Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character is about a tumultuous period in one college-going female student’s life in New Delhi. Kapoor’s novel seems influenced by the novels of writers like Marguerite Duras, jean Rhys and Kate Zambreno, but it’s being marketed as one of the few contemporary novels by non-white, non-Western writers that explore the intersection of female urban experience and sexuality in a South Asian city.
Kapoor’s novel is about a 20-year-old protagonist whose actual name is never revealed—though, at the start of the story, she gives herself a name, Idha: “lunar, serpentine, desirous”—and her slow disintegration into a life of drugs, drink, sex, and aimless meandering. When we meet Idha, she is living with her well-meaning but utterly proper and bourgeois aunt; her mother died when she was 17 and her father has slowly drifted into a new life in Singapore that doesn’t include his daughter. As Idha explains, “I don’t know why it happens. I can’t explain why I’ve been abandoned this way”. Her aunt, like most upper-middle-class Indian women, wants for her niece what she herself was trained to want: a husband, a family, a nice home, some children, comfort, and luxury if she’s lucky. Idha chafes against these imposed restrictions even while dully fulfilling what is required of her: attending classes, hanging out with female college mates, going for “visits with Aunty”, and acquiescing to meet prospective husbands.
On the inside, however, Idha is raging, but very quietly. Alone and introverted since she was a child, Idha finds it hard to adjust to bourgeois society’s expectations of A Good Girl: “The agony of being alive, of functioning like a human being. Can you understand this? This is who I am”. So when she meets a man—or rather, allows herself to be met by him—in a coffee shop one day, even though everything about the way he is goes against what she was raised to want, she allows herself to fall into his orbit.
Much of Idha’s subsequent depiction of the events that occur feel this way: she allows things to happen to her. Little is known about what Idha wants, desires, or is curious about, except the fact that she can’t bear to go on living as she always has. In one way, this is understandable—sheltered as she is, Idha’s love affair with this man was one manner of trying out a life. However, this option to experiment is of course not afforded to all young women of Delhi, and Idha’s story is just one very privileged perspective among the many narratives of female experience that exist in the city.
Many reviews of A Bad Character draw attention to how this book has arrived at the right time, since feminists outside of India, particularly Western liberal feminists, are suddenly paying attention to India after the Nirbhaya rape case made international news. What’s disturbing is the silence by the majority of reviewers around the particular perspective that Idha brings: that of a privileged, financially-secure young girl who, no matter how much she experiments, will always have the safety networks of family connections, due to her class position, to see her through to relative safety, or at least help her land on her feet.
In any case, these recollections are being written by a mature, and we presume, older and wiser Idha, we learn that the only person who ends up dead is the man she was with—and though Idha refers to him as “my love”, it’s hard to know if she ever loved him. If love is meant to be in the showing instead of the telling, it’s hard to tell if this is a weakness of Kapoor’s writing, or her intention to muddy the waters. Either way, the result feels vague, inconclusive, and not in the manner of Duras or Rhys, where the vagueness or indecipherability has a narrative goal, in that it reflects the character’s psychic volatility. In Kapoor’s case, it just feels like a deliberate effort at being poetic or literary to no particular end. There are also perplexing switches of narrative voice from first-person to third-person that do nothing to either anchor the story or free it from its constraints.
From the start, Idha tells us that her lover had dark skin, and was ugly: “Ugly with dark skin, with short wiry hair, with a large flat nose and eyes bursting either side like flares, with big ears and a fleshy mouth that holds many teeth.” There’s a moment when Idha lectures us: “It’s the years of conditioning that make me think his dark skin is ugly, poor, wrong. Which makes me think he looks like a servant.” This is all well and good, this awareness, but it has not translated to knowledge, as the older and wiser Idha continues to tell us that the fact of her beauty in contrast to his ugliness is what turned her on. In her society, this dark-skinned man will be thought of as ugly, more properly a servant, but Idha is held apart from this society, as someone different, someone who will actually have sex with a dark-skinned man who “looks like a servant”.
It’s hard to know whether the older Idha is aware that this fetishisation is as abhorrent as her family’s and friends’ condescension of people who look this way. When Idha loses her virginity to him, she notes that “he was a part of me, his ugliness, his black skin”. It’s an utterly disturbing observation, and not because this declaration is brave and subverting established norms, but because of its lack of self-awareness. Whatever it is, naïve and lonely Idha is shrewd enough to be well aware of her own value in contrast to a dark-skinned man when she has sex with him for the first time.
