Sisters under the skin

Manju Kapur’s latest novel is an exploration of the lives of women: their inclinations and desires, and their compromises.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Manju Kapur’s latest novel, The Gallery, is an exploration of the lives of women: their inclinations and desires and the compromises they often make owing to their belief that this is the best that they can get out of their lives. But in that journey of manifold submissions and capitulations, they may yet find the space to stake a claim for power and grace and a voice of their own.

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The novel narrates the story of two women and their daughters whose lives are braided with each other’s and who, though they belong to vastly disparate social classes, seem to be sisters under the skin. On the one hand, there is Minal Sahni, the wife of an affluent lawyer, who inhabits a bungalow in Delhi’s tony Golf Links. And on the other, there is Maitrye Tamang, who is her housemaid and her daughter’s nanny. They could not be more different, whether in economic background, education, or world view. But as the novel unspools, it appears as if they are two sides of the same coin. And while they navigate their choices and destinies, their daughters, Ellora and Tashi, grow into womanhood imbibing as well as repudiating the lived experiences of their mothers.

The Gallery
By Manju Kapur
Vintage Books
Pages: 336
Price: Rs.350

Despite her liberal education in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College and Jawaharlal Nehru University—and two intense love affairs—the hitherto free-spirited Minal decides to marry Alok, an eligible man with a “faintly British accent’’ introduced to her by her family and one who ticks all the right boxes of wealth and privilege. At the behest of her imperious and dying mother-in-law, Minal and Alok obediently proceed to try and make a baby as soon as they are married. However, despite their best efforts, the baby arrives only after the older Mrs Sahni passes away. When Minal agrees to keep a nanny for her baby, Alok’s office peon Krisna goes to his village in Nepal and brings over his wife, Maitrye, or Matti, and their own baby girl, Tashi. His plan is to put Matti in Minal’s employ, which will entitle them to a quarter at the bungalow. The plan works: the timid and fearful Matti joins the Sahni household, and willy-nilly, the two babies are brought up together and become each other’s friend and playmate.

Cover of The Gallery by Manju Kapur

Cover of The Gallery by Manju Kapur | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Workings of the mind

Meanwhile, Minal, who has a degree in art history, decides to open an art gallery in the basement of her house. Slowly, she finds her place amongst gallerists and in the wider circle of artists and art aficionados. Although she begins to discover an independent identity for herself, her husband continues to financially support her venture for some years. And even as Minal is busy finding her identity, Matti, transplanted from a remote Nepali village, learns the ways of this alien world and also realises that she is entitled to her own income and has the right to enjoy the fruits of her own labour.

“In some ways, Minal is the archetypal wife of a well-heeled Delhi man, a breed Kapur is no doubt well acquainted with.”

Kapur is at her best when she depicts the workings of the minds of women. While Alok is firm about keeping his staff in their place, so to speak, Minal, for all her progressive ideas, feels twinges of disquiet about “raising the expectations’’ of Matti and Tashi. The prejudices of her class also kick in, albeit momentarily, when the entrepreneurial Krisna acquires one marker of consumerist success after another—a fridge, a TV, a motorbike (for some reason, this is called “mobike” in the book). Still, her better nature usually prevails, and she helps Matti and Tashi in every way she can.

Twin lives

In some ways, Minal is the archetypal wife of a well-heeled Delhi man, a breed Kapur is no doubt well acquainted with. How much of her munificence towards Matti and Tashi is out of a true generosity of spirit and how much of it is out of her selfish need to keep her domestic help happy so that her household runs smoothly is a question the author does not delve into. Be that as it may, while Minal manages her business, her child, and her servants, clearly, she is still in search of an ineffable something in her life. Although it seems that she has a shrugging contentment with her marriage, that impression is turned on its head when, out of the blue, she indulges in a one-night stand.

Matti cannot claim any such exciting relief from her toil. Her husband, obsessed with making money and moving up in life, barely speaks to her. Bewildered, she watches her daughter, too, drifting away from her. Educated in an English medium school, the girl has her own ideas about how she wants to live her life. An early marriage to a good Nepali boy is not her peak ambition.

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Compared with the attention that Kapur gives to the emotional lives of Minal and Matti, her male characters appear to be somewhat bloodless and flat. Both Alok and Krisna could have been fleshed out better, Alok even more so. Of course, it could be that his lack of depth and his predictability were part of the author’s plan for this character. He does, however, take his wife and daughter on sudden, off-the-beaten-track holidays—once to Antarctica and another time to see the cherry blossoms in Japan—which also gives Kapur the opportunity to describe these places in great detail.

Written in an easy-read style, The Gallery is an evocation of aspects of the lives of India’s urban women and will, no doubt, resonate with readers.

Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.

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