Ratika Kapur , in her debut novel, Overwinter , had probed South Delhi’s posh and seemingly orderly domesticity. Her second book, The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma , announces her as a unique and original new voice in Indian English fiction. Kapur, who previously worked in publishing as a fiction editor, turns her gaze on urban, middle class India, and imagines a protagonist who lives a life balanced between tradition and decorum, independence and desire. Kapur spoke to The Hindu about the character of Mrs. Sharma, feminism, and more.
How did the idea for The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma take root?
I spent nine to 11 months going on these long metro rides because my father-in-law was unwell. I’d go from south Delhi to Rohini on the metro every day, so I spent close to three hours on it. I’d sit there in the ladies compartment and watch the women around me — women I may not necessarily interact with on a day-to-day basis. I’d spend my time watching them, peering over, wondering what they were thinking, doing and writing. Where did they come from, what did they do?
This got me thinking about the kind of English writing that we have in India right now. Most of it is either about the elite — and I am guilty of that too, with my earlier book — or it’s about the exotic: the elephants and the mango orchards. But what about the ordinary, middle-class population, women in particular, going about their ordinary lives? I wanted to explore that domesticity. Wondering what this Hindi-speaking middle class are thinking is how I got started. The problem was the prose.
And yet, now, what elevates your book is this original prose you have used. It is just right…
I spent probably two years trying to get the voice right. I was basically trying to create a specific kind of prose aesthetics that would give voice to lives whose intimacies are coloured in Hindi, but whose ambitions are articulated in English. So, my challenge was to create an idiom that captures the Indian urban middle class without parodying it or claiming to speak for it. I didn’t want to do that quaint, cutesy…
And sometimes patronising…
Yes, patronising prose. I wanted to collapse that distance between the English writer and her Hindi-speaking subjects. The idiom of this book doesn’t actually exist. Ever since Raja Rao, we have been grappling with that question: how do you capture in English an experience that has been lived in another language? And I didn’t want to prove a theoretical point about this. It was simply that the character and her situations demanded this of me.
At points in the book, Mrs. Sharma seems to be holding up an image, as if writing for a reader she wants to impress. Slowly, though, that changes into frank intimacies. Is she addressing a reader? Or is she writing to, and for, herself?
You know, it is as if she is speaking to someone with whom she is developing an intimate relationship. I remember reading something somewhere that the authority of the narrative voice is something that you earn. You write the first sentence, the reader is not going to maybe take your word for it, but then you write the second, the third, and that’s how you develop authority. I think it’s the same with intimacy. I think there is a sense of growing intimacy. In the beginning, there are a lot of things she is uncomfortable with. So she lies, and in some sense she is an unreliable narrator. At one point she says one thing, then she contradicts herself. She dithers and wavers, but it was important for me to bring all that out…
Mrs. Sharma is exactly the kind of character who would blend into the backdrop of another story. You draw her forward, get under her skin.
There is a lot of shared experience being in a metropolis. Something like the metro is a great leveller. Whether you are going to your job in a fortune 500 company in Gurgaon or to your job as a receptionist at a gynaecologist’s, everyone is sharing the same compartment. But yes, there were things that I would have to observe. I think that’s a writer’s job — observation — much more than theory. You spend a lot of time quietly watching people. You are constantly doing that. One reason I am asocial is because when I meet people, it’s almost like work, because I’m always listening and watching and observing.
It’s a very easy book to read, but an incredibly difficult one in the kind of issues it deals with, and the honesty with which it handles them. Mrs. Sharma’s brand of independence is very real.
I think, often, feminism in India becomes an elite thing, but here I wanted to show how an ordinary person, who has certain impulses, is able to balance that with this kind of tradition that she is steeped in but also respects. She is not one to dismiss it. She is very proud of the fact that she is a good wife, a good mother-in-law, a good mother — she always wants to be that. And at the same time she is terribly deluded person. On one hand, she has committed the most violent of acts, but she is also thinking of how the food needs to be on time.
While writing the book, though, were you consciously weaving in certain topics?
You have certain questions, but ultimately, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not going to theorise. I remember what Saul Bellow once said, that no amount of assertion will make an ounce of art. Our business should rest on perception, on storytelling. Of course, one has questions, but as an artist you attempt to answer them through this story you tell. A lot of it comes retrospectively. The questions are really subliminal. We are dreaming up these stories but clearly they come from somewhere. They kind of shape your story but that is not necessarily conscious. We spend years and years thinking and wondering about these questions, and these are the forces that shape the story. And sometimes, it’s not so much finding answers as much as posing further questions.