CUSTODY is Manju Kapur’s new novel that confirms her continuing engagement with the Indian middle class. It deals with broken marriages and the traumatic impact these have on children from such marriages. To provide a bigger picture of this growing phenomenon, the novel develops two narratives independently and combines them later to add an element of complexity to it.
The novel begins with a crisis in the life of Shagun, whose arranged marriage with Raman breaks up because his boss, Ashok, falls for her and she discovers romance in her life. Though she has two children, she believes she has a right to remarry and live her own life. She makes Raman agree to a divorce, but not before she puts their son in a boarding school with Ashok’s support. She allows the daughter to stay with Raman, because she intends to get her custody later. Kapur also builds the story of Ishita, who is married to Suryakant, but because she cannot provide children to his family, he divorces her. Ishita rebuilds her life by working for an NGO and even thinks of adopting a child. She gives up this idea when she meets Raman, marries him, and gets a ready-made child in his daughter. She loves her and supports Raman in his efforts to retain her custody, in which they succeed.
The strength of the novel lies in creating an elaborate picture of the two failed marriages. The dramatisation of how it actually happens suggests that women are learning to break conventional bonds to live their own lives. When Shagun meets Ashok, she realises “that he (Raman) swallowed her up, leaving no space to breathe.” We are made to see its painful effect on the marriage partners and their children. In the case of Ishita, we might feel that her husband and in-laws are unfair to her, because she cannot do anything about her disability. But, given the fact that her husband wants a child of his own from his wife, he sees no wrong in divorcing his wife. Kapur maintains such an even tone throughout that the readers are not encouraged to pass judgements; she only wants to document the new, growing trend and to make us aware that seeking new ways of fulfilling oneself may result in joy, but they can cause pain too. The only thing that arouses our disgust in the novel is our shoddy legal system, which is slow, outdated, and insensitive to human suffering. Custody is a moving novel and deserves a wide readership.
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