Pride and prejudices

From The Independent:

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

Manju 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.”

More here.