Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

A lot of readers have talked about Manju Kapur's novel, The Immigrant with mixed reactions. In fact, I have always loved her books, right from Difficult Daughters to Home. She is a brilliant yet down-to-earth writer who writes about an ordinary middle class Indian woman's life with a crystal clear narrative and insightful perception.


Indian Mothers Like to Believe Their Daughters are Virgins
The story of The Immigrant is set in the '70s and revolves around a 30 year old protagonist, Nina, who is unmarried and begins with her lonely life as a lecturer in Delhi's Miranda House college. Her mother, like most Indian mothers, lives to see her daughter settle into a happy, comfortable marriage. Again, like most Indian mothers, she believes her daughter is innocent, inexperienced in the ways of men and a sure virgin who will be a prize catch for a well-to-do, eligible bachelor.

Marriage is an Eye Opener
Nina's life takes a significant turn when her marriage is arranged with Ananda, a slightly pompous NRI dentist who lives in Canada. You can feel sorry for him at times because he definitely suffers from several complexes which makes him behave the way he does.

Till they are engaged, he is trying to impress her like any normal guy. He takes her out for dinner, likes the fact that she seems traditional and untouched by any other men and feels satisfied with his choice.

The couple have a short honeymoon in the Oberoi Hotel which makes Nina and her mother marvel at how far they have come from a middle class life to something more high class. I can connect to these nuances because we see it all around us.

Loneliness Worsens After Marriage
The Indian bride in Canada is a phase where the butterfly begins to lose color. There is loneliness and a feeling of being uprooted from the place of origin and only a husband to talk with. We all know what that entails, don't we?

Well, Nina's married life feels lifeless to her from the moment she is in Canada. The reason you don't feel very sorry for her is because she hardly comes across as a caring, loving person you want to protect.

Is the new Indian Bride demanding too much and giving too little in marriage?
What I would have liked was a portrayal of Ananda that was more objective because whatever we read and draw our conclusions about him are based on Nina's perception. Although sexual anxiety is rarely delved into in such detail by Indian writers, The Immigrant does so in a forceful fashion that somehow disconnects the reader.

In fact, I felt sorry for Ananda because he was trying so hard to overcome his sexual limitations to impress his wife, Nina. She comes across as some one who sets high expectations for others and hardly makes the effort to be warm or considerate to anyonelse. There is not even a single dialogue or instance in the story where Nina makes an extra effort to be caring or loving to her husband.

Ananda has his flaws but he tries so hard to make her feel comfortable in Canada. Although her teaching degree is useless in Canada, he tries to find her a job so that she doesn't feel so lonely and moody all the time.  He is keen to have a child while she is very cold and calculating about everything.

When she makes changes in her life, she does it with a feeling of compulsion and revulsion to Ananda. When Ananda cooks for her, she does not appreciate the effort. When she is cooking, she feels it is something out of the world that needs accolades. She seems so determined to be indifferent to Ananda's efforts. Of course, he wants to show off but he is also trying hard to please her.

Also, I cannot understand why she does not see it as an opportunity to learn and experience things differently in a new place. Why should the author manifest the protagonist as some one who is so cynical about everything in life? I really have no clue.

Sex on the Sly

To me, the worst thing is that Nina justifies her affair with another man. She taunts Ananda for his illicit relationship but she discreetly continues her own without any guilt. She just doesn't want her husband to find out that she was unfaithful, so she covers her tracks well.

Of course, we are a very open society now or so I hear everywhere around me. Well, okay, fine, I won't jump to conclusions and go on to say she is a fallen woman but puhleeez, doesn't she have any emotions that a normal Indian woman has? Doesn't she want a happy life with her husband? Does she make an effort to even understand her husband or his family? Does she think of her old mother who is waiting to hear that she is expecting a baby? Does she care about anyone but herself?

