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Book review: Brothers —A Novel by Manju Kapur Dalmia

Manju Kapur's novel excels in recalling the power of spaces inside the home that the feminist movement has evoked consistently

Manju Kapur Dalmia with her new book. Photo: Prabhas Roy/Hindustan Times.
Manju Kapur Dalmia with her new book. Photo: Prabhas Roy/Hindustan Times.

The title of the book may well be Brothers but make no mistake, this book is about a woman, and it is the lives of women, especially the unnamed ones who serve as silent, veiled foils to their husbands and sons, that remain with you long after you have finished reading.

Brothers is author Manju Kapur’s sixth novel, and much like the previous ones, it highlights the lives of women in multiple locations, rural, urban, domestic, public, offering up for view the happenings within the home with the same urgency as the goings on in the world. Kapur deftly weaves a narrative that spans eight decades, from World War II to the first decade of the 21st century.

The title refers to siblings Himmat Singh Gaina and his younger brother Mangal, sons of Dhanpal Gaina of Lalbanga village, east of Ajmer. Dhanpal is the younger son of Lal Singh; his elder brother, Virpal, runs away from the village to escape its endemic caste war (the Gainas are Jats, and live in rivalry with other castes such as the Rajputs, Gujjars, Yadavs, Bhils and Malis). He begins to live in Ajmer, and thus escapes taking part in the war. When the English come calling for able-bodied Indian men to join the colonial army, Dhanpal enlists, and eventually fights in World War II. As Virpal grows up in the city, he joins the fight for independence, eventually co-founding the Indian Progressive People’s Party (IPPP), “with its roots in Hindu culture and identity". When he hears about Dhanpal’s enlisting, he returns to his village, a rich(er) man, no longer a farmer but a businessman with political ambitions.

Brothers —A Novel: By Manju Kapur Dalmia, Penguin Random House India 377 pages, Rs599.

His wife Mithari—they were married as children—has been waiting for him in the village, her only source of solace being her sister-in-law, Dhanpal’s wife Gulabi. It is in the passages relating to these women that Kapur excels—in describing the angan or the kitchen, where the women talk about their distress and find comfort, often through a gesture, or, in a few words, recall the power of homo-social spaces that the feminist movement has evoked consistently.

This then is the first set of brothers which forms the plinth for the next generation—Himmat and Mangal—to build on. However, things aren’t quite the same with the younger duo. If Himmat is the go-getter, with political ambitions, he is as unlike his uncle, whose political life was thwarted by lack of contacts. Himmat seeks a divorce from his child bride, refuses to acknowledge their son, and marries the daughter of a political mentor (and his uncle’s colleague from IPPP) to establish himself. Mangal, the younger sibling, expects his brother’s help to access wealth and power, in much the same way that Dhanpal and Virpal counted on each other. But this relationship isn’t the same, and Mangal is left feeling perpetually short-changed by an elder brother who continues to do exceedingly well for himself.

As mentioned in the beginning, this novel may well be titled Brothers but it is, at heart, the story of Tapti Gaina, Mangal’s wife. We meet her on the very first page, distraught at her husband’s action. It is 2010, and Mangal has shot Himmat, the chief minister of Rajasthan. Her teenage daughters are flabbergasted, unable to go to college and answer the questions of their friends; Himmat’s family—his wife and children—shun Tapti; the journalists hound her; and Tapti is unable to meet Himmat, who is admitted to the ICU.

As the novel moves back in time, we see how Himmat met Tapti and arranged the marriage between his brother and her; we also meet Virpal and Dhanpal, and see the relationship between Himmat and Mangal develop against the backdrop of political flux. Gender-based oppression and subordination is never too far, whether we’re reading about Gulabi, Mithari or Himmat’s first wife, who is not even named in the novel, let alone seen or described. She remains a shadowy figure, the ultimate victim of Himmat’s callousness, ambition and neglect.

Tapti, however, makes choices that aren’t allowed to other women characters—she chooses not to have more children, she chooses to exert her desire, she also works and earns for herself and her daughters. Her husband doesn’t support her decisions, but he doesn’t thwart them either.

This changed gender equation owes much to the feminist movement that was overtaking India in the period the novel is set in. And, as Elizabeth Jackson writes in Feminism And Contemporary Indian Women’s Writing: “The problem of violence against women was the initial focus of feminist campaigns in India during the 1970s. Campaigns against rape, domestic violence and dowry deaths escalated during the 1980s, attracting considerable support from men as well as women."

Tapti’s character implicitly critiques the Gaina family’s attitude towards women, as property, as child-producing machines, forever subordinate. This doesn’t inure her from tragedy. On the contrary, the book delves deep into the ways in which her modern, city-bred sense of equality leads to tension in her married life.

The big reveal at the end of the book does nothing to explain away anyone’s (mis)deeds, and as such, is fairly anti-climactic. I don’t think the author intended it to be anything else—the strength of the book lies in its ability to tease out the strands of familial relationships and the moral complexities of multiple affiliations, setting them against the backdrop of changes wrought by politics and time. The characters stay with you.

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