Speaking Volumes: Brothers in Arms

Early on in Brothers, Tapti, on her way home from visiting a prisoner in Tihar Jail, scans a newspaper and the headlines leap out at her; murder, rape.

“Despite its vaunted spirituality, India is a bloodthirsty nation. Murder because you gave money, because you owed money, because you loved, or didn’t love, because you were one religion or another, because you ate a particular kind of meat, because you were jealous of another’s freedom, or furious at being rejected, or enraged that you were overtaken on the road, anything served as a pretext.” It is a comforting thought; it places Tapti’s own troubles in context of the world, providing a frame in which the crime her husband has committed shrinks into relative normalcy for life in 2010.

Brothers, Manju Kapur’s sixth novel, is her most assured so far, a conventionally plotted but acutely well-imagined account of the Gaina family’s rise from the village of Lalbanga near Ajmer to prominence and political power in Jaipur, via the success of one of the brothers. The other, less fortunate, struggles to find his footing in business, riding the switchbacks of failure from a cement factory in the 1980s to a petrol pump in the early 2000s, dreams of owning a mall near the Delhi-Jaipur highway in 2008. Tapti is a witness to their respective failures and successes, and a catalyst in the predictable tragedy that unfolds.

Over the decades, Ms Kapur has become an expert at rendering history the way it is experienced by many Indians, whose burdens and responsibilities don’t allow them the luxury of pausing to acknowledge the full, crushing weight of events and tragedies. There are loans to be paid, marriages to be kept together like old cars that need repeated ministrations by mechanics, infidelities to be fitted into already busy schedules, children to be nurtured or neglected, distant nephews or cousins whose engagements must be arranged, politicians to placate, officials to be courted, businesses to be run or run aground.

Ms Kapur is often, and perhaps unjustly, seen as a writer whose novels centre around domestic matters – floundering marriages, parenthood and loss, custody battles, couples muddling through life in a strange country together. But Brothers is typical of her writing, in that the busy, sometimes heartbreakingly complicated, domestic world of the foreground can obscure the careful attention she pays to the changes that ripple across India, from Partition to the fall of the Babri Masjid, playing out in the background of one of her previous novels.

And she is equally good at marking out the areas where the country refuses to change. She introduces the Gaina family from 1930 bluntly: “Virpal (caste: Jat, subcaste: Gaina) belonged to the village of Lalbanga, east of Ajmer.” These things, caste, subcaste, village, place of origin, will mark the lives of the generations ahead, including the brothers Himmat and Mangal, ineradicably and surely, governing everything from murderous student battles with the Rajput faction to their future success in politics. A life can be summarised this easily, from 1930 all the way to present times – what is contained within the brackets is inescapable, in Ms Kapur’s cold but accurate judgement.

Ms Kapur’s novels from the 1990s on cover very interesting social and geographical terrain, shifting from the 1930s and 1940s to the 1970s, the 1990s and present-day India. Difficult Daughters was set in Amritsar and Lahore; The Immigrant lightly in Delhi and then in Halifax, Canada; A Married Woman in 1970s Delhi; Custody in 1990s Delhi; and Brothers shifts from Rajasthan’s villages to its major towns and cities, lightly sketching industrial and business Delhi in the 1990s and 2000s.

This is territory that more and more Indian novelists writing in English have begun to explore, from Vishwajyoti Ghosh (Delhi Calm) and Avtar Singh (Necropolis) to Karan Mahajan (The Association of Small Bombs).
Vikram Seth wrote perhaps the most thoroughly researched account of Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur in the 1950s in A Suitable Boy; Arundhati Roy’s second novel is said to be set partly in Delhi, and Aravind Adiga has mentioned in an interview that he will probably explore Delhi in the 1970s and early 1980s for his next book. A few academics and popular historians also plan to write books that will cover the literary and cultural history of Delhi, Gwalior, Lucknow, Allahabad, Aligarh, filling other gaps.
As a policeman in Avtar Singh’s Necropolis says, “This city. It’s a giant necropolis. Entire developments raised on what used to be graveyards. Old villages gone, their fields buried, their soil used for cement.” That holds true for so much else, and given the long centuries of literary history in Hindi, Punjabi and other languages across North India, perhaps it’s inevitable that writers in English are finally catching up, excavating the tangles of the past.

The story that Manju Kapur tells in Brothers is so familiar. Like most of us, I’ve heard whispered versions of why the close bonds between family members finally unravelled, or gone to the fourth-day ceremonies of mourning after a particularly devastating business tragedy, involving either Property or Infidelity or both. But it is less common, and quite interesting, to find what we know so intimately set down with such clarity and care in fiction at last.

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2016)



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