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Book Review: A Bad Character

By (January 5, 2015) No Comment

A Bad Charactera bad character cover

by Deepti Kapoor

Knopf, 2014

Deepti Kapoor’s short and memorably powerful debut novel A Bad Character expands out of the basic outline of a story that was old when Shakespeare wrote his “Romeo and Juliet”: star-crossed young lovers tempt fate in order to indulge in their passions in the quest of true (and rebellious) love. The nameless lovers (the girl at one point refers to herself as “Idha,” but the moment leaves open the possibility that she’s just making it up) live in a contemporary Delhi that Kapoor captures acutely in a series of tossed-off references to the city’s “indestructible heat” … “a furnace on days like these, the aching heart of a cremation ground.” The country in general is likewise described with slightly mordant pointedness:

People are returning to India these days. Money is pouring in from every hole. It’s also rising up out of the ground, conjured from nowhere, a miracle of farmland and ruins, an economic sleight of hand.

The city’s ramshackle, slightly manic energies are reflected in the conflicting emotions of our two lovers. The young woman has been abandoned by her parents and taken in by an officious but well-meaning aunt who’s dedicated to negotiating an acceptable husband for her – a protracted process that Kapoor acidly mines for all the grim humor it’s worth, parading before us candidates we immediately hate as much as the prospective bride does:

This boy was … arrogant, wealthy, dressed in a designer shirt, he wore his fat with pride, was well groomed, his pouting lips protruding from his face, his eyes heavy lidded, stirring his tea very slow. Well-manicured fingers perched on the table like exotic birds. There was something in his manner that spoke of cruelty to me. He talked at length, about his Hyundai, his plan to replace it with a Mercedes before the year was out, And all the while he eyed me with a measure of disdain. Why he ever agreed to meet me in the first place I’ll never know. But Aunty was punching above her weight, saying, Nothing succeeds like success.

Passages like this one display both Kapoor’s winning energy and also the finer points of prose she has yet to master; the heavy sarcasm of pointing out the cliche of “nothing succeeds like success” seems ignorant of the fact that “punching above her weight” is also a cliche, for instance, and of course eyes can’t stir tea, and would in any case stir it slowly, not slow.

She’s got narrative momentum down pat, fortunately, and she excels in creating her young man, a captivating combination of strutting arrogance and glances of insecurity. He’s swarthy and black-haired (the young woman damningly comments that he looks like servant), worldly-wise where the young woman is sheltered, openly sexual where she’s more straight-laced when he first meets her. Her world is the circumscribed setting of her aunt’s home with its heavy, old-fashioned furniture, whereas his extends to a jaded and wide-ranging knowledge of the city’s byways:

He says with satisfaction that he loves these places, the service, the food, the atmosphere, the sense of brotherhood one feels, the anonymity, the way they connect to the pulse of the city. He says he knows a thousand just like this, he knows them all, all over the city, he hunts them out, blends into them, he’s a connoisseur of low-down dirty joints, side-street shacks, roadside carts, the best paratha, the best chicken, the best bad whiskey, the best dal. The best dal of them all, he says, is on the Jaipur road, at one of the dhabas out there. Dal like you wouldn’t believe. He drives on these highways in the night, all night sometimes, he drives to Jaipur and back when he can’t sleep. He drives up and down the highways until the sun begins to rise.

Tellingly, his own character had been formed not in Delhi but in New York:

It wasn’t the lecture halls that did it for him. Instead it was the streets. In the streets he could see it all quite clearly, walking around the Lower East Side, Chinatown, SoHo, Washington Square in the winter sun, freezing cold, up Fifth Avenue, the skyscraper canyons so vast they cut out the glow, the razor air splitting your lungs. Through the park, through Columbia, round into Harlem. He realizes here he could be anyone.

The central dramatic engine pumping through A Bad Character is the very question of who this young man is; as the enigma of his character unfolds for the young woman – and as he introduces her to the darker sides of his world – Kapoor’s often effectively terse prose style draws her readers in despite the fact that they know as clearly as anything the only kind of ending such stories can ever have. It ends up being quite an impressive debut performance.