Vogue India described it as the “literary fiction debut of the year.” The Observer described it a “slender, mysterious and only fleetingly overwrought novel offers vivid insights into what it means to be a middle-class woman in 21st-century Delhi.” Deepti Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character has peaked the attention of literary critics and scooped up some plaudits in the process.
Its central character Idha ,is a twenty year old college student living with her exasperated aunt in a stifling but comfortable confines of a middleclass lifestyle. To make matters worse, she is constantly being paraded as the next suitors prize by her aunt labouring under the impression that marriage would be the panacea for her worries and the social nirvana for Idha.
Yet dissolutioned and disenchanted by her existence ,Idha makes her visits to the coffee shop to escape her rigid, ninety degree angled and orderly existence. Written in the first person, Idha says “… here you could forget the city, its ceaseless quarry of people. You could feel safe” . There she meets an older boy/man who certainly seductively wears the years of life experience. He is disapprovingly dark, both in mood and appearance, someone her aunt would never accept, and this makes him all the more alluring and all the more forbidden fruit.
She begins a heady affair and is drawn into a world where she sees the dark underbelly of the capital. Idha`s character hooks us in and the reader is fully engaged through her own narrative voice. She soon makes a modern-day Faustian pact with the boy and her idea of self is completely attacked, forcing her to succumb to carnal and somehow feral desires. The story seemed to be a modern parable on that old adage of be careful what you wish for ……….
Kapoor`s writing is very evocative and so uncompromising in its portrayal of the less then salubrious sides of Delhi, the pollution, the over-crowdedness, the sounds and smells, that you can almost taste it. She captures Delhi with all its glorious soundscapes and leaves you with the image of a city positively trembling under its own colossal weight , a living, breathing church for those lowly types who scratch for a living and the high executives who subscribe to the capitalists` school of money making. It was refreshing to see how Kapoor wends us through the innards of Delhi and delivers a warts and all image of the capital rather then the romanticised chocolate box image of the city, so often found in prosaic and embroidered Asian novels.
Idha is a young student who feels that her middle class existence leaves her with a malaise and a desire for freedom, so desperately unfulfiled. Yet her regular café visits seem to suggest that far from wistful or desperate about her turbid life, she is a calculated thrill- seeker and not just one of life`s ambulance chasers.
While India races ahead in the economy stakes, chasms in economic inequality and gender inequalities still exist throughout India, There is certainly a rising middle class and without dout a growing number of independent female professionals as well. Yet women are still sexually objectified and subject to the slavish male gaze. Kapoor is acutely aware of the presence of less then respectful attitudes towards women today.
Idha not exactly burdened by her gift that is beauty, and simply acknowledges that being the focus for a woman in modern India, is something of an occupational hazard. Her interior monologue describes male reactions as she travels around Delhi.” Ive been stared at a lot of course ; its what men do. Everyday from door to door, on the buses, stepping through rubble on the edge of the road, in the car struck in traffic , at red lights. Stares of incomprehension, lust rage, sad yearning, so vacant and blank sometimes, its terrifying, sometimes pitiful. Eyes filling the potholes, bouncing down the street liked marbles., no escaping their clank. Eyes in restaurants, in offices…… “ Her experiences are nothing new of course, they could be indicative of women across India.
Is she a thrill seeker ? Or someone living for the high in merely skirting with the possibility of breaking social taboos? Her inner voice belies someone who is totally in control but she descends into a series of noxious relationships, masking the fact each relationship is a one-night stand on a continuous loop, where love and commitment are strange bed-fellows. We learn early on that as a child, her father had started spending long periods “working” in Singapore. Absconding for a life in Singapore, he is mostly an absent father and a reluctant husband. Is the fact that she sees men now as tools for escapism, an inability to form stable relationships with men, suggest a deep-seated disenchantment , or even understandable “hatred ” of men as a result ?
As you engage with the novel, expecting it to be the story of one woman`s odyssey into the unknown and descent into the darker side of human psyche, Kapoor on occasions,cleverly departs from the linear novel and deploys non-linear story telling. Idha ends up suddenly describing past moments which you think are real and lucid but maybe just motes of her imagination where fact crosses fantasy.The slight downside is that the non- linear writing interrupts the story`s flow and sometimes proved to be a circuit breaker for your engagement with the novel.
The novel `s own energy seemed to deplete near the end and it felt that the story had run out of track. As a reader, you expected some form of finality or resolution. Yet there is no redemption from her less then perfect life or indeed any dramatic turnaround . She is older now and her character is fully crystallised now with all its fault-lines, perhaps mirroring real life.
Nevertheless Kapoor delivers a stylised and accomplished novel with real insights into the human condition. It leaves you fully immersed and packs a powerful punch on your senses. She portrays a woman, hot wired in her desire for freedom ,fighting the ever lapping existence of the ever omnipotent male gaze.
Published by Jonathon Cape Random Hse. http://www.vintage-books.co.uk. Priced £14.99.
Also available at www.amazon.co.uk.
South Asian Book Club (London based) will be reviewing Bad Character on 30th August. Places are limited. Free entry. For details email email@example.com