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.