Caste and class politics are erased, both in Idha’s narrative and the reviews that praise A Bad Character, but a fundamental fact of Idha’s attraction to this dark-skinned, ugly man—so hot, apparently, when considered in contrast to her beauty—is that he speaks well, with an accent that sounds American, and is conveniently very rich. Idha knows it’s years of conditioning that makes her think he looks ugly, like a servant. Yet, she enjoys how he has money but doesn’t flaunt it, how his accent and “educated” voice and his manner of speaking English indicates his class position—yay, he’s not a servant!—and the unique cool factor this brings: “It marks him out as different too. Combined with his ugliness, his confidence, his dark skin, it’s intriguing. For someone who looks like him, it turns him into a mystery”. At this point I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to stop and applaud or perhaps give Idha a medal for being an affluent pretty young girl who is so vastly different from her her shallow peers and female relatives that she has decided to be with an affluent ugly young man who may be mistaken for a servant because he has dark skin, but who (plot twist!) is actually not a servant.
Brave Idha! Resisting and subverting Indian middle-class norms by being with a bougie Indian man who doesn’t look the part. Slow clap?
If I sound impatient, it’s because I am. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is a formative, if brief, analysis of how blackness and the fetishisation of it is deployed, intentionally or not, by so-called liberal white writers. In “playing with darkness” through form and content, those canonical works actually uphold and solidify white supremacy in America and lay bare how the spectre of blackness is how the white American subject comes to know and understand itself and its place in the citizenry. Similarly, the work of “dark skin” and its spectre in Indian society, particularly middle-class, caste Indian society and specifically in the context of what is then sold and marketed as a form of liberatory, universal feminism, is worthy of analysis.
Colourism in India is, of course, produced by racism and the aftereffects of colonialism, but how does it continue to live on and take material proportions? The fear and fetishisation of dark skin is a thread that runs throughout this book but not once does Idha, who finds all things about middle-class Indian society stifling, look the matter of caste and racism squarely in the face. This would have probably been too “extreme” for a liberal novel; it would become “too political” and not “art”, presumably. On the other hand, Idha’s inability to see much beyond her own situation is the most striking symptom of her privilege. The narrative utilises her youth and femininity as a shield to preemptively protect her from criticism of being (there is such a thing) dangerously self-absorbed, and accordingly, the reviewers follow suit in taking their cues about how to think about the book by the book’s very ideology.
All this doesn’t mean that Idha’s lover is blameless. It seems quite obvious that he is also clearly using her to his own ends; excitement, sexual variety, the allure of forming young pretty college girls into his own image, as if they were clay. Again, the reader is meant to see this as love, and it’s entirely possible that love existed between these characters, but the facts of Idha’s narrative also point to a curious intermingling of misogyny (he sees her as a lump of clay waiting to be formed but grows contemptuous of her naïveté, and then becomes outright abusive), and a particular form of Indian colourism (she sees him as ugly and dangerous, and makes constant reference to the monstrous, animal-like qualities of his face). At one point, his face is even described as taking on a “tribal” quality, whatever that means. Actually, perhaps we know what that means.
This dark skin of his is also imbued with an animal-like quality and is supposed to indicate the madness that exists in him, his Shiva-the-destroyer side. The fact that Idha tries to make associations like this: dark skin reflects madness, or that madness is made animalistic, wild, and tribal, is possibly an indication of poor writing or a weak imagination, or that both the writing and imagination are such because of the years of “conditioning” that the writer has been subject to. (There are other similar revelations: another dark-skinned man, a drug dealer, is made palatable by the way his face “catches the light”, while a waiter is described as being handsome “in a mountain way, Kashmiri, Himachali, or Afghani, a killer” a description that is notable for the way it embeds multiple bigotries in one sentence!) This is a recurring theme: servants have a certain look, the uneducated have a certain look, killers have a certain (racialised) look, and Idha is constantly taking note of how people behave differently from what their image represents to her without seeming to actually learn anything from these observations.
Sometimes Idha’s observations are so trite as to be embarrassing, her privilege producing a vision of the world so naïve that while sitting in a cafe as a paying customer, she manages to think of the waitress, who is from the North-East, as more fortunate than her: “the kohl around her eyes looks like rebellion, around mine it is a prison.” No doubt the waitress experiences her ethnicity in India as a form of prison, considering the systemic ethno-racism of the Hindu Brahmin majority (Idha’s aunt, for example, refers to this woman and others like her as “Chinky”), but perhaps lining her eyes thickly with kohl as she works a low-wage job serving Delhi’s pampered youth enables her to be free? One is not quite sure.