If the author's purpose was to depict an insecure, lonely Indian woman's transition into an equally boring, lonely married life, she fails to convince me as a reader. I do not understand or appreciate that Nina finds true evolution by hating the man whom she agreed to marry and has sex with another man because she finds no pleasure or happiness with her husband.

Is an Indian woman's independence based on her freedom to cheat and be unfaithful to her spouse? Does this represent an Indian woman's quest for freedom of expression?

If it is, I am sad to know it. I would have preferred living without such openness. Tell me, what do you think? Do you have any real life stories, anecdotes or even books that explored these issues that you want to share with me?

I'd love to know.

Book Review Reccos
You may also read book reviews about Learning to Honor Death and Silver Bells.

11 comments:

lostworld said...

That was a neatly chalked out review!

Haven't read the book but after reading your review, I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have enjoyed the book. Too many unanswered questions. Flaunting open culture via the institution of marriage seems to be a favourite with Indian authors. Vague plot if you ask me. Can't fathom what the author was trying to pin-point.

Shruthi said...

I echo Lostworld’s thoughts. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it either. The author who has best captured the emotions of an immigrant is Jhumpa Lahiri in Namesake.
But this book does not sound very convincing and seems to have lot of loopholes.

Well written review :)

Iddy Albatross said...

Interesting reveiw, but I think I'll leave my judgment of the book to after I've read it. Still, you got me interested enough to get the book from somewhere :)

Cheers...

R. Ramesh said...

thanks friend...:)

Preeti Shenoy said...

Interesting review and interesting views.
The protagonist is like that. It is the author's prerogative to depict the protagonist any which way he/she likes, isn't it?

Why should one be judgemental about character of the protagonist. I'd like to read the book myself to see how I feel about it.Since I haven't read it it would be difficult for me to form an opinion as each person would interpret a bo through their own tinted glasses :-)

I read "Mistress" by Anita Nair. It has a theme of adultery. I loved it.

Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

@Lost world and Shruthi: Thanks for reading the review. I think its worth reading the book because the story was very gripping and intense. I had a lot of disagreement with the way Nina was portrayed but I've got to admit the writer is a brilliant novelist. There is nothing wrong in reading a story and deriving your own conclusions about the protagonist. My issue is not with the character of Nina but the way the writer failed to convince me about why she behaves the way she does. I would still recommend this book and ask you to read it if you get a chance.

@Iddy: Just hope you read it and enjoy it while you do.

@Ramesh: Thanks to you for visiting, too.

@Preeti: I totally agree. It is not for us to question why the author created the protagonist like that but what I expected is the author to build justification for the character to behave in the way she did. My problem was not with Nina's character but the detailing that could have been built in more to justify her choices. I felt the author could have worked more on building that aspect.

I too read and loved "Mistress" by Anita Nair. She and I exchanged long notes about our favorite characters and had several interesting conversations about the theme of adultery. I loved it too because she built her characters so well that they are still alive and kicking in my memory. I really hope you read The Immigrant and share your thoughts about the author's treatment of the protagonist. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts.

shahana said...

sounds interesting!!!!

Smita said...

Me too a Manju Kapur fan. My fav book from her is Home!!!

There is a certain charm in her writings!!! I liked this book also but don't remember much to discuss your analysis (which I must say is well written).

Have u read A Married woman by her?

Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

@Shahana: Thanks, would have loved to know your perspective a little more.

@Smita: Yes, I know what you mean. I'm a huge fan of Manju Kapur. Yes, I have read A Married Woman! The book slipped my mind. Like you said, Home is my favorite Manju Kapur novel.

Nimisha said...

nicely reviewed! :) Thanks! would go in for this one after I have finished reading 'home', by the same author. that's also a good read by far.

Anonymous said...

I thought when she returned to Delhi to visit her mother and wore her silk sarees and found the warmth of not only the sun (a rare commodity in Canada), and the warmth of people in Delhi she would not return but ALAS she returned to the DREARY DREARY Canada... God help immigrants. ROFL

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