A marriage preceded or fractured by a heady, socially unacceptable romance has emerged time and again in Manju Kapur's fiction. It re-appears in her latest novel, Custody: here, the subject is matrimony at its most intolerable followed by the emotional fall-out of a break-up on one wealthy extended Delhi family.
We are introduced to the central couple just as their troubles begin. Their relationship comes to a juddering end after Shagun, the beautiful wife of Raman (as dull as she is pretty), falls for his far more charismatic boss and hot-shot sales executive, Ashok Khanna. The affair sparks the book's furious momentum as it follows them through separation, divorce, re-marriage (Shagun to Ashok; Raman to the infertile Ishita) and a crescendo of a custody battle in all its legal chicanery and psychological ugliness.
The battle could have made for exhausting, car-crash drama had it not been for Kapur's carefully balanced tone. The pain and loneliness of all of the characters, from the infertile Ishita's rejection by her first husband to Shagun's frustrations within her tepid marriage and Raman's devastation after she leaves, is set against Kapur's gentle satire. The tragedy of divorce and custody is tempered, though never undercut, by her keenly-perceived soap opera of bourgeois Indian society of the 1990s. Shagun's fling has a touch of French farce; Raman is the classic cuckold, intent on a life of mediocrity. The older generation whose adult children are undergoing divorce relate their situation to Princess Diana's wrecked marriage; Ashok's sales slogans spill over from his workplace to be applied (ludicrously) to life.
This mild parody saves the story from humourless legal drama. Yet the lightness does not take away from the heartbreak. The two children, Arjun and Roohi, become the pawns through which their parents unleash their fury on each other. Kapur gives us effective glimmers of insight into their young, confused minds.
The battle lines are drawn early and both parties fight to its end. The cycle of rage between Shagun and Raman not only fuels itself but is complicated by the new stepmothers and fathers acquired through second marriages. Kapur is adept at dealing with this complicated family reconfiguration, and the insecurity it brings to the step-parents as well as children. In Ishita's plight, we see the second wife's desperate struggle to replace the biological mother, while Ashok presents a more ambiguous kind of care.
Kapur addresses the gendered nature of custody battles in India – men often refuse to grant divorce while women usually have greater claim to the children – but she refuses to generalise or moralise. The legal process is rotten in different ways for both parties. Neither does she spend too long on whether Shagun's infidelity scandalises society, but focuses on how it affects her characters. The concept of family shame and social propriety is firmly in the background.
Perhaps this lack of social judgment stems from the period: an India of the 1990s which is entering the world economy on a more ambitious footing, and in which the idea of family duty has been overridden by individualism. As Shagun says in her critique of the old world, "It was part of the Indian disease. Ashok was always going on about stultifying tradition. The great Indian family, which rested on the sacrifices of its women."