Home By Manju Kapur

A house of soap and secrets
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The Independent Culture

Nisha, the seemingly docile central character of Home, claims her space halfway through the novel when she demands an education. But life at university offers little more than cribs to help with her exams. More significantly, she has a clandestine romance with the boy who acquires them. But this is India, and the boy's unsuitable. Nisha has to find an alternative occupation, putting to use her entrepreneurial genes. From these few bricks, Manju Kapur creates a novel full of bright spaces and dark corners; her telling is brisk, unsentimental, and capable of turning domestic drama into suspense.

On Indian television, series designed to run over a relatively brief period often gain such popularity that their producers extend them into soaps, adding and subtracting characters and situations, morphing a semi-linear plot into something extraordinary. A public vote might be taken over a crucial decision: Should Nisha be allowed to marry her low-caste boyfriend? Will her parents support her dressmaking business?

Kapur effectively captures and reworks these tropes. Even the title indicates an ironic nod to some long-running soap. Along with young Nisha's dilemmas, the family of migrants from Lahore to Delhi, the timeless atmosphere of arranged marriages, preoccupation with childbirth and heirs, the wrangles over property, the intrusion of a daughter-in-law and a possessive mother's ensuing envy, are all cut from the stuff that envelops popular audiences.

Kapur is, however, unlike India's growing breed of popular writers. Her careful prose is light and deft, more Anne Tyler than Shobha De. She's also capable of a very unladylike lack of decorum. Kapur's ability to chart sexual abuse and disease in the same detached style in which she narrates daily adventures is remarkable. Nisha's childhood experiences with a cousin mark her for life, as the skin condition that nearly ruins her chances of marriage is probably a psychosomatic response.

Darkness underlies the chatty brightness of this very enjoyable novel's surface; the older protagonists, who deny all hints of murkiness in their lives, manage to change the scene in time to avert oncoming disaster. There are times when the reader is aware of authorial disdain for the characters' lack of intellectual and aesthetic fibre. There are also, when Nisha becomes pregnant, moments of haunting tenderness. Even in the contested tranquillity of home, you can't take a thing for granted.