An Untold Story
Review of a bad character a novel Deepti Kapoor
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015
I wanted to like “A Bad Character” by Deepti Kapoor.
It started out promising: rebellious and thrilling with sharp, staccato writing. But the fast pace and nonlinear style soon overwhelm, leaving Kapoor’s debut novel about a girl caught in an abusive relationship in contemporary India muddled and riddled with plot line holes.
“A Bad Character” is being peddled by its publisher as not just the debut of its author but of its main character — a purportedly new type of Indian woman, one who is sultry and proudly independent, written about in a purportedly new type of Indian literature. Perhaps the diversity challenged staff at Knopf see Idha, the main character, as something new and refreshing, but how radical and modern is it truly for a female protagonist to be defined by her obsession with a man? Not only is Idha defined by her desire for the abusive boy she meets while seeking thrills outside her boredom with college, but this desire is unconvincing. It feels shallow, devoid of the romanticism one might expect from a young girl coming of age. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only part of the plot that is, as we Indians say, “kaacha” — uncooked. We are told Idha is literary, that the mother she was so close to had spent time reading her the classics before dying, yet these crucial pieces of her identity never surface again throughout the story.
And the book’s first line — “My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one. His body was left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east” — is the most beautiful promise, never delivered. It sounds like a song. I’m hooked. I want to hear about coming of age on hot Delhi nights, about love and sex and disobedience in an India caught up between twenty-first century neoliberal corporate capitalism and the authoritarianism of Hindu fundamentalism. There’s so much potential for drama there, and I want to hear about it from a fellow Indian.
But Idha always has the eye of the outsider. No attachment. Kapoor begins to paint the picture of absolutely boredom of Indian bourgeoisie within their quickly growing leader in the world economy. Kapoor touches upon this wealth, the invasion of commodities and material fetishism — Idha’s father tries to make up for being away by buying her a car, her uncles have made it big — yet as I wait for any details, any depth, I become disappointed. What did Idha live through in the twenty years leading up to the plot? What of the women she was surrounded by and their relationship with her abandoned mother? Kapoor’s beautiful writing style feels like a waste without the complexity of skillful storytelling to back it up. Everything feels like smoke and mirrors. And when the story arrives at the man who takes Idha into womanhood, the mirror gets ugly and cracks.
This boyfriend is dark, with animal features. He is not a good Delhi boy. And here is where we are fed the black phobia prevalent around the world. In India, we have a black god, Krishna— so black that we call him blue, because even gods can’t be black to be loved. This young man we’re introduced to is a hideous creature of the dark sort. We’re supposed to see him and his darkness as a thrilling otherness. Idha crosses the metaphorical railroad tracks to jump in bed with a darky, and to go into his world. Idha uses Mr. Ugly to get to know Delhi, doing a bang up superb job of introducing us to the city in the meantime.
Krishna isn’t the only deity connection in this novel. Kapoor also splatters the god Siva here and there throughout the book, but again it feels like shallow references. Idha doesn’t really know her own religion. So she takes the ugly and terrifying characteristics of Siva and ties them to Mr. Ugly— no need to scrape beneath the surface.
Reviewed & Edited by Natalie Baker
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; First American Edition edition (January 20, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385352743