a young woman’s passions are unleashed by a chance encounter
I’m awash in books coming out imminently and trying to keep up not only with my reading but also reviewing. Not an easy task as I tend to agonise endlessly over not only the body of the review but also things like blog post titles, wanting to capture just the right effect and feeling.
Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel, A Bad Character, is itself full of wonderful effects, and writing that pulses with energy.
The story is told by a young woman who lives in Delhi and remains unnamed throughout, except a name she gives herself, representative of all young women just like her. She’s twenty years old, quiet, anxious. Stuffed full of books by her mother — a sad woman who dies young after being abandoned by her husband — she finds no satisfaction in the life she is expected to lead: to be virtuous, get a good education, and, ultimately, of course, find the ideal husband.
No matter where she is or what she does, she never feels good enough. But she is beautiful and is stared at ceaselessly and has been all her life:
“…it’s what happens here, it’s what men do....Stares of incomprehension, lust, rage, sad yearning, so vacant and blank sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes pitiful. Eyes filling the potholes, bouncing down the streets like marbles, no escaping their clank. Eyes in restaurants, in offices, in college, eyes at home. Women’s too, disapprovingly.”
A great divide lies between the innocence and happiness of childhood and the uncertainty and woes of the present and all that it represents to her: the call to be sinless, blameless, pure — and ultimately lifeless. She teeters on the border between what was and what is, trapped and with an increasing sense of duplicitousness.
“The world keeps turning, but no one knows what turns in me.”
Everything is a facade, an acting out of what she thinks she ought to be, to the point that she is no longer aware who she is. She feels forever alone and lost within herself.
Until the day she meets a stranger in a café.
“There’s something of the animal in him....He’s nothing like the boys they want me to marry.”
He looks at her, and that look is different from all the others she’s had to endure before. Clandestine rendezvous ensue. He’s determined to reveal to her a side of Delhi she’s never seen or searched for, a secret city that’s a metaphor for the true being she’s concealed for so long.
“Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.”
Eventually, their relationship becomes physical, as hot and fevered as the world they explore. As his wild side emerges, she herself begins to surrender control and ventures further and further beyond the confines of her former life.
Kapoor doles out the tale in small paragraphs, which might seem to imply control, but the effect is that of a fast-breaking torrent of words and images that surrounds the reader with the staggering heat of both city and seduction. There’s a wonderful wild, pounding flow to her writing that mirrors the overwhelming rush in the blood of early passion and the speed with which the young woman falls under the spell of her tempestuous lover and his piercing gaze.
And just as the young woman is burning up with a desire to escape a fate dictated by others, Kapoor sets her world alight: the sky is “on fire,” smoke fills the air, fireworks explode, and the land is “stricken by the burning sun.”
Overcome by lust and seduced by drugs, she has a sense of breaking free, and during those moments, Kapoor shifts to third person, emphasising this displacement away from the self — an incredibly effective use of voice.
Towards the end of this short, seething story, the flame starts to fade, and the pace slows, as though Kapoor wasn’t quite sure how to conclude the affair. But what an impressive debut. I look forward to more from this author.