Manju Kapur, whose fourth novel The Immigrant has just been published, says writing is a solitary vocation.
Birdsong amidst sylvan surroundings. The path leading to author Manju Kapur’s house provides a sudden break from the brouhaha of central Delhi. It could also be the metaphorical path to an author’s mindscape. But not, perhaps, in this case. The characters in Manju Kapur’s novels don’t get to live — for long at least — in such idyllic circumstances.
The author, whose fourth novel, The Immigrant, has just been released by Random House India, smiles at the mention of the sadness that always seems ready to overtake her characters. “Oh well, you can’t write a totally hunky dory novel,” she counters, but adds there is an underpinning of hope in her stories. She is not for the totally black, despairing worldview of some fiction. “I myself find it difficult to read a book like that,” she says. Laughing, she concedes, “Readers often tell me my books are sad. Here I am thinking they are full of hope!” But then adds on a serious note, “And personal lives of women are so difficult, don’t you think?”
That brings us to her focus on women’s lives. She recalls that at a book reading arranged at a call centre, a man in the audience felt she had portrayed Ananda, the husband of the protagonist in The Immigrant, as “the bad guy”. Kapur maintains she does see life from a woman’s viewpoint, but also tried to make Ananda, an NRI dentist who comes to India to find a bride, “as empathetic a character as possible”.
The scene of action in The Immigrant is divided for the most part between New Delhi and Halifax, Canada. The protagonist Nina is an English lecturer in Delhi University till she leaves for Canada. Coming from an author who is a lecturer at DU’s Miranda House, the detailing that goes into descriptions of the University and the routes around the city is not surprising. What about Halifax, whose every parking lot and apartment complex she seems familiar with? “I studied there. It’s the only foreign city I know well,” she replies candidly. Otherwise, she points out, for a story about Indian immigrants, the obvious choices might have been cities in the U.S. or the U.K., instead of Halifax where Indians are few.
Currently on long leave to concentrate on her writing, Kapur is already well into her next novel — “I’m into it like mad!” This next work, which she promises will be out by next year, is about an adopted child, with themes of custody, blood and non-blood relations. All her novels start with seed ideas. If Difficult Daughters was about education, the seed of A Married Woman was friendship between women. Home was about “how families both sustain and destroy”. And the seed of The Immigrant was the phenomenon of NRI marriages.
Once the idea is with her she starts to write, and often has “no idea” what she is going to say. But it is more than ephemeral creativity. “Forget inspiration! That was left behind long ago,” she exclaims. There is solid work at hand.
“I write about 10 drafts,” she relates. She begins showing the drafts to friends at a fairly late stage, and when her manuscript finally reaches the publishers, it is unlikely to change materially. “But their input is definitely there,” she explains.
The author, who started her first novel when she turned 41 — “I was bored with my life, I thought if I was to do anything it had to be now” — feels “writing is the most solitary of arts”. Performers are able to forge an intense connection with the audience, she notes. For writers, the long process from manuscript to printed book is devoid of creative energy. The nitty-gritty of examining proofs, choosing cover designs and innumerable other details can be tedious. “And by the time the book is done and it’s out there, you’re deep into another book,” she comments. So attending launches and publicity events is like “being dragged back to a previous book.”
And once it reaches her bookshelf, does she ever feel like leafing through? “Never. I don’t even look at it,” she declares. “Once it’s out there your connection is severed.”
But that’s okay. There are enough people out there waiting to do just that.