Reading across Cultures: A Conversation with Ratika Kapur

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No one ever said affairs weren’t messy.

Ratika Kapur’s second novel, The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, is the story of a missed connection at a train station in Delhi that actually connects.

Renuka Sharma, devoted wife and mother, has been proving her devotion for almost two years now, working part-time and caring for her in-laws and teenage son while her husband sends money back from Dubai. But when Renu’s commute provides a platform—literally—for some innocent brushes with a handsome hotelier, her devotion is tested as one thing inevitably leads to another.

In this breezy, sensible primer on rationalizing infidelity, Renu convinces herself that no so-called thing is necessarily the thing anyone thinks it is, and that none of what she wants is inevitable unless she does everything in her power to make it happen.

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma is an impressive decoy of a novel, with a narrator whose look-over-here instincts inadvertently draw the reader’s attention to what’s behind every curtain. A fresh and obvious talent, Kapur plays out Renu’s desire to slip into something more comfortable wherever it leads, whether Renu seeks comfort in the bedroom, material wealth, or a relativist worldview where everything is, come to think of it, conveniently okay.

I caught up with Kapur just before the book’s release here in the States this past December.

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The Rumpus: You quote Saul Bellow in your interview in The Hindu: “No amount of assertion will make an ounce of art.” How do you incorporate that in your approach to your own work?

Ratika Kapur: I’ve always felt that a novelist must submerge the theories that might drive her art. Theories can inform the work, shape it, but they shouldn’t be asserted. If you want theories, ideas, assertions, why not read straight-up anthropology, say, or political science?

I write to tell stories. Of course, there are concerns I have about the world that I wish to explore—gender and modernity and class, among other things—but the real push to begin writing and the subsequent driving force comes from something else, a picture or a person or a story I overheard, not from any theoretical concern.

I am interested in the expression of the felt life, specifically, the big and small sufferings of ordinary life, more than I am interested in asserting ideas.

Rumpus: Were you considering an international readership while writing The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, after the success of Overwinter?

Kapur: I didn’t think too much about the readership—that can be harmful to the writing process. In creating Renuka’s dialect of English, I did feel I was taking a kind of risk because native English speakers would find it a little plain, but apart from that, in terms of the setting and Renuka’s relationship to her social milieu, I didn’t make any conscious attempts to explain things to people who were not from India because I feel that such explanations undermine a book.

Rumpus: I don’t know whether I am a typical American reader, but I definitely come to the book infused with some (stereo)typically liberal attitudes; one is a strong stomach for unconventional lifestyles. I recognize that Renu is struggling to reconcile modernity and Indian conservatism, but I wonder if some of the weight of her traditional role is lost on me because I have such different cultural expectations to contend with than Renu does. Do you think that compromises my understanding of the stakes?

Kapur: This question is a really important one. Let me answer it in a roundabout way, if I may.

Reading across cultures is an adventure. People in places like India have long read American/British/Western fiction and made some of the compromises you speak of. They have misunderstood many things and misunderstanding can lead to puzzlement. The reader who seeks to unpuzzle herself enters a path to discovering a larger world.

This is where the burden splits equally between the reader and the writer. The reader’s burden is to try and project into a space that is both different and similar to her own, to not grip the similarities too tightly, to not gloss over the differences. The writer’s burden is to draw the unfamiliar reader into the world of the book, to make them feel what is at stake. Prose is our infinitely plastic material; we can create emotion out of it. It is our job to reach across the divide to the reader who doesn’t have the benefit of a life experience shared with the characters. But if we as writers fail, and to some extent we will fail, then the reader must reach across the divide too.

Reading is a process of growth, after all. If a book doesn’t change you in some way, it’s probably not that good to begin with.

Rumpus: I primarily found myself trying to recalibrate my cultural expectations around infidelity. I’m not married, grant you, but I consider extramarital affairs to be very common. Are affairs as big a deal in Delhi as Renu worries they are, or were they in Meerut when she was growing up? Is the double standard as intense for Indian women as she thinks it is, i.e. men can stray but women can’t? Or would her husband be as unfazed by the idea of her infidelity as she is by the idea of his, with the Anglo nurse?

Kapur: I feel fiction creates a world whose truth need not look to the truths of the “real” world for validation. To my mind, the pathos of Renu’s situation does not lie in the relationship of the reality of the world to her perception of it. Attitudes change everywhere, from day to day, from place to place.

My own attempt is not so much to understand how close or far Renu is from the realities that exist in her city on a day-to-day basis; it is a city of almost seventeen million, so almost every single attitude that one can think of probably has some representation somewhere within it. I am more interested in the structure of her own thinking, about the turn her life has taken, and how that structure shapes her actions and is shaped by them.

Rumpus: There are a few shocks in the book, often portrayed as unthinkable at first, then rationalized in retrospect.

Kapur: Aren’t there times in all our lives when we do things that were unthinkable to us before we did them? Sometimes things we do remain unthinkable despite our having done them. How do we live with the idea that we have done something so outrageous that we couldn’t even think it? Everyone figures out a mode for living on through, or after, such an event, a mode that allows them to reconcile the contradictions that this creates and face themselves in the mirror.

