If unhappy marriage is the dal-chawal of fiction, then the adulterous wife is its feisty poster girl. Shagun Kaushik, the heroine of Manju Kapur’s cynical new novel, Custody, refuses the bait. On page one, walking back from a tryst, she is briefly allowed guilt: “As she made her way towards the main road, she kept looking around but recognised no one, and decided it was her conscience that made her so uneasy.”
Lest we enter into Shagun’s unease, the author warns acidly: “Every day she practised thinking badly of her spouse. Her lover encouraged this by providing a basis for comparison. The dissatisfaction that accrues in most marriages was not allowed dissipation; instead, she clung to reasons to justify her unfaithfulness.”
Shagun’s husband Raman works for a multinational at Rs 10 lakh a year, and climbing. They have two children, Arjun, ten, and Roohi, two. Enter Ashok Khanna, Raman’s boss. We are told Shagun and Ashok are lovers, sweaty sheets are cited, but their urgencies are only relayed through sordid subterfuges necessary to keep the affair going. Discovery forecloses the marriage and unzips the powerplay of schism. First the children are with Shagun; Raman refuses to give his wife a divorce. Beguiled by superior creature comforts, Arjun becomes his mother’s child. Raman competes for his love, and retreats, barely tolerated.
There’s also a parallel story. Ishita, the other, good side of the coin, is cast out by her husband because she’s infertile.
The narrative skirts around the central trauma of divorce by a Victorian device, the children are seen torn between embittered parents and resenting both, but very seldom are they heard.
Divorce may be a relatively recent battle, but custody is an old war within the Indian family. Controlling a child’s loyalty is something of a national sport. Even in happy circumstances, a child isn’t quite perceived as a person. Adults are quick to subvert and envenom children trapped within carious marriages.
What happens in little Roohi’s head as she’s passed from parent to parent? The arrival of needy Ishita as the third parent complicates matters further for the child. We read of their performance, but what do the two children think?
Manju Kapur’s expertise in interpreting the family matrix is a byword. She relies on this skill too heavily in Custody. The auctorial voice, pitched midway between shudder and sneer, has judged and sentenced before we can weigh the evidence. The prose is bumptious, more iron than irony. Much of Custody reads like a hurried first draft. Notes on court procedure, medical technology, cliche-ridden sentiment are cobbled together with gaffes like “palpitated his stomach” and “the pista, still unlocked after last night’s drinks”.
We could be watching this on prime time, but we still need to read it in a book. Successful soaps locate us within the script. A novel must do much more. It must transcend location, and free us to wonder. Custody does neither.