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Manju Kapur: ‘I am an obsessive word counter’

Manju Kapur: ‘I am an obsessive word counter’

Author Manju Kapur talks to her student Neha Dixit about her writing and how her time in college may have influenced her style.

Five books in 12 years; 30 years of teaching English literature.

She was marked MKD in our college timetable. Always dressed in immaculate saris and elbow-length blouses, she was a celebrity among us. Manju Kapur had won the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Eurasia and written two books. She introduced us to homosexuality and categorically told us that it was “real” and “normal” while teaching Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” in the first year. Her characteristic giggle inspired a classmate to imitate a pigeon. For three years she never realised that it was the students – not the pigeons – who were cooing while she taught Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley. She insisted we make a one-book-a-day rule, thanks to which we read all that we did in three years. Each time she read about Peter Walsh flashing his knife (Mrs Dalloway), we would chorus, “Phallic symbol” and MKD would break into giggles. Having taken voluntary retirement from Miranda House, Delhi University, after training feminists in the making for 30 years, She now writes full-time. Excerpts from a dialogue before the release of her fifth book, Custody.


To start with, what is Custody about?

Marriage and divorce. It’s called Custody because it’s about the custody of two children. This is set in the early 1990s. What happens in an upwardly mobile family with the influx of money? What happens to the so-called traditional values? Basically, what happens to the women in the family? It’s my longest novel to date. 109,000 words. I am an obsessive word counter.

If I were to connect a character from the texts that you taught – for instance, Maggie from Mill on the Floss set in the late 19th Century to Virmati from your first book Difficult Daughters set in the early 20th century – both have ambition but are tied down. Would you agree that their struggle seems universal, across centuries, across countries?
In the 19th century novel, a lot did centre on women. My novels also centre on women. It’s about how women negotiate with the outside world. Maggie was not very successful. Perhaps, my women are not either. There is a lot of compromise but it does not end in their death because the world has changed to a certain extent.

It’s not just a family drama or story. It’s about the processes that influence these women and men and how it plays itself out in the most intimate of places. Actually when I was teaching, I didn’t think that there was a connection between what I taught and what I wrote but now when I look back … The story comes as I write. I don’t have an idea of the story beforehand.

In A Married Woman, there was a hint of lesbianism. When I read that bit, I recollected Sally Seton from Mrs. Dalloway. Did it influence you?

I wanted to explore female friendships. Women both support and harm each other. For example, in Home, we have a more traditional joint family, where women are not necessarily supportive of each other. In A Married Woman, I was looking at how women relate to each other. It turned out to be sexual, only because of the plot’s exigencies. Female friendship didn’t seem to look very interesting when I was writing it; but when I changed it into an affair, it developed its own dynamics, disappointments, expectations… So, to that extent perhaps, I wasn’t true to my initial theme. Some people tried to ask if I was trying to emulate “Fire”, the movie, and that made me very angry.

Are your characters inspired by the girls you taught or your personal life?

It comes from the interaction with students over 30 years, seeing their aspirations, and how they have grown. When I first started teaching, only upper-class girls thought of jobs. Now everybody, more or less, is thinking of a job. Even if marriages are arranged, they want to work. Somehow they are not aspirational in terms of a life partner, but a job is very important for them. Even the parents want them to work.

Also from my own background. Virmati (from Difficult Daughters) was, in a way, inspired by my mother. She was a teacher, a principal. She went out in the world and suffered accordingly. Because once you go out in the world, you are touched by it. You have your own life and you don’t want to be contained by the family. But the family objects to it violently.

I, too, am a working woman. I know how women have to negotiate the demands of a family structure. It’s a very delicate balancing act. I try to explore individual yearnings and ambitions and how is this compatible with family demands and the demands of the people you love. This is also what I try to convey to my students: Your commitment to yourself should be strong. You need to have self-respect because nobody is going to give it to you.

The impact of patriarchy in each of your novels is different. How did you manage to explore it in each set up?

That comes from the different social strata. For instance, The Immigrant has only Nina and her mother, so patriarchy and its impact is the least. In Home, everything is affected; there is a joint trader family where education is not important, independence for women is not important, it’s just the business that’s important. In A Married Woman, I was looking at patriarchy in contemporary times. Difficult Daughters had a historical bias but the freedom movement impacted the women in a different way. I try and look at things in a different way because, if I don’t, I will get bored.

The range of texts you taught was varied: Jane EyreFrankenstein,Mill on the FlossMrs. Dalloway. Which do you strongly believe in?

As a teacher, you look at texts that are teachable, which means that there are lot of themes and issues to discuss. That way, all were very rich. But if I had to choose one, I would choose Jane Eyre. Because she fought so much in every situation, she followed her inner diktat. She was a fighter and, of course, there was a huge element of romance, which is always satisfying.

Which of your protagonists do you empathise with most?

What kind of question is that? (laughs) I identify with all; the men and women. In Custody, I identify with the father. He is traumatised by the loss of his children. Once I have the story, I try to make these characters as believable as possible. So my favourite character is always the one that is going to be next.

Published in The Hindu, Sunday magazine, April 2, 2011

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