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A review of Custody by Manju Kapur
If family dramas are a surefire way to strike a chord with an Indian audience, Manju Kapur's Custody will have heartstrings twanging away with its wrenching moments and stories of love, loss and betrayal. The author of books such as Difficult Daughters and The Immigrant returns to the theme of family again in her fifth book, Custody, but here the focus is on the break-up of a marriage and the long-term effects on all the people involved.
It's a simple enough cast of characters - people who could be your next-door neighbours. Raman and Shagun seem like the couple who have everything. He's the hard-working 'good man' who holds a high-paying, high-pressure marketing job;she's the gorgeous wife who dutifully produces a boy, Arjun, and a girl, Roohi, and accompanies him to office parties. In another part of the city is Ishita, whose marriage runs into trouble and finally breaks up when her in-laws realise she can't have children. Then there's Raman's boss and the parents of Raman, Shagun and Ishita, each of the characters rendered in beautiful detail.
Shagun falls in love with Raman's boss and takes away the children to bargain for a divorce. Raman is traumatised by the loss of his perfect life, his children, the whole world he built up. It's a book about marriage and divorce with children at the heart of it. Apart from the bitter battle for the custody of Arjun and Roohi, the book - set in the early 1990s - also examines the problems that creep into a middle class family with the influx of money. The women aren't particularly spectacular, ambitious or successful, but what Kapur brings out with sensitivity and perception is the conflict that arises when "traditional Indian values" that women are reared on come in contact with other worlds. She also touches on how courts and the legal systems prolong and further complicate a fraught custody issue. Kapur's subtle story-telling style is quite riveting, and she writes with a simplicity that makes the reader sympathise with all the characters. There's no right or wrong, no hero or villain of the piece. You don't find yourself condemning Shagun, who, bored with a life of doing everything everyone else has expected her to, breaks away and falls in love with an older, more sophisticated and exciting man.
She does manipulate the children, especially Arjun, but a few chapters down Raman and his new wife Ishita do the same with Roohi. At times, the complexities and the extreme tension can get exhausting, but Kapur's book leaves you a lot to think about - the different worlds women have to negotiate, the idea of family, the emotions and processes that influence behaviour, especially in intimate settings. A note of caution: while this is a captivating book, choose to read it only at a time when your life is all sunshine and rainbows as it can quite dampen the mood.
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