THE PRIVATE LIFE OF MRS SHARMA, by Ratika Kapur. Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $16 paper.
“The Private Life of Mrs Sharma” is a short, simple novel, the first-person narrative of several months in the life of a woman in Delhi. There are just a few characters and settings, a straightforward plot and a wonderfully funny narrative voice. It is an easy pleasure to read.
Yet I am certain I will remember this book for years to come. The points it makes about motherhood, responsibility and self-deception are all so close to home. At the same time, it takes place on the other side of the world. The feel of contemporary Indian life, caught between tradition and modernity, is brilliantly captured in the details of Mrs. Sharma’s predicament.
Mrs. Sharma’s husband is working in Dubai. He has been gone for over a year, and though coming home for a visit soon, he will remain there for years to come. As she explains, “People are always saying to me, Oh ho, you poor woman, your husband is so far away! . . . It is true that he is far away. . . . And it is true that I miss him. But what can I say? We have duties. As parents, as children, we have duties. I could keep my husband sitting in my lap all day, but when my in-laws grow older and get sick, who will pay for the hospital bills?”
It is exactly this sense of duty that will lead to Mrs. Sharma’s Waterloo.
As the novel opens, Mrs. Sharma meets a younger man, a hotel manager named Vineet, who intervenes on her behalf when there is an argument about her place in line in the metro. Because she can tell that he, like her, is a nice person from a good family, she accepts his invitation for coffee.
This friendship, which Mrs. Sharma repeatedly points out is totally on the up-and-up, becomes the bright spot in her overburdened life. She lives with her adored 16-year-old son, Bobby, and her in-laws, Papaji and Mummyji, in a tiny apartment. She has a dull job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. Bobby, for whom she foresees an MBA and a fancy career, has begun to rebel. He comes home one day so sick from bootleg liquor that he has to be hospitalized for a week. “Nobody in our family,” she says, “not even my uncle who gambled, nobody has ever, ever touched alcohol.” Unwilling to talk to her husband, in-laws or even Vineet, she bears the burden of worry and discipline on her own.
Well, of course she can’t tell Vineet, because she hasn’t even told him that she is married. She plans to, just as soon as he asks — but he never asks her any questions. This deception is more a way of keeping him out of her real life than anything else, but that boundary will not hold.
In describing her unremitting sense of responsibility, Mrs. Sharma at one point repeats a story about two lizards on a ceiling. One asks the other if they might go on a little outing. Absolutely not! Is the reply. Who will hold up the ceiling?
Mrs. Sharma insists this story has nothing to do with her life — because in her case, the duty is real. Yet the widening gap between what she feels she must do and what she is actually doing brings this story to an absolutely unpredictable end.
Kapur’s first novel, “Overwinter,” was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize; “The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma” seems destined for such honors as well. I will be devouring all past and future work from this clever, wise writer.