The Immigrant – A Review

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.

The Immigrant

Author: Manju Kapur

Published by: Random House India

Pages: 334


  1. Yayy…I am the first one today… :D. These days, there are only reviews from you..glad that you are able to finish them and present it to all of us. The title itself is so wanting to read..I liked the quotes you put from the book…reminded me of ‘The god of small things’..Your review makes it compelling to read. 🙂

    1. Wow! I have been thinking how one of these days you are going to kick-start the discussion! 😀 The God of Small Things is a very different book; one of my favourites. Do read The Immigrant though. You will appreciate the work.

      1. I immediately called the library as soon as I read this review. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it. They said they have ‘Difficult Daughters’ in another library. So, placed a hold on it. 🙂

      1. Then you must read it, and if you haven’t watched the movie — see that as well. I watched the movie first and then read the book :). Having lived in the US for a couple of years after marriage, I could relate to things in the book. Maybe, I should write a book as well. There are so many exciting chapters in my life to share :D.

        1. The Namesake is already in my shelf, Rachna: apparently, I intend to read it and probably speak about it once I am through. Do write your book. I shall be glad to review it.

  2. It seems very interesting from the cover itself. I will try and lay my hands on it. The quotes that you have mentioned are also very intriguing.

  3. Dear Mr. Pandey,
    Your stupendous acceleration and remarkable maturity are awesome .
    It is a well balanced review as it touches each and every aspect of fictional art .
    Use of diction is exemplary as no words can replace it and semantics is perfect my dear !!!
    Your posts are always not only interesting but also enriching and evocative .
    Thanks for introducing a novel like this; novels dealing with solipsism are my obsession . It really hits hard on the different labyrinthine tunnels of mine .

  4. I just dont get time to read books at all these days .. 😦

    will wait for it to be a movie someday 🙂

  5. Wow! What a great review! I mean to read this book as soon as I can obtain it!

    Mothers living to get their daughters married, always remind me of Mrs. Bennet from ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Wonder if Nina’s mother in this novel is similar…..

    1. Many thanks for the compliment, Manju. ‘Mr Batra’ (yes, that is how she is referred to!) is as much the Indian middle class mother of our times as was Mrs Bennet of the Victorian era. Happy reading!

  6. Very nice review, Umashankar, and having read this book I can say that you have captured the essence of the “The Immigrant” very well.

    I am fascinated by the story of migration and immigration as I come from a family where each generation has a migration story. The story of how my paternal grandparents, who migrated from Trivandrum to first Mumbai and then Karachi, and after partition to Calcutta, is particularly fascinating. I wonder how my grandmother, who spoke only Tamil and Malayalam managed in an alien environment. And I also wonder how she managed to live there with all her orthodox and traditional beliefs.

    I feel no less of an immigrant sometimes in Mumbai, with all the talk of sons and daughters of the soil, in spite of knowing the local language, customs and culture like that of a native. I apologise if I have rambled a bit.

    1. That is a hugely reassuring feedback, Sudhagee.

      Having inhaled the airs of vastly different states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Maharashtra and God only knows how many more to come, courtesy the quest for the daily bread, I have long given up the efforts to assimilate. It doesn’t do you much good, as you have rightly observed. People are just too parochial and myopic. Such is the lot of humanity! And all those heartaches and tribulations that your family has undergone across the generations are just waiting to be written. What do you say?

  7. I may never read the books reviewed here, but what the hell! The reviews are great reads in themselves 😀 Are you turning this into a literary blog, by any chance, not that I am complaining 🙂

    1. I am grateful to you Zephyr for recognising that reviews can be posts too. 🙂 I hope you realise it means more work both in terms of understanding the book and spinning out a piece that is sufficiently interesting! As for as making it a literary blog, I am sure you realise my style has remained the same through the kolaveries and zinfandels of my life, and the same applies to reviews of which you may have to read several and you better brace up for the ordeal. 😀

  8. What a detailed review. Enjoyed it almost as much as I would enjoy reading this book- I am sure!

    Surprisingly, the plot and the characters in this one are more believable than most others whom we encounter these days in ‘chick’ writings!

  9. I think I felt the same what many others have already mentioned. I really loved the review and was totally engrossed. But may never pick up the book. I think I will be happy with science fiction, fantasy and historic fiction.

    1. Nothing unusual about not picking up every book you read a review of, it’s not possible either. Reviews come two-a-penny -you just have to touch the shores of the Internet or pick up the weekend supplement of your newspaper. The fact that you loved my review does the trick for me just as well the fact that I could pass the information about the book to you. Many thanks to you!

  10. Hi Umashankar

    This book should make it to my reading list – the way you have explained there is more substance in this story than the previous one you reviewed although the theme in both are relationships and marriage.

    I notice that you have a lot more to say about this book and a feel of what awaits the reader comes through strongly.

    Well written! You are good at this.

    Must read The immigrant.

    1. Jayadev, this one has a serious theme and has been written with a view to that. I am glad you’ve decided to pick this one up. Thanks for your continued support. 🙂

  11. Your reviews are so deep and intriguing. They bring out the essence of the story and the personality and style of the writer. Your in-depth analysis of every hidden nuance shows how good and intelligent a reader you are. A true connoisseur I must say! It is a pleasure to see and feel a book through your expert eyes. And the book seems a really interesting read that delves into the many layers of the heart and mind of two completely different immigrants. You have, as always, kindled a deep interest towards this book.

  12. Now that was a good review and I am looking forward to the review of “Namesake” since Jhumpa Lahri is my fav Author and “Namesake” is my favorite book and yeah writing reviews is tough …I always wanted to do them 🙂

  13. I have read this one and loved it. I liked Difficult Daughters too. Reading your take on The Immigrant was like revisiting the book with your eyes .

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