The plain fact is that Idha’s worldview is steeped in racism and class privilege, but we are meant to sympathise with her because she is so very sad. The reader’s emotions are manipulated toward a very particular end; that of excusing much of Idha’s views due to naïveté, youth, and femininity. In some ways, it’s an insulting view of youth and femininity.
Idha generally doesn’t think well of most of the women in her life; be it her college classmates, or the women of her aunt’s circle, or even the Muslim women whom she encounters while going to enjoy the transcendent effects of qawwali at the shrines of Sufi saints. The women of her circle don’t understand how deep her river flows, while the Muslim women present a nice exotic tableau upon which both Idha and her lover can project their desires straight-out of some embarrassing orientalist fantasy; lust on his part, apparently, for “their enormous kohl eyes etched in black, for their lips made up with ruby-red and lashes rising to the moon” and her romantic musings on this curious others, these “heavenly girls of milk-white whose skin the sun does not see—they glide past us in silence with their painted cat eyes framed in black.”
I’m not sure if these Muslim women are even part of this planet, much less India. The sun does not see them but their lashes are rising to the moon, so at least they’ll have somewhere to land, we hope. As part of the pampered elite, Idha and her lover are cultural tourists in their own city. While it becomes clear that a middle-class Hindu woman can have access to these spaces safely in the presence of a middle-class Hindu man, once she has access to these masculine freedoms Idha can only pontificate about Delhi, the city of “meat and men”, in terms of the freedoms of the men of her class, religion and caste. One hopes for Idha’s lashes to rise to the moon, to take her out of this bubble in which she seems trapped intellectually and emotionally.
When female-centred narratives like this appear on the market, there is a rush to praise and support them in an effort to somehow curb the sexism (often disguised as mere preference for “work that’s good, you can’t blame me that it’s men who are producing good literature!”) that proliferates in the publishing world. I’m gonna say it: “as a woman”, I understand this impulse. But there is also the danger of presenting all women who write about specifically feminine experiences as above criticism, as though simply being a woman means that they must be spared critical scrutiny or that all such scrutiny has its roots in misogyny. This is dangerous in its own way, conveying the idea that women are eternal victims who cannot be responsible for what they produce, and erasing differences between women that arise out of caste, class, and race.
Most often, this is because the “feminine experience” that often sees the publishing light of day reflect a bourgeois worldview that is then praised by reviewers who come from the same background. Any criticism on the grounds of class or race or caste is often drowned out by accusations of misogyny. The positive praise for Kapoor’s novel that doesn’t address the troubling aspects of this book at all fall into this category. Would this book have been written if it wasn’t about a middle-class girl who is tainted by proximity to darkness and black skin? I find it hard to imagine that this book would have come into existence in this way if the man in question, the man who sets things in motion, was fair and lovely. The spectre that haunts A Bad Character is the spectre of darkness.
In the end, it’s hard to shake off the sense that while Kapoor can write with originality and imagination about Delhi (though even here one gets the unsettling sense of a distinct bourgeois aversion to Delhi’s “masses”, those awful people who are dirty and everywhere and stare at Idha with mean eyes), the story she tells about men and women and sex isn’t new or refreshing or subversive. It’s the same old story: Young girls are made interesting by their beauty, and men, no matter how unattractive or sexist, are made interesting by their wealth. Even after she learns of her lover’s death and spirals further into depression, Idha goes around meeting men and ends up having a fling with a rich businessman who sets her up with her first post-college job and apartment. Before that, the first random guy she picks up at a cafe is a blonde Danish expat who is boring and generally unappealing, but dresses in a manner that indicates a “pardonable air of wealth”.
Kapoor’s entire narrative sets Idha on a collision course with hypocritical Indian bourgeois morality, but as it turns out, all Idha ever wanted was to feel a little more comfortable in her skin within that milieu. She may complain about Delhi’s “meat and men” and its rich, entitled sons of wealthy patriarchs (“Delhi is rotten with the sons of men”), but the crucial fact is that it’s the men with wealth who often grab her attention and end up in her bed. Feminine disgust and fear of the city and its dangers has its roots in sexual violence, but it’s mediated by ethnicity, class, and caste.
Too many reviews of this book universalise Idha’s experience and praise it for providing a window into the Indian woman’s experience. Which women? Having gotten to know members of Delhi’s upper classes, people who generally want for nothing but appear to be skilled at destroying their own lives and the lives of others, the reader has spent considerable time with more than one bad character and is none the better for it.