Mrs Sharma’s life is an ordinary one. She works as a receptionist in a hospital, she takes the Metro to work every day, she spends her time between home and work, looks after her father and mother-in-laws and her 15-year-old son, whose ambition to be a chef she does her best to quash. She dreams of the time when her husband will return from Dubai and the two of them will once again put on the washing machine and take off their clothes and have sex (which she enjoys as much, and in which she is as active as him), with the noise of the machine covering for their groans of ecstasy.
But life has a strange way of intervening. One day she meets a young man at the Metro station, younger than her, an executive in a hotel who wears immaculately ironed trousers and shirts and elegant ties, and is quiet and sensible. They begin to talk, one thing leads to another and a friendship develops. They begin to travel on the Metro together, go occasionally to Barista for coffee for some gentle conversations and are initially just content with that. For Mrs Sharma, there’s no sense that she’s betraying her husband; after all, this is only a friendship and who would grudge a woman like her—she’s not cheap—some quality time with a friend, even perhaps some quality sex. But then Vineet, the young man, extends the hand of friendship towards her son Bobby, encourages him to take up the profession he is passionate about, and another sequence of events is set in place.
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma came out a while ago, but it did not receive the notice it actually deserved, perhaps because it is such a quiet book, or perhaps because Mrs Sharma is not a character pulled out of Hindu mythology (though she’s Brahmin, of course) or a young woman from the Indian Institute of Technology, or a frequenter of cafes and bars. In fact, she beats her son black and blue when she suspects that he has been drinking alcohol on the sly.
But this is an unusual novel, written in an almost deadpan, somewhat distant style. The reader is invited to join the narrator, Mrs Sharma, and share her perspective. Except that you can’t really, and you remain the reader. Sometimes you smile with her, sometimes you smile at her, sometimes you feel uncomfortable—is the writer objectifying her protagonist? Looking down upon her? And yet, Renu Sharma is as real as any 36-plus woman you might meet on the Metro. Vineet, her friend, is as real as any young upwardly mobile man you might meet in any Indian city. The entire span of the story is less than four months. In this short time, and as a result of an accidental encounter, Mrs Sharma’s life is changed forever. She discovers what she needs and wants, understands her role in life, figures out the meaning of taking a vacation, accepts that she needs to give her son some space—and even allow him a girlfriend—looks forward to her husband’s return, checks out that the washing machine works, and deals with her newly-made friend. She is, indeed, a woman of many parts.
Ratika Kapur is a new voice in Indian fiction in English. I’m not sure I enthusiastically ‘like’ the story she has written, but it is intriguing, and disturbing. And it keeps you turning the pages. In fact, perhaps the best place to read it is when you’re riding the Metro from Green Park or Hauz Khas to Hudco Place—the sense of the familiar in the book and around you will provide the perfect context for reading this intense, everyday story.