Victims of divorce
Reviewed by Aradhika Sharma

by Manju Kapur. Random House. Pages 415. Rs 450.

"Children from divorced families donít follow the same rules as regular children ó they grow up much faster and have seen insecurity and strife too early in life. You canít apply the same parameters to them as you can to your own children, who are safe and warm and cherished."

I remember my divorced friend saying this with quiet sadness and a heavy hearted conviction when a lady in our group was giving her gyan on how to Ďhandleí her kids.

No one knows this better than either a parent who, as an aftermath of separation or divorce, finally takes a look at her children and is shattered to see what the acrimony and dispute has done to them or than Manju Kapur. Divorce is a sad business but saddest for the children of the family who are rent by conflicting loyalties as they see all that is dear and familiar being snatched away and distorted for no fault of theirs.

Manju is a past master in dealing with the concerns of families. Custody is her fifth book after her bestselling books, Difficult Daughters, Home, The Immigrant and A Married Woman.

The tone of Custody is a serious, yet soft. Manju is not judgmental, though you see her getting grim at places, as if sheís biting back her comments behind pursed lips. Though she talks of grand passions, betrayals, heartbreak, extra marital affairs, she remains quiet and tries to be a chronicler rather than a participant in the story that she tells.

Custody is the story of the family of Raman and Shagun and their two children, eight year old Arjun and three year old Roohi. Raman works for a multi-national company, the Brand, that manufactures and distributes soft drinks. The rewards are huge as is the work that is expected. Raman, who belongs to a middle class family, is a bright guy but somewhat dull. He is married to Shagun, who is wondrously beautiful but bored and rather selfish. Still, all is well with the family, until Ashok Khanna, comes in as Ramanís boss at the Brand. Ashok is the human manifestation of the Brand. What he wants, he gets, and if there are obstacles on the way, he simply sweeps them aside or buy them out. This time he wants Shagun, and he gets her.

Shagun, not considering anything but her passion for Ashok, is ready to call off the marriage and asks Raman for a divorce, and thatís when the staid, loving Raman turns into a vengeful person who will do anything to avenge being left for another man.

On the other hand, is Ishita, a young divorcee, who has been heartlessly thrown out of her husbandís home because she is physically incapable of having children. Ishita tries to find some sense of identity in social work with poor children. She and the divorced Raman come together. Now occurs the re-formation of couples. Ishita and Raman; Shagun and Ashok. All settled but for the children, who are pulled apart in ways that are as insidious as they are aggressive.

The first half of the book is devoted to the grown ups and the re-configuration of the couples, the latter part focuses on the ugly custody battle for the children. The little ones have to deal with parents who have changed priorities, changed partners, changed characters even. From being the loved kids of a family, they are changed into pawns on the chessboard of the judicial system, the players of the game being none other than their parents.

Luckily, Manju does not take on a moralising tone, although she is a bit wry in the telling of her tale sometimes. Her forte is middle class Indians and though she is ruthlessly honest, she knows how to tell their story gently. You are left feeling bruised at the way courts treat divorces and custody matters ó the man who will not grant a divorce because his ego has been hurt and the woman who is given preference in custody battles by virtue of her gender. You just end up hoping that if (God forbid) you or your loved ones ever have to go through it, it would be a much revamped system!

Manju brings forth the angst that the system engenders when lawyers step in and courts take over. The joy is over and bitterness prevails. The most battered are the children!