Manju Kapur, of the widely and critically acclaimed Difficult Daughters, takes a leap in A Married Woman, an often meandering chronicle of a married woman and mother who embarks on the forbidden: an affair with a charismatic and enigmatic younger woman. Fictional narratives of same-sex unions don’t present themselves often in South Asian literature, but perhaps their time has come.
Astha is a perfectly typical middle-class Indian woman with a young child, whose eyes begin to open to the world around her and all that seems to have passed her by. Nothing more is expected of her than to uphold the status quo of married life, which she has done without thinking.
Kapur presents the mundane and colorless world of Astha slowly and with detail, often making the reader impatient for anything to happen. When it does, it does so without the personal revelations one would hope would be the result of such personal and social risk. We hold our breath while Astha embarks on a lesbian affair, unthinkable in a sector of middle class Indian society, but we never exhale. What becomes of the detritus left behind such a bold step? Astha appears to be less of a thinking and feeling woman than one simply bored with the everyday aspect of caring for a family whose needs never seem to exhaust themselves:
From time to time she brooded about her own sexual nature, but her desire for Pipee was so linked to the particular person, that she failed to draw any general conclusions. So as far as her marriage was concerned, they were both women, nothing was seriously threatened. Meanwhile her best time at home was when she was fantasizing about the one she loved without interruptions, lost in her thoughts, wallowing in her feelings.
When Astha takes up with the young Pipee, a political activist whose own personal life has been filled with sadness and disappointment, she becomes blinded to the needs of those around her and seeks to fill her own awakening desires.
While her husband Hemant becomes alerted to her distracted demeanor, he has been, throughout the marriage a man who “filled his own landscape.” Kapur deftly chronicles the deterioration of two people living, for a time, at cross purposes, and illustrates how one becomes skillful at lying and gleeful when the deceit is bought, lock, stock, and barrel.
Kapur tackles an ambitious theme, but seems to have missed the opportunity for exploring more thoroughly the reasons why Astha felt compelled to seek a liaison outside her marriage in the first place. The narrative drags a bit and those waiting for titillating and explicit sexual passages are bound to be disappointed. While the effort to break into a topic not widely represented in the literature is admirable, A Married Woman, on more than a few levels, misses the mark.