A Bad Character: A Review
Deepti Kapoor’s beautiful and spellbinding debut novel, 2015’s release of A Bad Character from Alfred A. Knopf, is about love and loss in modern-day New Delhi. It is written in very spare prose; it’s a fast read, but complicated and multi-layered. There is so much hidden between the words: A young woman’s entire inner emotional life and all of its complexities. Similar in style to Joan Didion’s 1970 novel, Play it as it Lays, Kapoor’s novel is comparable in theme to Didion’s, as it deals with a woman’s most intimate desires, her search for some sort of truth, freedom, love, and loss.
We never learn the protagonist’s real name, but she gives herself the name Idha; qualities ascribed to a woman with that name, according to the novel, are lunar, serpentine and desirous. I have also read that it can refer to a woman with great intelligence, perception, and insight. Idha is a motherless child; her mother has died and her father has left the family to live in Singapore. She lives with her overprotective aunt, whom she addresses as Aunty. Aunty desperately wants her niece to get married, not for love or anything as frivolous as that, (she says that love has no place in reality) but an arranged marriage for stability and protection. A woman alone in New Delhi is in danger. In the dark – Kapoor says – a woman in Delhi needs “a man and a car or a car and a gun”.
She meets the man who becomes her lover in a café, smoking cigarettes and discussing every conceivable subject. Idha is very beautiful and her lover is not at all; he is frequently described as ugly and animalistic, his back covered with scars. Their love affair is intellectual and emotional before becoming sexual: it is complete in that way. The sexual love affair between Idha and the young man – she is a virgin and begins a frantic, sexual obsession with him – frees her from all of her aunt’s expectations; she rebels against the traditional future her aunt dreams of for her, reaching new experiences through the freedom only love can bring.
Her lover strongly identifies with the Hindu god, Shiva. He is often compared to him throughout the novel and images of the god surround him. We learn of his death on the first page. In this way, he is like an eternal figure himself; we know he is dead, but through Idha’s memory he will live forever. Her deceased grandfather was also connected to the divine: unlearned, he could recite the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads by heart: “They seemed to have been carved on his heart with a blade.”
Cremations take place throughout the city – thousands of them – and our narrator’s first experience witnessing a body burn is described in gruesome detail. The Ganges is populated by countless male sternums and female pelvises: the only bones that will never burn or be destroyed. Idha is sheltered in some ways, but she is also entirely aware of the injustices of India, the poverty, the old-fashioned traditions binding women to arranged marriages, as well as the pollution and severe climate change: The air in New Delhi is so polluted it can kill a cow. Rats grow to the size of dogs, living off garbage, and the heat is so intense and unceasing it melts the tarmacs.
Idha is hungry for experience. She roams every inch of New Delhi with her lover, discovering her home city for the first time. He tells her of his years spent in New York City, and the reason for his return: his parents’ deaths in a car crash. He loved them but never felt completely free until they were gone. Their love was conditional. We find out later that this is a lie; they are not dead at all, only living separate lives. She no longer feels imprisoned by her own circumstances: her overprotective aunt and the city of New Delhi burning around her. It is in this way that the novel explores how love can be freeing. They also free themselves and their minds through the use of psychedelics, taking LSD together and tripping while speeding through the night in the lover’s car, as he turns into a black beast before Idha’s eyes while she laughs uncontrollably. They make love on the desert floor as she watches her lover morph into an old man, a demon and a little boy before returning to his true self again.
Their love affair is not always pure romance; in one scene he shreds all of Idha’s belongings with a pair of scissors and dumps the scraps over the balcony of his apartment onto the city streets below. He beats her after she has escaped into the street until she is bloodied and bruised; the police are called and he ends up in a psychiatric hospital; after treatment, before he is allowed to leave, he must sign a document stating that Shiva does not exist. He tells Idha that Shiva was in the room during his breakdown.
Idha does take Aunty’s advice and finds herself a wealthy man to be her companion of sorts – while in college – a man she only refers to as the Businessman: Someone with whom she has rough, reckless, cocaine-fueled sex in anonymous air-conditioned hotel rooms, who buys her expensive presents and lavishes her with as many luxuries as debaucheries. This is, of course, only a distraction from her true love. A diversion.
A Bad Character ends with Idha coming to a sort of peace, or at least an understanding, in her life, and with what has taken place: she knows and accepts that her former lover has died; she has met his parents and his fiancée, a woman she never knew existed. She drops acid and watches the eternal dance of Shiva and Parvati throughout the night sky, the couple who made love for centuries. She is happy to have survived. For all of the freedom love provides, it is also a danger. She could have lost herself to it completely. She drives in her car off into the horizon, not into a happy ending, but into a new city being built which is blocking out the sun: a new freedom, imperfect and entirely her own.