Talking about writing and arranged marriages

2012-03-21 00:00

MANJU Kapur, who recently visited South Africa to promote her new novel Custody (reviewed below), came to writing late and almost by chance.

Her son was born when she was 41, and with a year at home being a mother and taking a break from her academic career, she says she was looking for something “that would give more meaning to my life”.

She thought about writing an academic book — her subject is English literature — but there were drawbacks. “An academic constantly has to refer to other academics, and they are always sniping at each other. Fiction is more fun, there’s a much larger playing field you can roam around. And nobody is going to stand up in a conference and say you didn’t do this or that, or that you left something out.” But even so, becoming one of India’s bestselling novelists didn’t come easily. She played with the idea of starting a business, or taking up painting, but with young children, something you can pick up and put down, and do anywhere, had an obvious appeal. So it was writing fiction.

“I had no idea how to write. And though I had models, writers I admired, that didn’t work for me — what I did was derivative,” she says. There were rejections, rewrites and a good few years before her prize-winning Difficult Daughters was published. She still believes that her method is the best. “I have always thought that creative writing can’t be taught, but other people say yes, it can. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe you have to be disciplined, rewrite until your hand falls off. And I feel I can tell a writer who has emerged from writers’ workshops. I found I needed to evolve my own style, and not intrude on my characters. Show, not tell.”

And that is exactly what she does. She rejects the tag of social commentator, saying that coming from an academic background, you can’t separate the social, personal and political. She starts with a theme — in Custody, it is what happens when marriages break up and children are involved; in The Immigrant, it is the difficulty of finding your feet in a new country — but as she says, in order for a novel to be remembered by a reader, it is the characters that have to work, to engage the readers’ emotions. Kapur’s writing is gently comic, although the subject may be difficult, even tragic. She admits she has an ironic sense, seeing the ridiculous in life.

In Custody, as in other novels by Kapur, arranged marriages are a feature. Outside India, this is an issue that causes some consternation, but Kapur is relaxed on the subject. “Arranged marriages are like any marriages. They can take out a lot of potential causes of conflict — the expectations are all upfront. And you do know what you are getting in to. In the West, I see a lot of pressure on women to attract attention. I know I’m judging from the outside, but they seem to have to compete for male attention.”

Arranged marriages may be flourishing in India, but Kapur admits to some problems. She tells a story of one year when she was teaching at university in Delhi, and an entrance test was set to judge the thinking and writing skills of a new intake for the English honours class. One of the questions, given to 400 female students, was to give their views on arranged marriage. “399 girls, in an urban setting, taking an English honours course, said their parents knew best, and that they would be happy to marry someone of their parents’ choice. Only one said no. We were all quite depressed.”

When Kapur says that Jane Austen is one of her favourite writers, it comes as no surprise. “I told you I was old-fashioned,” is what she says, but Austen’s way of taking a small section of society and looking at it very closely, and with an ironic eye, is close to Kapur’s own. She is a sharp and affectionate chronicler of her world.

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