Book review

Manju Kapur’s new novel doesn’t try too hard to hide its connection with Pramod Mahajan’s murder

But this is still a sprawling family saga, even if blood runs thinner than water.

The references to the sordid 2006 saga of Pramod Mahajan and his brother Pravin are unmistakable. In Manju Kapur’s latest novel, Brothers, it’s hard to ignore the striking similarities to the murder that shocked everyone when it took place, with one brother killing another. The impact is predictable – gripping, unsettling, uncannily familiar.

A quick recap, for the sake of drawing attention to dramatic parallels: when Pravin Mahajan shot his elder brother, the prominent BJP politician Pramod Mahajan (who was said to have “brought up” his younger brother much like a son), newshounds naturally sniffed around for all kinds of conspiracy theories. Even Pramod Mahajan’s alleged closeness to Pravin’s wife Sarangi was brought into question. The politician had reportedly chosen his brother’s bride personally, after a chance encounter with her at a college function.

Facts to fiction

Cut to Brothers, Kapur’s novel, with layers of “brotherhood” spread across two generations justifying the title, where we meet the Gaina family, a clan of Jats in dusty, mercurial Rajasthan. Tapti Ahlawat, a gentle, pretty, college-going girl is chosen by a minister, the charming Himmat Singh Gaina, for marriage to his fledgling entrepreneur brother Mangal. The book begins nearly two decades after this marriage, when Tapti, now Tapti Gaina, finds herself in an unthinkable position – her husband, Mangal, has just shot his brother Himmat, at the time chief minister of Rajasthan.

As Tapti reels from the shock of her husband’s violent act, followed by his imprisonment, and the grief of losing her brother-in-law, her story requires some unravelling. Why this fratricide? And why is Tapti so attached to her brother-in-law?

And thus Kapur takes us back to where it all began, in the hinterland, where the fields lie thick with caste divisions and patriarchal systems. This is where the novel breaks out on its own, free of Mahajan references, with the Gaina backstory forming a major part, and many stories merging into one narrative by its end.

The back story

Lalbanga, east of Ajmer, 1930-40. Two brothers, Virpal and Dhanpal, ache to leave their farmland for the city. What’s left for them in the village, after all, they muse, apart from cattle and the fields, and the customary violence over both with upper caste men? Followed by regular thrashings for misbehaviour at home. Virpal, the elder one, smitten by tales of Gandhi’s salt march to Dandi yearns to be a part of his movement, and so he escapes to Ajmer one morning, three days away on foot, to be rescued and educated by a kind-hearted upper-caste man in the city.

As time goes by, Virpal turns out to be a classic case of a village boy trying to make it in the big city but landing somewhere in the middle – running a small shop, he is neither a huge success nor a failure. His younger brother, Dhanpal, back in the village, is sent in his place to fight the World War for the British, and though he returns, wounded, he is truly handicapped, body and soul. We occasionally see life through the eyes of their wives, Mithari and Gulabi, who suffer highly predictable lives in the village and the city, respectably, slaves to their homes, their chief duty being procreation till they produce sons to carry on the Gaina line.

With India moving into a new era post independence, the next generation of the Gaina family begins to take root: Kishan, Himmat, Mangal (the girl children are mentioned only in passing). After a tragedy occurs, Himmat is handed over by his father to his brother, Virpal, to bring up as his own. We watch Himmat grow out of his village ways and into a confident, meticulous, ambitious city lad.

We follow him as he wades through the murky waters of caste and student politics and emerges a winner, snaking his way up the political ladder, becoming a leader, then a minister, moving from Ajmer to Jaipur to Delhi and back to Jaipur as the first Jat chief minister of the state. His much younger brother, Mangal, watches from the sidelines, waiting for a piece of all this action.

As the novel works its way up to 2010, to the scene of the central crime, the reader observes the lives of three men intricately: Virpal, Himmat, Mangal; their loves, ambitions, shedding (or not) of village ways for city slickness.

Smarter than the men

Then there is Tapti, the woman at the core of the novel, a symbol of contextual modernity in a sea of patriarchy, standing out from all the other women. A few chapters in, one begins to feel the lack of other such distinct voices, because eventually nearly all the men and their wives begin to resemble one another in their constant grumbling and grousing – save Himmat, who grows into his big-man boots organically, acquiring a more polished demeanour befitting his swelling stature in public life. What also jars is the way the book moves between the present and past tense, even within the same paragraph, lacking any particular pattern, which seems more like an editing issue than conscious writing style.

Still, Brothers has a lot going for it: the novel has scale, even while being sharp on detailing, and the ambitions of its many characters serve to fuel it at regular intervals. The build up to its main premise is heady, which is why the premise itself, of a woman caught between the lives of two brothers – a woman smarter and sharper than both the men, really – feels limp, and “filmy”.

Where Kapur scores is in plunging deep into the psyche of the killer brother, Mangal, examining threadbare, layer upon layer, the slow burning resentment that leads to the climactic event. She also moulds the story, as she has in her previous novels, around authentic strands of India’s history, society and polity, making time and place come thoroughly alive and absorbing.

In the past, Kapur has worked in accounts of the Partition, economic liberalisation, the demolition of Babri Masjid and communal tensions in her writing, and in Brothers, she brings in the architecture of caste politics, village versus city life, the freedom struggle, the emergency, and most of all, how traditional families function within their milieu – and then cease to, at which point blood runs thinner than water. There’s proof that a good old family saga, melodrama and all, never gets old, much like an old fashioned detective novel.

Brothers, Manju Kapur, Penguin Random House.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.