THE TROUBLE with Manju Kapur, five books down, is not that she isn’t exposing the dark underbelly of the Indian middle class. The trouble is that she is not prodding its fair paunch enough. Let’s get the niceties of Custody’s plot out of the way. Raman, the young corporate executive (ordinary East Delhi origins, IIT, IIM, Cola company) gets married to Shagun (ordinary South Delhi origins, extraordinary green eyes, white skin). Shagun is so beautiful that Raman’s mother is terrified at the idea of trying to tether such a creature to domesticity. It takes a while but Shagun does fly the coop. She falls in love with an alpha dog who promises to liberate her from dullness. The bulk of the book is about the primary aftermath of the couple’s split — who will get to keep the two children?

As in her previous novels, Kapur’s gift remains in not taking easy potshots, not making quick judgements, and giving full play to middle-class neuroses and compulsions. And in affectionately teasing our foibles. For instance, Raman’s neighbour Ishita, after getting divorced, drifts into working for an NGO. She, her family and her neighbours swing between distaste for the poor and hope that Someone Up There will translate the virtue accumulated from ‘social work’ into worldly success — such as nursery admissions. Over and over again, characters acknowledge the simple economic value of hitting the gene jackpot — beauty. But unlike the author’s earlier books, Custody’s narrative tension slackens midway — and with a lacklustre plot. You begin to wish Kapur was more catty and brought more intellectual energy to her writing than just the steady unspooling of steady lives.

The trouble with Custody is that its central theme — our love for our children is fierce, irrational and beats any variety of conjugal love — is under-explored. Raman, gentle and loving, has only one despairing moment — a single paragraph — in which he wonders why people want children at all. Ishita — rejected by her husband for being infertile — has a similar one-para moment. Mysteriously, Shagun, as delightfully shallow as a puddle, never has any such doubts.

THAT great social arbiter Ekta Kapoor once said in scorn, “I know what middle-class women are worried about. It isn’t about what their husbands said to them at dinner.” — implying that in-law battles, giving birth to sons and skin colour continue to be important to contemporary Indian women, regardless of how retrograde high culture considers these themes to be. This reviewer, at least, would be happy to read more Delhi family sagas for the hope of both voyeurism and insight. Right now, though, the offerings have infinitely less juice and insight than the average overheard conversation on the Metro. Which brings us to the sad, sad question: If Manju Kapur is not going to do it for us, who is?