“My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one. His body was left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east….” So begins Deepti Kapoor’s haunting first novel, A Bad Character. I read it last week in Swansea. By day I wandered streets immortalised in the poems of Swansea’s most famous son, Dylan Thomas. By night I was transported to the “birthing fields of Gurgaon” and the “latticed balconies of Daryaganj” via the byways of Kapoor’s luminous prose. Such are the extravagant powers of certain cities. They can seduce from great distances, make us believe we know them as intimately as we do our lovers.
Reading Kapoor’s novel was a beguiling, hallucinatory experience. The brevity of her paragraphs and their impressionistic, photographic quality, lead the reader through a series of scenes and memories, moving us forwards and backwards in time. The language is sparse, poetic, always striving for sharpness. “Literary language to me is a kind of witchcraft,” she tells me, “an incantation to unlock something deeper.” Here is our young narrator Idha on a train moving towards Delhi, “past the rotten towns of dhabas and trucks, towns of mud, brick and kilns, towns of dogs and cows shaped in half light, dirt-road towns with names like Tundla, like the names of vegetables I didn’t want to eat.” Idha, who gets picked up by an ugly, wild, magnetic boy in a café in Khan market. Idha, who struggles with the agony of being alive, of functioning like a human being.
To enter Idha’s world is at once unsettling and intimate. We are with her when she loses her virginity, through sexual adventures, her initiation with drugs, through death. Wasn’t it terrifying to write this way? I ask. “It was more thrilling really, a thrill of fear…Walking naked down the street is unadvisable in India, but the fantasy of it is something else.” We see the world through Idha’s eyes but we rarely get to the core of her, even though she is continually exposed to us. Kapoor says she wanted to embrace the static, to write from a point of little agency.
“This is why Hamlet is so fascinating to me, because of Hamlet’s inability to act. And this is what fascinated me, the act of committing a character who is more often acted upon, who receives the world, who allows it to enter her consciousness without necessarily participating within it as a free agent.”
This is a novel about sexuality and escape, belonging and emptiness. It is about a man and woman who drive around the intestines of Delhi—eating, making love, falling apart. It is also about disenfranchisement, about how a woman might feel in Delhi regardless of her privilege or access. “I didn’t want to show the good woman wronged by a bad society,” Kapoor says. “I wanted to show a woman and pass no judgement, and then have her escape without punishment, and also have her learn no lessons, have no awakening. This is anti-novelistic in some ways but it was essential and entirely purposeful. And it is directly related to being a woman in this country.”
A Bad Character is an astounding book: read it with the scent of diesel in your nostrils and red dust in your mouth.