelaide Writers’ Week.
When I first read Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters in 2006, I had just submitted an Honours thesis in Media and English. I realised it wasn’t very Indian of me to be pursuing a qualification at an overseas university that was not remotely related to medicine, science, engineering, accounting, law or management. Nor was it very feminine of me to crave financial and emotional independence over the security blanket of a bourgeois upbringing. And, worst of all, being an Indian national wasn’t proof enough of my fluency in English – despite thinking and feeling in a hybrid version of the language, I would have to pass an IELTS test.
Reading Difficult Daughters was a simultaneously familiar and removed experience. Set against the backdrop of the partition saga that divided India and Pakistan into two independent sovereign nations in 1947, it is both a love story and a coming of age tale. I had heard mention of the violence surrounding the historical event from the maternal side of my family, which had migrated from Lahore to Amritsar, crossing over to the Indian end of the divided province of Punjab. The central character of the novel, Virmati, is based on Kapur’s own mother, who was a difficult daughter living in a joint Hindu household in Amritsar. The family’s tenant, a progressive (and married) professor, fell for her independence and interest in education. Needless to say, her family was hostile towards the situation, and the state of the nation mirrored this hostility.
In reading Difficult Daughters, I was surprised to learn that difficult Indian daughters are not a 21st century phenomenon. Indian women were proactive during the independence movement, and entered public and political life before many of their western counterparts. Of late, they have begun to voice their concerns on the global tide entering India, and its impact on gender and family relations. Notable figures in cinema include Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Aparna Sen, while their literary equivalents are Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Manju Kapur, and numerous others. I looked forward to interviewing a role model of sorts during her visit for Adelaide Writers’ Week. Had she been a difficult daughter too?
SK: I read a piece by you in last weekend’s SA Weekend magazine, in which you stated that the decade you started writing, that is the 1990s, was one of change for both India and your own literary ambitions.
MK: Yes. In addition to the economic boom that India experienced at the time, it was also a great period for IWE (Indian Writing in English). It was Salman Rushdie who, in the 1980s, opened the floodgates, and several others like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy followed.
SK: Has the boom lasted?
MK: Well, Indian writers in English are still sought after, as is evidenced by the recent success of Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga. However, it has become rare to get big advances for your book.
SK: Has the writing itself changed?
MK: In terms of the literary work, Indian writing in English has become more confident and more likely to use Indian idiom. This is unlike the days of say, a writer like RK Narayan, who described Indian life beautifully, but did not use native words or terms. But in public and educational settings, Indian English is not as grammatically correct as it used to be.
SK: I’ve noticed that too. The Shakespearean and Dickensian English that I grew up with in a Catholic School in India is very different from the functional reports that my younger siblings had to write.
MK: Yes, there is definitely a generation gap. Having said that, literary courses in India are flourishing. I have been teaching Literature at Delhi University’s Miranda College for the last 30 years, and have seen the numbers rise. Most students enter with the hope of bettering their English. The success of Rushdie and others has also created countless writing aspirants.
SK: Speaking of writerly aspirations, how did your first novel, Difficult Daughters, come about?
MK: Most of my novels start with a theme, and then I build the story and characters around that to reflect the theme. So, in the case of Difficult Daughters, I had this image of a 40 year-old divorced woman, living in a DDA [Delhi Development Authority] flat, and teaching at a college. I wanted to explore why it is with educated women that their emotional lives are so messed up.
SK: So that character is the daughter Ida narrating her mother Virmati’s tale?
MK: Yes, she becomes the framing device through which the story of Virmati is told. It is my mother’s tale that later became much more important for me to tell in my first novel. She was not very forthcoming at first, as she regrets being a source of trauma for her parents. There was also the trauma surrounding the events of partition. Most of my older relatives were not very keen on raking up the past, but I felt it was necessary to share these stories and talk about the grief left in their wake. For me, the Eureka moment in the research process came when I started going through archived editions of The Tribune newspaper. It was then that the story of my ancestors, of their daily lives and the political events of the time became real for me. They became so real I had to write about them.
SK: Do you think that like Virmati, modern Indian women still struggle with juggling familial roles and education? I thought that in eventually marrying the professor and moving to Delhi, Virmati got what she always wanted, yet lost some of her spirit.
MK: She did lose something of herself. Women of my mother’s generation had a more vocal public voice because the nation’s struggle for independence gave them a legitimate cause. Now, Indian women do not appear to be as vocal in political affairs. However, a number of educated women these days have more earning power.
SK: And have these educated, working women succeeded in keeping their careers while upholding traditional Indian values?
MK: Well, women’s struggle in India is an ongoing one. There are no black and white winners and there is constant negotiation with the family setting.
SK: There is negotiation of a very different kind in your last book, The Immigrant.
MK: I always say that The Immigrant is my least ‘family’ book because the rest are filled with joint families and lots of characters. In this one, it is mostly just the main character, Nina, and the man she marries, Ananda.
SK: Is it the least family-oriented of your books because it is set outside of India?
MK: Yes, the phenomenon of the NRI, or the Non-Resident Indian, has become widely known and discussed in India. I experienced being away from India when I was a student in Canada in my youth, so I wanted to write about it. I recall feeling alienated and being nostalgic for foods and objects that I took for granted at home. I chose to return to India.
My discussion with Manju continued into the conservative time warps of first generation migrants, the extravaganzas of Indian weddings and the clear blue skies of Adelaide. There was no longer a clearly defined interviewer or interviewee as Manju chatted about her daughters, both pursuing PhDs in the United States, and I shared my own just-submitted doctorate story. Unlike her, I am choosing to remain an NRI. At the same time, I respect and admire Manju and others of her generation for continuing to negotiate, continuing to write, and continuing to both Indianise and internationalise the English language.
* With sincere thanks to my friends Puja Jain (for helping me to get in contact with Manju Kapur) and Prithvi Varatharajan (for alerting me to the Kill Your Darlings launch in Adelaide).
Sukhmani Khorana has recently submitted a PhD thesis and documentary on cinema of the Indian diaspora. She is currently teaching at the University of Adelaide.