Meneesha Govender's Reviews > Custody

Custody by Manju Kapur
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Apr 10, 2012

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She has been described as the great chronicler of the modern Indian family. After reading two of her novels - Custody and The Immigrant - I was eager to meet Manju Kapur, who writes about very serious issues with deep understanding as well as wit and humour.
The award-winning author was in South Africa this month to promote her latest novel, Custody - a riveting story of how a loving family falls apart at the seams and all that is left is an emotional and spite-filled battle between the parents for the hearts and souls of their children.
Raman and Shagun have the perfect marriage. He is a market executive at a global drinks company. She is extraordinarily beautiful. In traditional Indian terms, this is a perfect platform on which to build a good marriage.
The two are blessed with a son and daughter - life is complete, so to speak.
However, things change dramatically when Shagun is introduced to Ashok, Raman's boss. The loving couple are reduced to vindictive and ruthless enemies as they battle for custody of their children.
As the children's lives are thrown into disarray, they are forced to negotiate and come to terms with their new circumstances with very little real support from the adults in their lives.
Thrown into the conundrum is Ishita - a young woman who has been kicked out of the family she married into because she cannot bear children. Desperate for a husband and child, Ishita will do anything to achieve this.
The novel - as it navigates the lives of its characters - also offers a brutal critique of the Indian judicial system that often left me feeling completely hopeless at the forces that come into play and almost whimsically decide the fate of two very innocent children.
Manju Kapur was a professor of English at Miranda House in Delhi. She describes herself as always being a reader, not a writer. In fact, it was not until she turned 40 that she began to consider writing.
Now, having written five novels, she says she is addicted to the art, and is working on a sixth novel.
"As I wrote, my desire to write became stronger," she says. "There was also the desire to hear my own voice which was becoming stronger and clearer with every new novel I wrote."
Kapur's first novel, Difficult Daughters, won her the Commonwealth Award for the Eurasian region. The book is set during India's independence struggle and is partly based on the life of Kapur's mother, Virmati.
At the heart of her novels are women and the issues that make or break them.
In Custody some of the themes she deals with are reproduction and childbearing, beauty and education, as well as divorce.
Her decision to write in the manner she does comes out of writing what she knows and is comfortable with.
Kapur's stories are set in middle class, urban India (largely Delhi or Amritsar) because this is the social setting the writer understands best.
As a woman, having taught at a college for women and having three daughters, Kapur says she is privy to so many stories that involve women.
"Women's lives are far more complicated than the lives of men," she says. "Women are constantly negotiating being modern, independent human beings, yet also retaining ties to the family - their parents, husbands and children."
And it is in this context that "everyday women are negotiating a space" or "pushing the boundaries to create spaces for themselves".
However, Kapur also points out that she has made a concerted effort not to be confined to issues only about women.
Hence, in Custody, Raman and his experience of the divorce and custody battle as well as his deep love for his children.
What stands out particularly in this novel is his anguish and anger at the betrayal he experiences at the hands of his worldly wife. Kapur presents him to us with empathy and meticulous attention to detail.
Her attention to male characters comes out of her desire to be as balanced as possible in her writing.
It is a notable trait of all her work that despite their astute social and political commentary, Kapur avoids making moral judgements about what she is writing about.
In a country filled with people who love judging others and telling others how to live, Kapur rails against such actions.
"After living with judgemental people all my life, the last thing I want is to recreate this in my own novels," she explains.
So she endeavours to offer insight rather than judgement.
For Kapur, the most important thing in her writing is that her characters are real and believable.
She feels she has succeeded if her readers have an emotional response to her characters. The characters in Custody certainly illicit that response.
Custody is a novel filled with layers of social and personal commentary that never seeks to judge people's choices but to illuminate how social values, personal character traits and the legal system can all influence people's lives in certain ways.

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