My review of Manju Kapur’s The Immigrant for Tehelka.

MANJU KAPUR is a writer whose books are best enjoyed for their aftertaste. If you had read Difficult Daughters, Kapur’s first book, when it first came out you probably barely remember the plot. Somewhere through the mist of overly spiced cooking and italicised honorifics, what stays with you is Kapur’s unexpected mean streak. Virmati’s situation, her affair with a married man in the 1940s, was ripe for melodrama or even unrelieved poignancy. But you sit up in shock when you realise that Kapur is having a good laugh at Virmati and her delusions. In The Immigrant we see this ability for empathetic mockery has been sharpened; you barely notice the cuts till afterwards.

The Immigrant’s protagonist, Nina Batra, teaches English in Miranda House, Delhi (like Kapur herself used to for decades). It is the 1970s and Nina is turning 30. Swiftly Kapur establishes her life of genteel poverty. Nina and her mother are very aware of how much they have come down in the world since the death of Nina’s diplomat father. Living in a one-room flat and pinching every pre-liberalisation rupee, they long for the good life in Brussels they had left behind. But just when Mrs Batra has given up hope of matrimony for her daughter, there arrives a proposal from a prosperous NRI.

Ananda, a dentist (almost a doctor, as Kapur says), has been living in Halifax for six years, since the accident that killed both his parents. Ananda prides himself on having made a successful transition to the Canadian life, leaving behind the narrowed horizons of India. When he marries Nina he enjoys playing a tasteful Cophetua and hopes that what seems to be a rather serious sexual dysfunction will disappear. With Ananda’s character Kapur has clearly had a great time. Pompous, pathetic, randy, thoughtful Ananda is a wonderful portrait of a young man groomed to be in control of himself and his life — so what is he to do with an errant appendage and an inexplicable wife? His solutions — an anaesthetic, a clock, a sex therapist, a receptionist — are all plausible and hilarious.

Nina’s daily struggle with the aridity of small-town life in Canada should not have been as engaging as it is. But Kapur’s prose is unobtrusive, using deftly chosen detail to build a larger picture and claustrophobia. It is a claustrophobia that Ananda does not want to acknowledge in his self-congratulation. There is an odd moment in The Immigrant when we realise that in his six years Ananda has seen nothing of Canada except Halifax, though he identifies strongly and annoyingly with Canada’s vastness and generosity. It is a point that Kapur does not bother to milk for satire —unlike, say, when we discover in A Suitable Boy that the Chatterjees who talk familiarly of all things English and look down at those who went to trade school (rather than Oxford) have never been to England at all. Vikram Seth was gleeful in a way that Kapur never is. But the next time you meet someone who argues the merits of colder climes, you are bound to smile a little, thinking of Ananda.

Nina does not recognise her desire for adventure for a long time and it eventually takes the familiar form of an affair with a rake. Kapur’s ability to keep the narrative scale small and familiar prevents us from thinking in terms of literary clichés (it is certainly not ‘the mesmerising saga’ that the dustjacket condemns it to be). Instead, you are reminded of all the strange things ordinary people do in loneliness and boredom. In the aftertaste of The Immigrant you think of all the people you know living both airless lives and daily farce with as much dignity as possible.