I recently visited South Bombay, tentatively moving back into my pre-pandemic life of public transport, dodging traffic & wandering down narrow lanes. One of the many adventures of the day was buying a book on a whim after noticing it displayed on a pavement outside a railway station. I didn’t even check Goodreads or any reader friends.
I’ve just finished reading it. It took me most of the night and some of today. And that’s a lovely return to my late 20s where books absorbed me with a rigour I did not experience in my social or professional life. Devouring a book with the kind of passion I saw my peers feel for relationships – this was usual for me. Now my favorite neighborhood bookshop is gone, my rare reader conversations with friends chosen for their similar inclinations moved. And my own attention pawed & grabbed & assaulted by multimedia streaming offerings. It feels good, so good to come back to being me, the way I feel most me.
The book was ‘HOME’ by Manju Kapur. It’s a sprawling family account across three generations, beginning with immigrants from Lahore, tracing their refugee history into Delhi’s bazaars and eventually their establishment as one of Karol Bagh’s respected sari traders. It puts the women front and center of the narratives, from truths as brutal as dowry deaths and honour killings to saas-bahu politics and the more coy romances following India’s rising pop culture scene. It made me terribly sad for the trauma trap our entire nation lives in, each life a unique quagmire. It also made me very grateful for the escape facilitated by generations before mine and the privileges I blindly enjoy.
My mother’s parents were immigrants to Delhi around the same time, except from the other side of the country (and how does that matter?). Like the family in this story, they had to make brutal choices, eke out acceptance in an unfamiliar world and living on the razor edge between different identities. It made me ponder the ruthless laundering of identity that cities do to people flocking to them, hurriedly discarding old traumas and quickly accumulating new ones. It’s also very much of the subcontinent – a story of tiny, intimate dramas fought in cramped kitchens and dirty gullies but writ large with soaring ambition and unprecedented hope.
Maybe it is the timing, maybe it is how I found it, maybe it’s because the first book I’ve managed to truly read (as I once used to) since going through COVID. I’m glad to start the last month of the year with this. It is quite like coming home.
Here’s my Goodreads review:
I came across this book after going through COVID twice in two months and struggling to finish reading a page. And I stayed up most of the night reading the book. It is just that absorbing.
There is a simple fluidity to the storytelling, that follows the way of Indian languages more than English. But the stories are accordingly more complex, interlaced with partition trauma, gender politics, the shifting changes of a brand new country coming of age over and over again in its capital. And amidst all this, fortunes are created and lost, unanticipated troubles creep up even under the sharp scrutiny of astrologers and dozens of relatives. The lives are small & intimate, happening inside crowded gullies & cramped kitchens but also magnificent in the unimaginable traumas of colonialist violence, gender wars, cultural storms & endurance. It’s very subcontinent.
I loved the book.