“It’s only when he dies that I’ll become the person he wants me to be,” confides the narrator of “A Bad Character.” At the novel’s opening he is already dead, victim of drunkenness and hubris. But on a bright day in a cafe in New Dehli a young beautiful girl meets a beast, “a wild animal dressed in human clothes,” who looks as though he lives in the forest “and learned something there.”
She is a college student, motherless with an absent father. He is older, experienced and worldly, just returning to India from New York City. This is a story of intoxication, obsession and, ultimately, freedom. She loses herself in love, but she finds herself there too, at the end, when she rises from the rubble.
The writing is evocative, aromatic, like the subtle blend of spices in the complex flavors of curry. The sentences are short but cadenced, the chapters individual pockets of experience. The story moves back and forth over a decade and switches from first to third person. This creates both urgency and distance—the poetic dissonance between memory and experience.
The narrator is never identified by name, nor is her lover. Indian newspapers refer to the deceased as “a bad character,” implying he deserved his death (or at least courted his demise). “It’s what they’ll say about me too, when they know what I’ve done,” the narrator said. We never know her name, yet we know her intimately, how Delhi changed for her while riding in his car, how she changed under his fingers behind closed doors. She is not a bad character, she is simply a woman caught between expections and desire, between past and present, tradition and her new understanding of femininity.
Small observations compare the old and new, the feminine and masculine, how she is torn between who she was and who she wants to become. The furniture in the cafe where the lovers meet (green and distressed like French antiques) contrast with her aunt’s heavy furniture, lacquered with expectations and tradition “stared at by that dark wood, by those statues of gods, by bronze and dried fruit.” Her uncle visits this female world of heavy curtains and soap operas, but “his world is his own.” Her coming-of-age is universal, but the cultural and social conflicts feel foreign, the clashing values of old and new India.
“It’s the years of conditioning that make me think his dark skin is ugly, poor, wrong,” the narrator said, addressing issues of race and caste in modern India. “It doesn’t occur to me that it’s within my power to change anything,” she explained. As an adult she sees her aunt is a proper women. Aunty doesn’t understand privacy, the girl’s need to close her door. “She is expected to be the same as them, to smile the right way, to say the right things, to be grateful at all times, to be seen and not heard.”
Kapoor’s writing evokes a sense of the rapid growth in India, the “economic sleight of hand” that has cities teetering on the edge of garbage heaps, the means “the Ganga is a river that flows backward,” dividing virile cities from barren land. Kapoor paints a portrait of modern New Delhi: the teeth of the skyline eating the sun; minarets erupting in prayer; “the mountains of cheap bright junk that Delhi consumes.” Funeral ash flutters from the sky, air-conditioning units battle the heat, rickshaws on streets too narrow for the yellow and black taxis with their torn upholstery. “Laxmi is doing her job, for those who know how to pray.”
Kapoor reminds me of Colette and Kate Chopin. She writes about a flawed woman, one who breaks the cultural mold she is born into, pours her unhardened self out and shapes herself free-form. Her lover breaks the mold, but she extricates herself from the mess and remakes herself, slowly. She goes through darkness and stalls there before making her way into the light. This is an interesting read, immersing readers in the mystique of India, as intense as an illicit love affair.