Bookclub were very lucky to be joined by the author Kavita A Jindal to discuss her book Manual for a Decent Life.
I loved the book. It tells the story of Waheeda and her relationship with Monish. Waheeda is an Islamic woman from the providence of Uttar Pradesh, India who is separated from her husband and lives with her daughter Hira. Originally a university lecturer she becomes involved in politics when her stepfather who heads a political party, puts her name forward after her two brothers are killed in a bombing. In the meantime, she falls in love with a Hindu Monish.
The book is highly topical given the recent Jihad love laws that have been passed by the nationalistic Hindu government in Uttar Pradesh which prevent marriages from being arranged to convert Hindu women into Muslims (see articles at the end of this review).
The book makes one think about gender issues, religion and politics and what it truly means to live a free life. Waheeda has all the trappings of freedom, it looks as if she is truly independent, standing for parliament and forging a career, but she is not, her life is very circumscribed and she is in fact trapped.
The characters in the book are beautifully drawn and the pace is fast and it keeps you turning the pages, especially towards the end of the book where the pace picks up leading to a shocking and unexpected climax.
Kavita was asked what inspired her to write the book. She said that as a young adult she had campaigned in villages for a woman candidate in Uttar Pradesh and left India shortly afterwards. After she left India she continued to follow the trajectory of women who entered politics. She found that if a woman ran for a seat it was usually dynastic. She wanted to meld political issues with romance. Although the book is set in the 1990’s she doesn’t see it as a historical novel, but it is before the digital era. Her book has been called historical fiction or a political thriller, but it is not really either. It is the story of a woman which encompasses wider issues.
I asked her about the new Love Jihad laws, she was unaware they had actually been passed but said that the novel ends before the rise of Hindu nationalism and the religious agenda became as dominant as it currently is. The tensions between Muslim and Hindu is something that has become worse in the last decade.
Madeleine felt that the story was well told and was moving. She thought the relationship between Monish and Waheeda was particularly well described, but she was jolted by the last 40 pages. Kavita said that many people had told her to have an uplifting ending but the reality was that many women candidates get punished and can’t escape unscathed.
Rebeca also found it a fabulous book but was also surprised by the ending. She found the frequent use of Indian phrases a bit difficult to grapple with whilst reading. Madeleine agreed and said the book needed a glossary. Kavita said that she had asked her publishers to include a glossary, but was dissuaded from doing so. The reason why so many phrases were included were because she wanted the book to be authentic to her Indian readership. She said that when she did use an Indian phrase she tried to explain it in the following sentence.
Stuti said that that she appreciated that her exposure to Indian culture gave her extra depth when reading the book. She did wonder how the use of Hindu language came across to people who did not speak it. She did feel, as Kavita said, that it was adequately explained in the following sentences.
Rebeca was surprised with the book as she thought India was very traditional. Kavita said she wanted to show the difference between those who lived in the town and those who lived in the country and how having resources changed things for you. But she said even in Delhi, even among the wealthy, the ending would not be shocking. Things like that are an everyday occurrence in India and the book was realistic in that sense.
Kavita said that the book was available in India and the reaction was good. An anthropology and politics student from SOAS had stated that she wished there was more politics in the book and that the book had not concentrated on the elites. But Kavita said the point of the book is that politics for women in India is largely dynastic. You couldn’t really enter politics as a poor woman, the women who do enter have their families behind them pushing them forward.
Jan asked Kavita if she would release the book on audio – Kavita said it was a big project to do but it would be lovely if it happened.
Jo asked if she would ever translate her book to Hindi. Kavita said she wouldn’t do it herself as she hadn’t really used Hindi for the last 15 years. She said that the book is very expensive in India and many cannot afford it. It is currently only really available to the elites in India but she is keen to find out what the wider community would think of the book when it is available in a more-affordable Indian edition.
Rebeca asked if someone like Monish and Waheeda would ever have a future. Kavita said that Monish had tried to arrange one for them but it would have required Waheeda to remove herself from her ambitions- she had to be willing to follow his lead – it spoke to the gender inequality. She reiterated that there was no reason you could not have a happy marriage if you had the resources.
Jan asked what her next novel was Kavita said she has published a set of short stories set in London.
Madeleine asked Kavita how long Manual for a Decent Life had taken Kavita to write. Kavita said it had taken seven years. This surprised Madeleine who said the book flowed so well. Madeleine also asked Kavita about her publisher Brighthorse. Kavita said it was a small indie publisher in the US, but her UK publisher was Linen Press a feminist publisher.
Madeleine loved the book so much she is giving it to her daughters as a Christmas present this year.
Rebeca said that the first 100 pages were difficult particularly with the establishment of characters but as soon as she had read the first 100 pages she got really into the book and couldn’t put it down. She felt it was harder because with so many characters she couldn’t tell immediately if they were male or female.
Stuti asked about the title – she felt it was something she would be told by older Indian ladies. Kavita said she chose the title at the final edit. She liked the title because it raised the question of ‘what is decent?’ It had different meanings for different people. It was up to the reader to fathom. The issue is raised in the novel when Monish’s father says that Kiriti is not decent. Kavita wanted people to think about who was decent and who has the right to say someone is decent.
Anne-Marie said that she was relieved that at the end of the book Waheeda’s husband accepted that things were not Waheeda’s fault. She felt it redeemed him and she was heartened by how both men in Waheeda’s life helped her in the end.
Kavita said the book had twists and turns but at the end of the day had redeeming qualities. She said one young person who had read the book was annoyed that all the men around Waheeda were telling her what to do. This is easy to say from London. In small villages in India this is the reality. Kavita would like the role of women in society to be different but she writes social realism.
Anne-Marie asked about the writer’s groups that Kavita belonged to.
Kavita said that she belonged to three writers’ groups the first one was the Collier Street writer’s group, she also belonged to a South Asian writers group called The Whole Kalani and there was a fiction group that meet in Bloomsbury.
Post script – After the meeting Kavita sent me a lovely email saying she had looked it up and a Love Jihad Law had been passed in Uttar Pradesh but it is not a national law although the Indian population seem to be heading that way. She still maintained that if a couple had enough resources they could still have a relationship or marriage as they could be influential enough that politicians or police would not touch them. It seems to be that the law is used to deter inter faith marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men, only Muslim men would get charged with a crime and it does nothing to stop Christian or Buddhist men from marrying Hindus.
I will leave you with the last words in her email ‘it does make my book very topical, but my views are probably out of favour at the moment. But that is exactly what writers are there for – to not let the authorities do the thinking for them’.
I would like to be in a world were two people who loved each other like Monish and Waheeda could be together. Thank goodness we have writers like Kavita who see the possibilities of inter faith relationships. Thank you Kavita for writing such a moving and beautiful love story and for taking the time to come to talk to us about it.
Articles on the Love Jihad Law:
18 January Girl. Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
1st and 15th February American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
To make you smile