I have often looked at the endless flow of easy-read romance novels in bookstores and wondered why India’s tumultuous, caste-ridden and often trigger-happy political climate has not provided the backdrop for more Indian English fiction. Brothers, Manju Kapur’s latest, fills that void to a great extent.
The novel interweaves several stories to trace the journey of its main characters. At first glance, it’s the story of Himmat Singh Gaina, the village boy with sky-high ambition and perseverance, who ends up becoming the first Jat chief minister of Rajasthan. It’s also the story of Tapti Gaina, the poor girl with aspiration, intelligence and an independent mind, who ends up pushing boundaries all her life, but can’t save herself from eventual victimhood. But most of all, it’s the story of Mangal Singh Gaina, the sibling who is weak and unsettled, looking up to his brother all his life, hating the dependence on his wife and waiting for the turn that never comes, hurtling towards the final revenge. “To live with his wife, to eat her salt, was to descend into nothingness”—surely anything is preferable?
Brothers starts at the end of the story—or is it? The inevitable has happened. Himmat, the chief minister, is dead. Tapti, the brother’s wife, is besides herself with grief, but is now a pariah. The CM saab’s wife is raging: “Couldn’t walk one step without consulting your father, not one step. And so much he did for him, cement dealership, arranged his marriage, factory, petrol pump. ‘I kept saying, don’t do so much, you are only teaching him to expect more and more’. But with such a loving heart, with his great sense of duty, your father would not listen. Always they were full of poison, jealousy, hatred.”
If, dear reader, you love suspense like I do, you might not want to read on, but the story actually begins after this climax. It begins in a village with two brothers, the original sons of the soil, the younger always ready to lay down his life for the elder. And so he does, gifting him his elder son. The boy grows well, hating the stagnation of the village and dreaming of a new life. He also sparks that dream in the much younger brother he leaves behind, the shadow, who is unaware that he is destined to remain so. This is the part where Kapur is the most effective.
Himmat, the good-looking, persistent and single-minded elder brother, who seemingly gets everything he wants—including the woman he thought he couldn’t have—is the quintessential Indian politician. Mangal is the sad relic, the villager who has little education and even less understanding of how to get things done. Life is simple and structured for him, money and power are the ruling symbols, and politics is the means to that end. He is the face of India’s political hangers-on, the swelling crowd at rallies, the fringes loitering around famous homes or party offices, waiting for manna from heaven, often lost, used or manipulated. They are the remnants of a corrupt system and your heart breaks at Mangal’s confusion, his social conditioning and conservatism, his inevitable descent into doom. In between lies Tapti, the woman who defies the system and rises to be a bureaucrat, only to fall victim to the same system. Like so many Indian women stuck in an unhappy marriage, she thinks having an affair is the ultimate rebellion, and pays the price.
Kapur is sure-footed in the unfamiliar territory of village stagnation and caste politics—the book apparently went through several drafts and was completely restructured—but ultimately disappoints. While I loved the anti-climactic beginning, I found the author’s grip on the plot slackening after some time. Most interestingly, while the book claims to be the love story of Tapti, what comes across is the abiding familial love—bonds as strong as the betrayal they evoke.
Indeed, the story does sometimes make its own journey, as in the case of Mangal, the most clearly-etched character in the book who stays with you. The build-up to the end, however, is almost like a building without the top floor. I also have a quibble about the language, a general complaint about some Indian English writers—why does it have to sound like Hindi? Why use expressions like “what is there” or “first do a BA”? Who is this intended for? Is it for the urban elite who thinks in British or American English? I missed a stylish, evocative language that would have narrated this tale so much better.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist