The cover of Shashi Deshpande's novel has an overly familiar picture-postcard quality: the sun rising (or is it setting?) over a gleaming gray sea, with a youthful-looking couple in silhouette, somewhere between water and sky. Call me a cynic, but between that photographic cliché and the rather doleful title, I was more than a little wary of a book that described itself as telling “the story of an unlikely love between two unusual people.” Having never read any of Deshpande's books before, perhaps I might be forgiven for thinking that a book so keen to advertise itself as romance would feature at least some heaving sighs and paltry life lessons.

But Strangers to Ourselves has a certain gravitas. Life lessons it does contain, but those are after all, part of why we read fiction. And Deshpande's life lessons are never paltry. They may not be as universal as she seems to think – the book begins, for example, with a particularly heavyweight passage that threatens to throw things off-kilter before they've even begun: “There are two passions that govern human life: one is the desire for progeny, the other for a place of one's own.”

Thankfully, however, Deshpande quickly abandons this dispensing-of-wisdom mode to plunge us into her story. Aparna Dandekar, who works as a cancer specialist at a Mumbai hospital, happens to attend a private classical musical baithak held in her boss's apartment, and finds herself hurtling into a relationship with the singer, Shree Hari Pandit.

Strange attractions

The book’s emotional centre is Aparna. It is through her eyes that we see Hari: a passionate, impulsive man who takes no time at all to decide that she is the one for him. His pursuit of her is both overwhelming and vulnerable, full of insurmountable conviction one minute and grave foreboding the next. Meanwhile Aparna, having been carefully single for many years, tries to keep her emotional upheaval in check, or at least out of sight. Deshpande is wonderful at capturing her conflictedness as she is catapulted out of her comfort zone into a slippery space of excitement and fear: the banter that goes deeper than flirtation, the constant stepping back, the refusal to believe that such strong emotions can possibly be true.

What develops between Aparna and Hari is a “mature” romance, conducted with just the right amount of immaturity. Both the oncologist and the musician are relative newbies when it comes to love. They are deeply involved in the work they do, and used to giving it topmost priority. And although, as Deshpande writes, “[h]is world fascinates her as much as hers interests him,” love demands a dramatic reorganising of their lives.

It is not in these practicalities that the problem lies. But the practicalities point to deeper things. The differences between them – as Deshpande manages to suggest without actually stating – are the source of attraction, but also potential sources of friction. Aparna is charmed by Hari's beautiful shuddh Marathi, his felicity with Sanskrit and even his Marathi-accented English; Hari teases her about speaking English even in bed. But his having grown up in a less Westernised, “old-fashioned” milieu is also key to Hari's notions of marriage, domesticity and sex.

Marriage seems to him to sanctify sex; without it, sex is something that signifies a loss of control, a cheapening. For Aparna, in contrast, her faith in marriage has been shaken both by her parents’ broken relationship and by her own. To her, in Deshpande's affecting phrase, “Marriage is a site of possible betrayal”. Aparna also typifies a sociological category increasingly encountered in urban India – the working woman plagued by constant anxiety that she is not “a proper wife”.

And other stories

To this central narrative, Deshpande adds two subplots. The first of these involves Aparna's unexpected personal involvement with a patient called Jyoti, a relationship that surmounts the careful barriers usually erected between doctors and those they treat. The second is a fictitious text, a Marathi memoir by Aparna’s ancestress, a woman who came of age in the late nineteenth century. This latter thread, while not uninteresting, is not successfully woven into the present: it is never quite clear why we are reading Ahalya's story, not even at the end when Deshpande tries to tie up the loose ends, rather too neatly.

Aparna's connection with her patient, on the other hand, allows Deshpande to range a little wider across her chosen milieu – upper middle class Mumbai. But even so, this is an exceptionally narrow slice of the city: the doctor, her lover and her patient, as well as almost all their friends and acquaintances, seem to be Marathi and upper caste.

Deshpande's complete immersion in this tiny subculture betrays a certain lack of reflexiveness about both its class and caste privilege. She thinks nothing, for instance, of having her middle-aged protagonist be the owner of a flat in Mumbai, yet not live in it, for reasons of sentiment – and having lived all her working life in the city, baulk at the idea of renting a house through an agent: her class networks, she seems to assume, ought to be enough.

An upper caste universe

Meanwhile, for all Deshpande's efforts to separate Aparna's rule-flouting upbringing from Hari's traditional one, I was constantly accosted by the shared, unspoken vocabulary of a common Brahminical milieu. Note, for instance, the frequency with which her characters – no matter what their professions – act as patrons of Hindustani classical music: Aparna's boss Dr Bhagat, her aunt Taimavshi, Jyoti's venerable old uncle. Or how often Aparna equates cleanliness with inner purity, and unshavenness or unbathedness with indignity.

Here is Aparna remembering her father’s last days: “This is not my father, she had thought, this man in unwashed clothes and with an unbathed body is not my father. This man has no dignity left.” And here she is stopping Hari from helping her sort through her father's old books: “No, don't! You've had a bath,” she exclaims. Deshpande carries on: “His clean body emanates the fragrance of soap, the pleasing aroma of washed and ironed clothes.”

But Deshpande's vision of this world is fully realised. She etches its concerns and its joys with a quiet observational eye, and it is clear that she is not writing for the outsider. No explanations are provided for the use of Indian language conventions. For instance, Aparna's playwright father is referred to as Gavi Dandekar and also as Gaja or Gajanan; we must figure out for ourselves that “Gavi” is a conjoining of his initials in the Marathi literary style.

Cultural references, too, are made with an innate confidence. The many musical performances in the book do not come with annotations for what is being sung, as happens in another book about music in Mumbai, Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals. Deshpande’s descriptions are atmospheric, conveying even to the non-specialist reader the pleasure and power of a shared cultural universe, in which a Natya Sangeet classic can be remembered as a signal between spouses.

Strangers to Ourselves is not a perfect novel. It has its immersive moments, but it also has a self-indulgent quality: a meandering air that suggests a conversation with oneself. But through all this there is a seriousness of purpose that makes it a particularly dignified investigation of that thing called love.

Strangers to Ourselves, Shashi Deshpande, HarperCollins.