Sun sets early on eligible girls in the matrimonial bourses of India. Those blessed with boundless beauty or in affluent lineage may nudge the timeline further by a few odd years, but rarely for long. Nina’s lush hair and pinkish glow allow her just the tenuous hold on the tapering thread as she enters her thirtieth birthday. However, slipping into the club of spinsters from the academic sorority seems a distinct possibility. Her widowed mother whom misfortunes have pillaged early, is duly worried and obsessed with finding a husband and a hearth for the daughter. Luckily, a proposal from a dentist settled in Canada materializes out of the blue and the boy’s sister approves of Nina’s tastes and refreshing beauty. This was the day Nina’s mother has been living for, praying and fasting for years.
Success has come the hard way to Ananda, the prospective groom. His is a story of toils and tribulations, if also contentment. Prodded by the sudden demise of his parents in a road mishap, his uncle beckons him to Canada. He also helps him seek admission in a university for a degree in dental surgery and obtain a student loan. Much as Ananada is awed by the serene vastness and gleaming lakes of the new country, he feels lonely in a society where people stay aloof even at homes and cook their own lunches. Growing out of the cramped cubicle of his uncle’s house he becomes a boarder, picks up a summer job, scrimps and saves money drop by drop and ends up setting up a clinic jointly with his friend Gary. He is quick to adopt the local food, clothes and customs and feels every bit a Canadian except for his failure to sleep effectively with a white woman. “As he tried to figure out his feelings in the dark watches of the night, he wondered whether his inability to love a white woman meant he had never really left India.”
Ananda’s sister feels duty bound to find an Indian bride for him and fishes out Nina in the process. The ‘arranged introduction’ translates to marriage and Nina moves to Canada. This leads the reader to the gradual but more richly traced metamorphosis of the second immigrant in the story. Although Ananada and Nina happily live together for a while, Nina’s stark loneliness exacerbated by the void caused by Ananda’s impotency, goads her to join a feminist group, enroll for a Canadian degree and find her ‘own legs’.
Manju Kapur has a unique style that is flexible and versatile and hugs the moods tightly. One moment she is gliding gracefully and the very next she breaks into staccato, racy, multiple clipped sentences packed into single structures. Sentences are at times convulsed, tenses switched, affirmative mixed with the interrogative. The tone is often in harmony with the subject in focus, from sparkling to bleak, elegant to choppy, colloquially nimble to philosophically laded proselytizing. Her diction switches to mirror the atmosphere she is projecting. Motifs and imageries cut open the heart of emotions. Sparse, terse lines hammer home the point. “And her womb, her ovaries, her uterus, the unfertilsed eggs that were expelled every month, what about them? They were busy marking every passing second of her life.” And later, “Her voice is low, her colour fair, she has a straight nose, large eyes and sharp Punjabi type features. Height medium.”
She switches to lyrical diction to convey the happier and at times, the painful moods. “He was alone, all alone, with relatives who did not wake up with the fall of his feet on the floor, the blood that joined them diluted with the waters of an ocean.”
Manju Kapur uses imageries with briskness and abundance. Often the surroundings are enlisted to bolster the tranquility or turmoil within the minds of the characters. Her use of symbols and motifs are equally subtle. Switching to non-vegetarian food is meant to have a deeper meaning, a shedding of inhibitions. “That Monday Nina walked to the library, fish and beef indelibly part of her being. Feeling less Indian had its advantages. There were more possibilities in the world she could open. Her body was her own….” She uses flurries as a captivating motif of Nina’s life in Canadiana. “Flurries began to drift against the windshield. They clung for a moment and then slid down against the onslaught of the wiper. They were just flurries, damp, soggy and ill-formed, without the staying power of snowflakes. She felt like one herself.”
The author is in full control of the stage and the acts that ensue, the transition of two very different Indians into individualistic, highly self-centered Canadian immigrants. Ananada and Nina emerge in their many shades from those pages although the author seems to have a clear preference for the latter. We intimately follow Ananada across his lonelier moments and struggles, his assimilation into the Canadian land, customs and weather coupled with shedding off of his old identity. However, once their marriage is solemnized we witness him mostly through the prism called Nina. Nina, on the other hand, has to resolve many more conflicts than her husband and wade through many troubled waters before she retrieves the individual in her, a pre-requisite to becoming an immigrant. She has to tear away many carapaces set upon her by her Hindu origin, Indian daughterhood and Indian wifehood, before she can redeem her suffocated womanhood. Indeed, being used as a trophy to shield Ananda’s sexual atrophy and later as a test range to his sexual missiles is like the worst nightmares of de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer coming true. The author herself has two different attitudes towards their transformation. In Ananada’s case, the tone is summarily set at the outset, “Ananda landed in Halifax on the 15th of August, his country’s day of independence, as well as his own liberation from it.” However, it is rather an excruciating process in Nina’s case, “The immigrant who comes as a wife has a more difficult time. If work exists for her, it is in the future and after much finding of feet. At present all she is, is a wife, and a wife is alone for many, many hours.” Harder still it is, for her to challenge the matrimonial Rubicon, even if it means never achieving sexual fulfillment. It is not as if Ananada, once assured of his potency by Nina’s side, falls for the first hint from Mandy. Sleeping with a white woman has always been the Holy Grail to him, the final threshold to his Canadian identity. But it is more of a self discovery in her case and it takes her many months to drift closer to Anton. In a pointed contrast, she recovers her rightful dues instead; more an affirmation of her being a woman and an individual rather than just an immigrant. “Who can feel guilty about living?”
The lesser characters in the book are painted with a relatively broader brush, particularly the North Americans who have turned out cold and remote. The dry, selfish demeanour of these characters serves as a catalyst to the transformation of the immigrants but robs the story of a certain richness at the points they populate the vista.
Overall, The Immigrant is a vivid exposition of the socio-psychological journey of humans into distant cultures. It is a compelling book, hard-hitting as well as hard to put down, and harder to forget long after you have turned over the back cover.
Author: Manju Kapur
Published by: Random House India