Has a country ever been more romanticized than India? Is there another place on this planet that so many people know about, albeit from little shards of information, much of it gleaned from movies or pop culture influences? And yet, there is a danger in elevating India to a vision of a demure, flower-bedecked bride and her romp in the hills with her dashing suitor. Such images distort the reality of India which, although a beautiful and wonderful place, is still fraught with ubiquitous challenges from the most fundamental access to basic necessities to millennia-old, parasitic traditions that everyone swears are extinct, but continue to pulse in some distant (and not so distant) place.
This challenge to perception appears especially relevant in light of the much-needed and recent debate on women’s safety in India, and the government’s ban on the screening of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s Daughter. The film is about the 2012 gang rape of a 23-year old woman whose identity has never been fully revealed, but is now known as Jyoti Singh. As Colin Freeman noted in a recent article for the Telegraph, it is a dire situation when one of the accused attackers, Mukesh Singh, still believes that it was Jyoti’s fault that she was raped, and that his lawyer, A.P. Singh, has also publically said that if his own daughter or sister “engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself,” he would douse her with gasoline and “set her alight” in front of the entire family.
(see: “Delhi Bus Rapist Blames His Victim in Prison Interview“, by Colin Freeman, the Telegraph, 1 March 2015)
That the freedom of expression is under attack in India is not a new concept. India has always enjoyed a rich, revolutionary, and independent press and literary heritage that has often come to blows with varying governments over perceived attacks on politicians and their programs. American freelance journalist Sabrina Buckwalter learned this the hard way, for example, when she wrote an article in 2006 for the Times of India under the headline “Just Another Rape Story”; the backlash was so intense that she struggled to return to India for years afterwards. (See
“Why Did a White Girl Writing About Rape Get Kicked out of India?“, by Mayukh Sen, Vice, 7 March 2015)
With such a backdrop, however, writers often have to take tremendous risks to share their stories because of fear of retribution from those who are quick to label anything that challenges the status quo as being “blasphemous”, “obscene”, “irreverent”, “shameful” or, God forbid, “Western”.
So to read Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel, A Bad Character, and revel in its stunning and frantic realism about the life of a 20-something woman is to accept that her point of view is not often heard, and that her frank descriptions of everything from the first time she snorts cocaine to fucking random men (which she equates with “the urge to destroy”) take a ridiculous amount of determination.
Kapoor’s tale involves a young woman, Idha, who is navigating life as an orphan and a college student living with her aunt and uncle. But this is not a coming-of-age story in any traditional sense: this is a deep, intense, and often stream-of-conscious narrative of a woman who feels that she does not belong anywhere until she meets a man who changes her mind, body, and soul. The author has a tendency to jump from present to past to future, often echoing the character Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen: “The accident is almost upon me now.” Similarly, the narrator recalls (or prophesies), “I’m still a girl here. My heart has not yet been broken in two. Everything has yet to happen, though it has already begun.”
This is a story about being a woman, but it’s also about being a woman in India. The narrator’s clumsy and half-assed attempts at meeting good Indian boys to placate her aunt could be vehicles for laughter, if there wasn’t so much sadness. She writes about one boy that “he’s seen my photo and approved of my looks, and because he’s divorced he’s willing to overlook my own unfortunate situation, the mother dead, the father absent.” Idha meets many earnest young men, all with plans to live in “the States” or who are already there, but who back have returned to the Motherland to find wives. How do these young Indians, in and out of country, play this matrimonial game year after year? The format may have changed with the advent of the Internet, but the rules are the same, and Kapoor magnificently captures it all.
When Elton John inducted Leon Russell in 2011 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said of Russell that “he became the master of space and time.” Kapoor also manages something of this sort as she describes India in a way that few writers have ever done, interfusing her observations with vivid portrayals of sights, smells, sounds, and feelings. Her description of a Chinese restaurant encapsulates all of these senses:
It’s starting to fill up inside. All around there’s the stench of cooking, the MSG, the smell of stale carpets, ashtrays, empty glasses, the stickiness of beer on plastic floors, the warm aroma of chicken and noodles and red chili, the soy and turmeric that comes all the way from the Chinese of Calcutta, the gobi Manchurian that crows their hard work far from home. The noise is a womb, waiters are shouting to the kitchen, the kitchen is sizzling in white light behind the swing door.
The same with her recollection of visiting a Muslim corner of the old city: “Suddenly we’re in the place where lives are spent behind walls, in courtyards where the walls are front doors. It’s where the Muslim girls roam, in twos and threes, heavenly girls of milk-white whose skin the sun doesn’t see – they glide past us in silence with their painted cat eyes framed in black.” Her portrayal of Delhi hits you in the face with its unadulterated realism. It is almost as if she watched and re-watched Almost Famous and memorized Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dialogue as critic Lester Bangs – “You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”
While the first half of the story is stronger than the second, A Bad Character is still an excellent book. Instead of laying bromide upon bromide on Kapoor, I will simply say that this is the book that the late Kushwant Singh would have desired more than anything else: a young Indian voice whose sorrow is so great that there is no room for humor, even Singh’s dark humor, because this is Kapoor’s time to paint a picture of India that no one has the guts to do anymore.
A Bad Character is a book of courage, but not because of the plot; rather, it is courageous in its realism, and the many chances its author has taken. I have only read a handful of books in my lifetime that have left me feeling eviscerated. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance of course comes to mind, but A Bad Character is bleak in a different way, as it portrays the loss of innocence of a generation that is often blamed for not having gone through the hardships of previous generations. Yet the pain is real.