Aneesha Capur’s first novel, Stealing Karma, set in Nairobi at the time of an attempted military coup, follows the life of Mira Sharma. Born in India, orphaned early and raised in a convent, her marriage to Prashant Sharma, 15 years her senior, seemed an ideal match to her benefactors. Yet in Nairobi, where Prashant lived, Mira knew little of life outside the walls of her bungalow.
When a sudden phone call informs her of Prashant’s death, Mira finds herself alone in Nairobi with her daughter Shanti and housekeeper Wairimu. Depression quickly sets in and the novel captures Mira’s despair — immediately after the death of her husband, she
becomes reckless, uncharacteristically liberal in her interactions — and then, just as suddenly, she sinks into the throes of despondency, spending her time in a cramped bedroom, without fresh air and light. Her indifference or inability to come to terms with the abrupt death of Prashant and the horrors of living alone in a land as strange as it is dear to her,
reflects on the household, the demeanour of Wairimu and the upbringing of the little girl Shanti.
And with the political confusion and military coup, there rises, among Kenyans, a deep rooted dislike for Asians and Indians, to quote from the novel ‘…not black enough to be recognised as kin, not white enough to admire’. Prashant’s assets are frozen during this time and Mira struggles to make ends meet. Shanti’s school fees cannot be paid and the girl briefly converts to Christianity to continue studying in the convent until a rather disastrous birthday party causes her to drop out of school.
Characters in Stealing Karma are well drawn out and believable. Mira’s acquaintance Lata is a fine example of confused identity. Her snobbish attempts to keep herself Indian while rejecting the culture of Kenya and her belief that servants are objects of derision, her references to them and all Africans as kaalis, revealing inherent intolerance, are all very well depicted. Shanti, the desperate little girl that grows into a mature woman towards the end of the novel, has an identity of her own. Wairimu herself is unique and while she is loyal to Mira and Shanti, there is a slyness to her that is not blatantly evident at all times.
Mira, the protagonist, with her transitions from depression to boldness, is a unique individual trying to come to terms with her Indianness in a foreign land she cannot leave. But Mira is loyal to the land she lives in and regards Wairimu as an individual with thoughts and feelings — unlike her counterpart Lata, who believes in locking cupboards when the servants are around.
However, there are times when the flow of narration is stilted. At times the characters’ actions are depicted with too many sentences, the time jumps between chapters could have been smoother and the antecedents of minor characters handled with more subtlety. All in all, Stealing Karma brings to life the travails of an alienated soul.