One sign of a great novel is an ending that seems shocking when you read it but entirely inevitable when you look back over the events of the book. The Indian writer Ratika Kapur's The Private Life of Mrs Sharma delivers this punch both emotionally and in terms of its plot. Tender and funny, this short second novel grabs the reader from the outset and builds with an air of menace to an unavoidable close. It should feature prominently on awards lists in 2016.
The tension between tradition and modernity in present-day India is at the centre of the book, whose narrator, Renuka Sharma, is a dutiful mother and wife who is holding the fort in Delhi while her husband tries to make the family's fortune in Dubai. An attractive and industrious 37-year-old, Mrs Sharma works as a receptionist in a doctor's clinic, in addition to taking care of her difficult teenage son, Bobby, and her aging parents-in-law. The family live in a one-bedroom apartment, which Mrs Sharma hopes to someday own.
In May 2011, when we first meet her, Mrs Sharma’s husband has been in Dubai for 19 months and she is counting the days until he returns for a holiday in August. Although she misses him, she’s a sensible and pragmatic woman, bound by financial practicalities: “When my in-laws’ medical bills grow into lakhs of rupees, when my son has to do this further studies, who will save us? Will love and romance save us?”
As Mrs Sharma does her best to keep herself, her family and even her husband’s spirits afloat (through touching Skype chats), a chance meeting with a handsome young man at a Metro station changes her course. The self-possessed Vineet is standing “calmly in one place, like a statue of some great man, waiting for the train”. Mrs Sharma uncharacteristically agrees to meet him for coffee the following Sunday. A relationship begins, about which she initially deludes herself: “I am not interested in anything but friendship, the type of friendship shared between two women.”
Her journey to enlightenment takes the reader on a trip through the social and economic inequalities of modern India. It is a tragic awakening, reminiscent of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's masterpiece The Awakening.
Mrs Sharma is in many ways a traditional Indian mother who wants her family, Bobby in particular, to embrace the new Indian Dream: shiny shopping malls, college education, an MBA, emigration to England or America, a corporate career.
She rides in the ladies’ compartment of the train. She cooks and keeps house for her family. She finds herself alone for the first night in 17 years when her in-laws bring Bobby to a cricket match.
But encroaching on her traditional perspective is her awareness of a new world unfolding around her. Barista cafés, mobile phones, digital cameras, pornography on the internet: “Man on top, woman on top, this style, that style, doggy style. I was not born yesterday.” As the metropolis of Delhi blooms around her, Mrs Sharma’s role in society remains confined.
With her husband working abroad, the confinement is exacerbated. Mrs Sharma has all the burdens of a marriage with none of the benefits. The author’s poignant portrayal of the marriage as arranged but mutually loving and respectful means that there are no easy villains in this story. Mrs Sharma doesn’t meet with Vineet because she hates her husband; she meets with the exciting stranger because she misses him.
Kapur, whose debut novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, is a gifted writer, strong on symbolism. Food and drink in particular are used to highlight loss, change, patriarchal structures and economic divides. The author's language is vivid and brutally honest. Rich Indian wives are "skinny ladies with fat bags"; the role of women varies little, whether at work or at home: "And what is a secretary actually? Isn't she just a substitute wife for the boss?"
Kapur has crafted an excellent voice to convey her themes. Calculating when she needs to be – among other things, she shaves pocket money from her boss’s expenses – Mrs Sharma is also upbeat and matter-of-fact: “Confusion is actually a sickness, a sickness suffered by the weak-minded.”
The book offers a razor-sharp take on gender and economic inequalities. As voiced by Mrs Sharma, it never appears preachy, only a sad reflection of India’s social stratification: “Men like Doctor Sahib drink alcohol, but they are different to our men. They drink for different reasons. M¼en like Doctor Sahib drink because they are happy, not to become happy.”
Mrs Sharma is a clever, resourceful woman who can see how the world is changing around her, the advantages that technology and money have brought to some in India. It is our privilege to meet her at a point in her life when she has taken a step back from her daily duties, perhaps for the first time ever, to ask: what can this new world offer me?