|Manju Kapur: A Married Woman
Faber, May 2004 (paperback)
"Astha was brought up properly, as befits a woman, with large supplements of fear." So begins Manju Kapur's second novel, A Married Woman.
On the verge of retirement from the Indian civil service, Astha's parents are desperate to see their only child safely married. She rebelliously refuses every suitor, until she meets Hemant, whose time at university in the States has turned him into a liberal thinker. Or so she hopes.
But somewhere between their first and second child, Hemant changes from being an All-American father into an all-Indian one.
As we delve into Astha's adult life we find a free spirit trapped in a suffocatingly traditional society, whose restrictions belie the fact that we are fast approaching the 21st century. Her distant and cruel husband, interfering mother-in-law and disapproving mother watch her every move.
She pushes her frustrations aside, and focuses on her duties as mother, wife and daughter. Her children, husband and increasingly-passionless marital sex take up her life. But the tensions continue to simmer, surfacing from time to time as paralysing migraines.
Then, she meets Pipeelika, the striking widow of a political Street Theatre actor.
A rapport is quickly established between them, and her usually-controlling husband for once allows her to cultivate the friendship. Pipeelika keeps his wife busy, he thinks smugly to himself, and she even seems to have fewer headaches nowadays.
And besides, another woman couldn't possibly be a threat to his relationship.
Hemant couldn't be more wrong; against all odds, the relationship grows and the two women become intense lovers.
But Astha becomes caught in a terrible dilemma; should she stay with the tradition and safety of her home and children, or make a run for her freedom and an unthinkable love?
Religious tensions between Hindu and Muslim mirror Astha's frustrations. Although her marriage seems far less violent than the political and religious situation, it is in reality no less oppressive or damaging.
Astha tells her husband that she is going on a pilgrimage to the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya, and there she and Pipeelika steal a few days of peace together.
But somehow Astha's destiny is as desperate and uncertain as the fate of the mosque, a building that has stood for centuries as a symbol of uneasy co-existence between Hindu and Muslim but is now, more than ever, under threat. For a large number of extremist Hindus see the mosque's existence as an affront to their national and religious pride and are intent on demolishing it, as well as any Muslims that get in the way.
Manju Kapur depicts the gripping political situation with the same fervour and graphic detail as she describes Astha's actions and inner turmoil.
Only one thing is sure: beset by enraged Hindus, pleading Muslims and crooked policemen, the mosque, like Astha's marriage, will stand or fall depending on the courage and clout of those willing to fight the aggressors in the name of liberty and tolerance.
Isabel Owen, 29.01.04