Renuka’s life and the challenges it throws up keep putting her in situations that she may not have foreseen, making her do things she may have thought she would never do. To get past those things, to keep moving towards her goal, she has to rationalise whatever she does, much like, I believe, many of us do in our own lives.

Rumpus: We only see Renu’s son Bobby through his mother’s ever-shifting opinions of him. If this almost silent character were narrating, would his thoughts shock Renu’s generation, or does he have a lot of the same struggles as they did and still do?

Kapur: Some things change while some things stay the same. If Bobby were to talk to Renu she would likely be shocked by the things he knows and how he views the world because her own view of the world is limited. But if she listened, if she listened and tried to understand what he was saying, she would probably see that her son’s attitudes are in fact not that far from her own.

Young people find it easy to hide their conventional thinking: break a taboo here or there, dress differently, wear your hair a new way and older people think of you as bold and unconventional. But below all that lies the same substrate of uncertainty and fear that pushes people into conventional, comfortable modes of thinking.

Rumpus: I thought when Bobby asked Renu not to tell his dad about the cooking classes, his request was very revealing—he would never want to hurt his father’s feelings, but he seemed to be picking up on his mother’s needs, too, acting to shield both parents from disappointment. Despite evidence to the contrary, I often had the sense that Renu dismissed the idea that the men in her life ever shared her questions or concerns. What taught Renu that suspicion? Why does she generally sidestep honesty?

Kapur: I think women all over the world carry this suspicion to a greater or lesser extent; we all feel in one way or other that the men in our lives don’t care about our concerns to the extent that we care about theirs. Who taught us this suspicion? That’s a question that the world must answer. And until strong evidence emerges to the contrary, we will probably continue to carry this suspicion.

The question of honesty is related but different. Renuka’s dishonesty is not the dishonesty of the powerful who could lead comfortable lives even if they lived honestly. Renuka’s dishonesty comes from a deeper place within her. The question you have asked—“Why does she sidestep honesty?”—is precisely the question I want my readers to ask.

Rumpus: Renu is living out the lesson of what she saw as the cautionary tale of her parents’ mistakes with life, death, and money, but her ambitions for her own family earning its way out of poverty broke up three people who were otherwise a model of happy attachment: “But we were still prisoners of poverty. We were happy together, but together we were jailed.”

How reliable is Renu’s account of their poverty? Is she instead a comfortably middle class social climber? Is masoor dal really that much worse than moong dal?

Kapur: Masoor dal is not that much worse than moong dal, but a lot of comfortably middle class Indians live one or two economic shocks away from sliding down the fine-grained class ladder of urban India. But, that apart, I think it is true for most people that things we are most closely attached to are not, if seen by a detached observer, as important as they seem to us at the time. We ourselves may wonder later in our life why we were so hung up over something that now appears trivial. Forget about other people, we are unreliable respondents even to ourselves, and sometimes we do understand this at a later stage in our lives.

Rumpus: Renu’s affair is a solution to a problem that she created herself: her husband’s absence. Why does romance lose out to pragmatism in her marriage, which satisfies her, while fidelity loses out to the often disappointing romance of her affair, which does not?

Kapur: Why indeed! The pathos of Renuka’s situation lies in the question. Haven’t we all been there some time or other, neither hunting with the hounds, nor running with the hares, to invert the old proverb? Perhaps it is that people who want too much end up getting little or nothing. But if that was what I was trying to say in this book, that would make it a moral tale, a fable. And that’s certainly not what I was trying to do.

Rumpus: How do you turn off your inner professional editor in the bursts when you are writing fiction?

Kapur: I don’t. To be honest, I tried to shut her up, but like many editors, she’s persistent, dogged, and so I gave up trying. The writing process, then, is a slow-going one for me, but I’ve learnt to live with her.

Rumpus: You’d mentioned a yen in DNA India for “some nerdy chitchat about the perfectly constructed sentence.” Let’s go there! If you had to pick a reigning champion, on a sentence level, who would you pick? Extra credit for writers who are alive and writing now.

Kapur: I have several favorites. For today, however, I’d like to serve up James Salter, who, sadly, died last year, so no extra credit for that. But how about bonus points for an instance of his craftsmanship? This is from his novel All That Is: “They made love simply, straightforwardly—she saw the ceiling, he the sheets.” Now how’s that for mastery?

Rumpus: What quote from literature, song, or prayer gives you strength in dark times?

Kapur:

Love is not the last room: there are others
after it, the whole length of the corridor
that has no end.

This is from Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Near the Wall of a House.”

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Author Photograph © Amitabha Bagchi


Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor of @Longreads. She was a rep at the American Booksellers Association for years, as well as the social editor for IndieBound, a nationwide local first movement. She lives in Harlem and tweets as @CusickCatherine. She lives in Harlem and tweets @CusickCatherine More from this author →