Book review: Ratika Kapur’s ‘The Private Life of Mrs Sharma’ is a universal tale for our times
Ratika Kapur’s second novel is a fresh, contemporary take on marriage and motherhood. Her somewhat unlikely heroine is 37-year-old Renuka Sharma. She has one son, 16-year-old Bobby, and lives with him and her in-laws in a small rental flat in Delhi, while her husband, a physiotherapist, spends most of the year working in Dubai.
As well as looking after her family – trying to keep Bobby on the straight and narrow, which, in Renuka’s mind is good grades at school, followed by an MBA, and thereafter a life of air-conditioned luxury in a modern office; making sure her father-in-law doesn’t slip into a diabetic coma; and regular Skype calls to her absentee husband reassuring him that all is well on the home front – she works as a receptionist-cum-office manager for one of the city’s most prominent doctors.
Renuka inspires immediate empathy. Written as a first person narrative in a confessional, conspiratorial down-to-earth tone, Kapur opens up both the heart and the mind of her heroine, someone juggling the same responsibilities as women the world over. Each of which comes with certain sacrifices and worries, but Renuka is not one to “timewaste” bemoaning life’s injustices.
“Oh ho, you poor woman, your husband is so far away! Oh ho, you poor woman, you must be missing him such a lot!” people commiserate. “But what can I say?” she rationally explains. “We have duties. As parents, as children, we have duties.”
Yet Kapur cleverly sets her scene only to then sweep aside certain stereotypes with the same industry as a diligent housewife cleaning dust balls from behind and beneath her furniture.
It’s not that Renuka doesn’t embrace traditional values. She makes sure one of the first things we know about her is that she’s “a respectable married lady who hails from a good family,” and she’s never been flighty, not even as a teenager; and she loves her husband and her son. But her head is most definitely not in the sand.
She’s well aware that all around her the world is changing – she knows what goes on: “I was not born yesterday” – and she eagerly explores what these shifting boundaries offer her in terms of opportunities to make the best of the less than ideal situation she finds herself in.
She’s become a “bold woman” her husband jokes with her one day, but what does this really mean? Renuka ponders: “When people say, ‘Oh, look at that woman, she is so bold,’ what are they saying? Actually, the only thing that they are saying is that she is not scared to make certain types of decisions.”
Renuka is a woman not so much torn between two worlds as one tentatively testing the waters of modernity from the once-firm but now increasingly slippery banks of tradition.
In her, Kapur has distilled an admirable and eminently plausible amalgamation of mixed values, but it’s a cocktail that’s deceptively potent, especially when combined with the character’s no-nonsense attitude to decision-making: the perfect storm, if one will, for disaster. What begins as a simple conversation with a fellow commuter on the Metro one morning quickly escalates to secret assignations in the afternoon.
Renuka, however, is no Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. Born of cool-headed logic, a measured response to her husband’s absence (and backed up by advice about the legitimacy of women’s “needs” in the medical magazines in the doctor’s waiting room), her infidelity is no act of romantic desperation.
And, most significantly, like everything else Renuka does in the course of the novel, it’s a decision shot through with agency. Her circumstances might not be the most empowering, but passive is one thing Renuka isn’t.
No doubt Kapur will garner praise for her portrait of contemporary India, a world in which deep-rooted traditions, especially when it comes to views about a woman’s role in society and the family, clash with modern ideas about equality and emancipation.
She captures the nuances of this tension with a clarity that inspires a shrugging of one’s shoulders and a murmured, “What can we do? These are the realities of life today.”
At the same time though, Renuka is as much the universal everywoman as she is the product of a specific geographical place and historical period, and this is a novel that should speak to women everywhere.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist based in London who writes for The Independent, The Observer, The Daily Beast and BBC Culture.
Updated: November 26, 2015 04:00 AM