When Manju Kapur published her second novel, A Married Woman, in 2003, India was a different country.
While the Vishaka guidelines had been laid down by the Supreme Court in 1997, the law protecting women from sexual harassment at the workplace would be enacted only in 2013. On its heels came the 2014 general election, a turning point in the nation’s political history. And it would take even longer to read down the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised same-sex love.
Yet, re-reading the novel two decades later, one is struck by an uncanny feeling of déjà vu. The three intersecting themes of A Married Woman—the lives of ordinary Indian women, the poison of communal politics and the trials of sexual freedom—feel as urgent and relevant today as they were 20 years ago. The irony assumes a sharper edge when you consider the setting of the story—in 1970s-80s India, reaching its tragic finale with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
From the epic first sentence, Kapur establishes her narrative voice, a mix of droll cynicism and pathos: “Aastha was brought up properly, as befits a woman, with large supplements of fear.” A critic in a national weekly took umbrage at Kapur’s portrayal of her protagonist, the titular “married woman”, who is forever caught between the rebellion simmering inside her and a profound lassitude to act on her desires. Aastha may be the very antithesis of a fiery feminist but in her dilemma, Kapur acutely captured the plight of millions of women.
Despite the intervening decades, girls in India still aren’t entirely free of this default mode of parental supervision. Nor does the destiny of many women differ starkly from the path Aastha’s parents set her on: a decent education, a suitably arranged marriage, two children, the job of a schoolteacher that won’t disrupt her duties towards her husband, children and in-laws. “She had a good life, but it was good because nothing was questioned,” as Kapur explains.
The first signs of disruption arise when Aastha gets involved with the Street Theatre Group, a cultural organisation led by Aijaz Khan, a charismatic professor of history at Delhi University, on a mission to heal communal tensions. As the 1980s segue into the 1990s, India witnesses waves of social and economic change. Liberalisation gives a huge boost to entrepreneurship and Aastha’s husband, Hemant, leaves his bank job to start a television manufacturing unit in Noida. It proves to be a success. The nation is caught in a frenzy of watching kings, queens and gods come alive from the pages of history as B.R. Chopra’s tele-series Mahabharat is broadcast on Sundays. Every household covets a television.
Around this time, the mood of mass devotion and wild fervour also gets tainted by sinister rumblings on the ground. Not far from Delhi, in Ayodhya, an age-old feud over the disputed Babri Masjid is about to hit a new inflection point. Aijaz is killed by a furious mob, much like the theatre activist Safdar Hashmi. For the first time in her sheltered life, Aastha is lacerated by the barbwire of reality. In spite of her protective parents, her responsible but inattentive husband and supportive in-laws, she falls into a void, an abyss of existential crisis that rocks her world, disrupts her routine of duty and domesticity.
Unsurprisingly, Aastha’s awakening into self-knowledge is far from uncomplicated. For every step she takes towards autonomy, she hits against the insurmountable wall that is her family. Even though she is an accomplished amateur painter, Aastha doesn’t have the will to put her artistic pursuits first. As a mother, she is primed to give her all to her children. Her husband may not be a model spouse but he isn’t a brute either. He provides for the family, gives her sexual attention when the mood strikes him. He even supports Aastha’s artistic ambitions in a patronising, self-congratulatory manner of his own, though he draws a line at her demand for a studio. Aastha is left fantasising about a room of her own, a bit like a living counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.
Contrary to the feminist frustration over Aastha’s character, she comes across as real and authentic because of her dithering, dwindling resolve. She isn’t steadfast about her artistic career or commitment to activism. If she defies her husband by attending protest marches, she has to beg him to buy her a car with her inheritance, given to him by her mother for safekeeping. Aastha’s ultimate act of revenge against her lot in life is to have an affair with another woman, Aijaz’s widow, Pipeelika Khan.
Although their relationship takes root only in the last third of the novel, the sheer ardour with which it plays out makes it credible, even inevitable. Aastha finds herself headlong in love with Pipee, in a way she has never been with any man. She courts her abjectly, seeks her approval, goes out of her way to make Pipee happy, even at the risk of incurring the wrath of her husband, children, in-laws and mother. That their romance unfolds in the 1990s, through furtive meetings and snatched intimacies, makes it even more poignant.
Aastha and Pipee experience an affinity that isn’t strictly defined by a vocabulary of identity politics or bounded by the norms of sexual orientation. In fact, struggling to understand her feelings, Aastha realises that her emotions are “linked to the particular person”. Pipee offers her the kind of companionship and fulfilment that no one else in the world, especially her husband, can ever give her. It’s simple and clear as daylight, yet it also isn’t.
Reading A Married Woman in 2023 gives us a measure of the distance we have travelled in the last two decades when it comes to women’s lives, agency, marriage and sexuality in India. As we embark on the Pride History Month, there is much to celebrate: the fluidity of gender and identity, the triumph of clarity over confusion, courage over fear. But we still have miles to go, be it in the demand for marriage equality, legal recognition of marital rape, or simply in enabling girls and women to live their best lives.
As Aastha and Pipee realise in the end, freedom is always a work in progress.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times