The tragic contradictions of a middle class woman’s life (Book Review)

Title: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma; Author: Ratika Kapur; Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; Pages: 192; Price:Rs.299

How fragile are the edifices of the lives of the Indian middle class women, built with some dedication, self-sacrifice, ceaseless devotion to elders, control over urges and desires, dutiful obedience to traditional roles and unflinching attention to securing a glittering future for their progeny, but liable to tumble down and shatter irredeemably with one indiscretion – and its consequences.

In her second novel, Ratika Kapur, whose debut “Overwinter” was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, gives us the engagingly dramatic story of one such woman who conscientiously fulfills all her responsibilities – towards her (absent) husband, her wayward son and in-laws but has her unconscious inklings towards some time of life for herself – a “little holiday” from the daily cares and concerns – lead to grief when they actualise.

The unravelling of the life of Renuka Sharma, “a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai”, begins with a chance meeting at a metro station in south Delhi. On way to Gurgaon where she works as a receptionist in a leading doctor’s office, she starts to encounter a young man who impresses her with his sang-froid.

“Other men played with their phones or looked down the train tunnel or walked up and down the platform or stared at women, but Vineet always stood calmly in one place, like a statue of some great man, waiting for the train,” she tells us.

Revisiting events of four enjoyable but ultimately turbulent and tragically-ending months – between May 7 to August 31, she recounts how they strike up a conversation, get acquainted, look out for each other, progress to occasional outings, including selecting an apartment for him in the suburbs – the epitome of middle-class aspiration and achievement – and ultimately to sex.

As Mrs Sharma, who may follow traditional values but is no innocent, reasons: “This time it was not about my family but about my body. I decided to free my body. I decided to free my body of suffering, another type of suffering, obviously, but actually it is not that different. It is still the type of suffering that comes from the pain of need.”

The problem starts when an apparently besotted Vineet wants her to abandon her husband and son and marry him. Our Mrs Sharma is understandably put out, while contending with her domestic problems, including a son who disdains the future as a hot-shot businessman she has planned for him with his dream to become a chef and once nearly dying after drinking moonshine liquor with his friends.

Compounding the trouble, Vineet lands up at her home and kicks up a real violent fuss – on the very day her husband, who has finally managed a spot of leave from his taxing job in Dubai, is on his way back. Losing it, she can only respond one way – and it will ruin her life, forget marriage and family.

The story of Mrs Sharma, who has not had the pleasantest of childhoods and had to forget any aspirations to follow the path dictated by parents and social norms – frequently involving matrimony – and hopes to get a vicarious pleasure through children’s achievements may be familiar to many but Kapur renders it in an inimitable way, down to the cadences of speech, pattern of thought and choices of recreation. And also the small dishonesties at work, like seeking a cut from the office stationery supplier – but to indulge her son with some luxury.

It is the story of a complex – and in some ways, a flawed woman – but its real import is that we may have such a woman in our neighbourhood, in the bus or metro coach we are in, working in our office building, and never come to know of her thwarted aspirations and ambitions, or even give it a thought!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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