The opening of Manju Kapur’s new novel Brothers is also its dénoument. With the outcome already known, author Kapur has to work doubly hard to keep the reader engaged in the working out of the plot—something she fortunately achieves with aplomb.
Deliberately or otherwise, the plot seems to mirror an actual event in 2006. The action starts with the assassination of Himmat Singh Gaina, chief minister of the province of Rajasthan, by his younger brother, Mangal. Tapti, the wife of Mangal and on-off lover of Himmat, is left facing an uncertain future, bereft both of a husband (now jailed indefinitely) and the only source of happiness and affection she had ever known.
How the brothers arrive at such a tragedy unfolds in the rest of the novel. It begins in the past, a couple of generations back, in the ancestral village of Lalbanga. Here, in a mirror story, the brothers’ uncle, Virpal, flees rural life by heading into the town of Ajmer, bent on joining Gandhi in protesting against British rule. Virpal’s brother, Dhanpal, is left behind and, in stark contrast, is corralled into joining the British army to fight the Germans in Africa.
Both brothers escape the fatal consequences which such life twists could produce. Dhanpal returns from the war scarred but alive, while by chance a childless Brahmin happens upon Virpal sleeping rough and takes him in. This sets the tone for a series of happy coincidences which ultimately result in Virpal’s nephew, Himmat, taking the baton on Virpal’s political ambitions and rising to the top.
Kapur is keen to undermine the notion that success is due to destiny rather than character. Himmat’s family believes his rise is built on fate and connections rather than understanding that charisma and sheer hard work might have done the trick. Himmat’s brother Mangal expects, and is granted, similar sponsorship. However, he doesn’t have the drive or the talent to put it to good use. When his projects fail, he is resentful and lays the blame squarely on his brother. The ensuing jealousy and bitterness build the foundation for the eventual fratricide.
Tying the two plots together (quite literally as it is a recurring metaphor) is the rope of the village where every brother is born. All four are unable to escape completely the umbilical cord which binds them to Lalbanga: its antiquated laws and superstitions, its caste wars, and the grinding poverty experienced by a rural community eking out a living from an unforgiving climate. Worse, being both farmers and born into the lowly Jat caste, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to climbing the greasy pole of a city career.
This tension between country and town—and ultimately new and old—is nuanced. Himmat, for example, is afraid “of being sucked back into the earth from which he had emerged”. Yet when Mangal is disrespectful of the land which supports them, Himmat reproves him. Similarly, while Himmat is a reformer—especially on women’s rights and the caste system—he can also turn “the modern way” to his advantage by getting a divorce from his first wife and justifying an affair with his sister-in-law.
Mangal, in his turn, represents tradition. He may be a murderer but he remains closer to the village and the family than Himmat who rejects them. Had he stayed in Lalbanga, he might also have enjoyed a higher status than his peers and a wife who didn’t answer back. When these entitlements are challenged, he (not unreasonably) becomes angry and confused, finally playing to his stereotype by reacting with violence. “Jats are like this … quick to kill,” mutters a bystander.
It’s possible to take the boy out of the village but not the village out of the boy, Kapur seems to be saying. Certainly she doesn’t offer any solution to this conundrum which is one India itself is facing in its transition to a developed economy. Perhaps there are no answers but at least by depicting both sides of the argument, in brusque yet evocative prose, Kapur is leading the charge to find a resolution.