Review: The Gallery by Manju Kapur - Hindustan Times

Review: The Gallery by Manju Kapur

ByPranavi Sharma
Mar 21, 2024 09:38 PM IST

Set in Delhi and Nepal, Manju Kapur’s seventh novel makes the reader wonder if women from different economic classes can ever meet on common ground

In an NDTV interview, Manju Kapur showcased her giant library, exuding an aura of both an academic and a passionate reader. She then reveals the books that made her. She expresses her gratitude to Annie Proulx, whom she has oddly begun to resemble; she says she is amused by Margaret Atwood’s humour, that she envies Vladimir Nabokov, and derives pleasure from the works of Amitav Ghosh and James Herriot. You see that though she has devoted her life to portraying women as independent prisoners, her interest goes beyond women writers.

Visitors at an art show in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)
Visitors at an art show in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)

Her latest novel, The Gallery, set against the backdrop of Delhi and Nepal, follows the intertwined lives of two families over three decades. The story is about Minal and Ellora Sahni, the wife and daughter of a successful New Delhi lawyer, and Maitrye and Tashi, the wife and daughter of the peon at the Sahni law practice. The story unfolds through an exploration of the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ binary, and the relentless struggle to bridge differences. Through the metaphorical lens of the titular gallery, the characters’ venture becomes a powerful symbol, which brings out the broader questions of art as property, value, and self expression. Art plays a big role in the story as does the city of Delhi. Most of the novel features Minal trying to, at first, get her gallery to take off and then putting in years of work to keep it going.

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388pp, ₹499; Penguin
388pp, ₹499; Penguin

Women often develop unhealthy relationship patterns due to constant parental nagging, which historically denied them agency and cautioned against perceived dangers, particularly men outside their homes. However, a shift occurs as they reach marriageable age and are encouraged to attract male attention through their attire. The same mothers who once criticised their daughters for wearing makeup now expect them to present themselves attractively, even offering their own cosmetics. This shift significantly influences how women perceive themselves in the public sphere, and make sense of what is given to them and the extent to which they can demand things.

The treatment of women by their families undergoes numerous changes from childhood to puberty. In the case of Minal, after she begins college, she falls under the constant surveillance of her brother’s wives. They inquire about her life, speculating about her interactions with men: “Why so quiet Mina? Met someone? they would ask, vicariously savouring the life of an independent young woman.”

Minal is unable to form her own opinions. She adapts her beliefs and appearance to align with her partners’ ideologies. Initially, Antony D’Souza, with his intellect and charm, influences her to protest against the Mandal Commission. She becomes consumed by him in a way that is reminiscent of Annie Ernaux’s memoirs, where she describes how her lovers shaped her thoughts, emotions, and identity. Ernaux’s memoirs also illustrate how social pressures affected power dynamics in her relationships, impacting her autonomy and agency. In “A Frozen Woman,” the protagonist’s sense of self, like Minal’s, diminishes as she conforms to her husband’s and society’s expectations. When Alok suggests that Minal could have an art gallery as a form of “cultural capital,” she immediately realises, “I must learn to look at things in a more sophisticated way.” Ultimately, she feels trapped and consumed by her roles as a wife and mother.

READ MORE: Manju Kapur – “Artists cannot create meaningful works if they are not free”

Throughout the narrative, both the central characters behave in ways that are not admirable -- like stealing from their wealthy employer’s home or judging the domestic help for seeking better lives. There is a direct correlation too between patriarchal authority and the oppression of women workers, as seen in Maitrye’s case. It’s clear that the process of class formation is inherently gendered.

The novel also makes you wonder if women from different social groups and economic classes can ever meet on common ground. Can wealthy women be trusted to represent the interests of working-class women? Upper-class and working-class women experience different forms of exploitation by men. The economic privileges of upper-class women, however, may lead them to prioritise their own interests over those of working-class women. Career women often hire working-class women to perform domestic tasks, such as house cleaning and childcare (as in Maitrye’s case), to avoid these responsibilities themselves. They also have a vested interest in keeping wages low to maximise their own surplus. The class struggle is further highlighted through the characters’ relationships and interactions. Love, friendship, and rivalry serve as powerful vehicles for exploring the impact of societal disparities.

Krisna, the office peon, brings his wife, Maitrye, from Nepal so he can secure a quarter in his employer’s house. She is merely a means for him to climb the social ladder. He does not mind her working relentlessly as “The more indispensable his wife, the more secure the quarters.” Maitrye’s circumstances of separation from her daughter, Tashi, when pitted against Minal’s reluctant but necessary decision to part from Ellora, bring out the nuances of class difference. For Minal it meant leaving behind an idealism “...that dictated she do everything for the child herself.” Her husband’s insistence on keeping a maid is less about these ideals and more about maintaining appearances: “At last they were going to be like other couples. He was tired of answering questions about his wife’s whereabouts whenever he went out.”

Author Manju Kapur (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Manju Kapur (Courtesy the publisher)

Minal is not all helpless or an inactive agent of her life. Her meeting with Alok, a rich man who name-dropped, provides her with a window into a larger sphere. This situation brings to mind American writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s recounting of her experience, at 17, with an older, respected male writer who might have expected sexual favours. However, Moshfegh did not see herself as a victim in this situation and expresses that it was a “well thought out encounter”. “I knew that what I was asking for was building an expectation for payback in some way. And then I just said, no. Sorry. I’ve used you. But I’m sure it was the right thing for both of us.”

The Gallery is about women who have moved from their middle-class bearings to assert their identity. They want their emotional, economic, and romantic desires to be satisfied. In that sense, the novel resembles an Indian soap opera. It also has the pace of a screenplay -- it’s no wonder that many of Kapur’s novels have been adapted for the screen.

As the book suggests, in the urban setting, women’s struggles intersect with gentrification. As the skyscrapers rise, the narratives of working-class women are often overshadowed. Their stories, however, define the very fabric of the city, silently resisting erasure. Like dancers in a clandestine ballet, they twirl through the delicate balance of nurturing and self-discovery. Yet, identity is a chameleon, shifting colours in the kaleidoscope of experiences.

Pranavi Sharma writes on books and culture. She lives in New Delhi.

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