Manju Kapur: Pride and prejudices

Manju Kapur, the Jane Austen of modern Anglo-Indian literature, tells James Kidd about the best and worst of India's traditions
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The Independent Culture

Manju Kapur is one of those people who is utterly transformed when she laughs.

For much of our interview, she exudes the same serious and rather elegant authority that distinguishes her fiction: her new novel, Custody, for example, is a nuanced portrait of family breakdown set against India's rise as an economic power. Now and then, however, the 63-year-old from New Delhi unexpectedly cracks herself up.

We are discussing a well-known Indian public school that appears in a fictional form in Custody. "The minute I changed its name, I could critique it," Kapur says when we meet at her publisher's London office. "I could have a character ask, 'Will my son be buggered?' – although I don't use that word. I am a very discreet writer." The ensuing fit of giggles changes Kapur's professorial demeanour (she was a teacher for 30 years) into something more youthful and mischievous. As she laughs herself silly, I ask whether she is less discreet as a person than a writer. "Yes, yes – absolutely! You don't write the way you talk. I don't know why."

It is almost de rigueur for Western critics to compare Kapur's previous novels, Difficult Daughters, Home and the bestselling The Immigrant, to Jane Austen. Custody is about the lives, loves and losses of wealthy, urban, middle-class Indians, and she excels at excavating unsettling secrets and exploring dysfunctional relationships.

Her starting point, however, is not plot or character, but grand contemporary narratives: "At the risk of sounding like a political scientist, Custody was inspired by globalisation and economic liberalisation. Who owns you? As far as most Indian women and children are concerned, a man does. But that's changing."

Kapur's laugh bursts free again. "But the book isn't only about those things. It's about child custody and the legal system. You can't live in India and not be extremely furious about the legal system." Like so many challenges facing the nation's politicians, the fundamental problem is one of scale: the legal, education and health systems are simply overloaded. Kapur's fiction examines the effect that these almost impossibly vast issues have on the most intimate areas of people's lives: love, sex, work, money, and above all family.

"The family is where I see the impact of what is happening in Indian society. In my earlier novels, it was women who negotiated this relationship. Here, it is everybody – the children, the father, the wives. If you live free, you pay the emotional price," Kapur says of a story in which no one ever quite gets what they want, and no single character is solely to blame.

Set just before the millennium, Custody depicts what appears to be an enviably happy and prosperous married couple, Raman and Shagun, who are torn apart by adultery and then by a bitter legal battle for their children. In a story carrying echoes of Ibsen, Shagun chooses love with a westernised Indian businessman over family duty; Raman's desperate bid to gain custody of his son and daughter is an act born of love, revenge and humiliation.

In many respects, Kapur is ideally placed to comment on the seismic shifts shaping the Indian nation. Born in the Punjabi city of Amritsar shortly after independence in 1948, she has spent a lifetime balancing her country's traditions with the demands of its ever-changing present. She is happy to write in English, but admits that the choice remains fraught. "Writing in English is still a charged issue! My goodness!" she exclaims. "I am a total post-colonial. I studied in English. I read in English. My Hindi is quite bad."

Kapur wears a sari and a bindi, but argues that Western dress plays an important role in levelling caste divides in Indian society. "In my college, we teach pupils from every strata, from deprived backgrounds to privileged ones, and at first you can tell just by looking, which they are from. Then they start dressing in Western clothes. For the ones from deprived backgrounds, this is very enabling. It means you have more fluidity."

A similar attempt to unite East and West, convention and individuality, defines all areas of Kapur's life. When I ask about the challenges of combining an academic career, a family (she has three children), and her literary career, Kapur sounds like the consummate nonconformist: "I followed my own dream. I do what I like and say what I like."

Although Kapur's marriage initially caused waves with her husband's traditional Marwari relatives, today she lives alongside them in a joint family structure. This set-up can be hard on the incoming wife, but it has enormous benefits. Joint families "create extraordinary ways of coping with every possible situation. There are so many grown-ups and cousins to relate to. It's a very good school for living." Kapur describes the smaller Western family unit as "non-functional" by comparison. "If everything is fine, then fine. If shit is happening, it gets turned inside and happens to vulnerable people."

I finish by asking about India's future. Kapur is cautiously optimistic, but remains realistic about its present. "The debate is not about how confident we are, but about how misplaced is this confidence. Why are we so proud of India when there is so much poverty, such a lack in education and health? There's anger and impatience with the government. Things have to change and they have to change fast."

Nevertheless, Kapur is aware that instability and flux are ever-presents throughout India's history. The difference today is the increasing level of awareness and the genuine desire for progress. "It's not that traditional people or the poor are being excluded from a new India – they always were. It's just that more of them now are being included."

Custody, By Manju Kapur (Faber £12.99)

"Within a few months of arriving in India he saw the woman he knew he had been destined for. In her colouring, her greenish eyes and her demeanour, she was a perfect blend of east and west. A woman so pretty had to be married, besides she had the look of someone who never had to compete for male attention. To woo her would thus be that much more difficult, he must first create a need before he could fulfil it. But he was used to creating needs, it was what he did for a living."