Last week, I finally got to read Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur.
Though, it is her first novel, I ended up reading it only after her later and less popular works like Home and Married Woman. However, after reading Difficult Daughters, I am a bit surprised as to why the novel is considered better than the other two. I could not find a single reason for all the hoopla it created, when first published and even continuing to the present times. I would have any day prefer ‘Home’.
The story is set in 1940s in Punjab and Lahore and is written by a daughter, who wants to know the truth about her mother, Virmati – the eldest daughter of a respectable Arya Samaji family of Amritsar, who falls in love with her neighbour, a married Professor. The love story runs through the usual ups and downs and at last the Professor and Virmati get married despite the obvious social restrictions. However, the marital life remains somewhat unpleasant, with constant cold war between Virmati and Professor’s first wife.
The story was not bad. But the narrative was too confusing. The novel begins with the funeral of Virmati and then somehow her daughter Ida lands in Amritsar to uncover the mystery regarding the lives and peculiar circumstances leading to marriage of her parents.
The story is told in such a way that at times I could not find out as to who is telling the story to whom. An omnipotent voice seem to know every detail about Virmati’s life and plainly starts with her childhood, her infatuation and secret romance with the Professor, her suicide attempt, her tryst with education and marriage and go on to superficially impose the background of India’s Freedom Struggle and Partition.
I agree that since the story is based in 1940s, it was impossible to exclude comments regarding Second World War or Partition. But, somehow, I am not convinced about the treatment of these events in the book. Most of the events are included towards the climax of the book in diary like entries by various characters and it gave a feeling of reading an unedited version of an amateur’s journal, and failed to give it the look and feel of a professional novel.
I found the characters weak and spineless. Virmati is portrayed as a strong woman in the beginning of the novel, shown in the role of matriarch in her household, undertaking responsibility of her siblings because of her mother’s constant deliveries and short temper. But despite all her good sense and strong character, she falls in love with a fanciful married man, who takes her for a ride for most of the novel, without showing any inclination of marrying her. It is only at the insistence of a common friend, that they finally get married, the main protagonists, Virmati and her Professor, playing very little role in taking the most important decision of their lives.
Even, the title ‘Difficult Daughters’ seem slightly off the mark. With constant rebukes of Virmati’s mother and the continuous bickering by her taiji, ‘Difficult Mother and Aunt’ would have sounded as a more appropriate title.
After reading Home and Married Woman, I considered Manju Kapoor as a sensitive writer, who could portray her characters as common men and women and convert their day-to-day tryst with the life into an engrossing, emotional story, but I am quite disappointed with Difficult Daughters. The novel came across as lifeless account of a misguided woman and a weak man.