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Author Interview: 'The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma'


Renuka Sharma is not a cheap woman. She'll be the first to tell you that. She is a dutiful wife, a devoted mother and the central character Ratika Kapur's new novel "The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma." When Renuka meets a man at a train station, she's faced with a question. How long can someone deprive herself of pleasure today because she's always planning for tomorrow? Ratika Kapur joins us from New Delhi to talk about her latest book.

So glad you could be with us.

RATIKA KAPUR: Ah, thank you for having me.

CHANG: So just first tell us about your title character Renuka Sharma, or Renu, as she calls herself. Where is she in her life on the day we meet her?

KAPUR: Renu is about 37 years old. She's a small-town girl. She moves to the big city when she gets married. Her husband is away in Dubai trying to make some money for their future plans, and she's holding fort in Delhi with her in-laws and her 14-year-old son. And Renu was the one who sent her husband to Dubai. What does that tell us about her?

KAPUR: Yeah, that's definitely just one of many signs of her need to fulfill this middle-class, new Indian dream that she has of, you know, a nice apartment with backup electricity and running water. And she has very, very clear ideas about where she wants her life and the life of her family. She feels that she's sort of trapped in this kind of prison of poverty which she wants to try and break out of. And she will go to any lengths in order to break out of it.

CHANG: I mean, there's no question that Renu's constant sacrifice and planning has led her to lead a very lonely life. She seems unhappy. And one day, she meets a man named Vineet and starts an affair with him. Tell us about Vineet. What is he to her, an escape from duty?

KAPUR: She does say that being with him is like being on holiday because I don't think she's ever had space. I mean, there's just perpetual domestic demands on her. So it's not - I don't think it's simply an affair in sort of conventional terms where, you know, she needs sex or, you know, her husband's not there and there's no one else to sleep with and she needs that kind of physical intimacy. I'm sure she needs that do, but I think as important would be this ability to just, like, switch off.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, what was also really interesting watching the affair develop was that Renu still refuses to let go of her self-image as a respectable woman. She rationalizes away any wrongdoing on her part. She even convinces herself that her husband is probably cheating on her, too, in Dubai?

KAPUR: You know, I think there are certain decisions that we make which may not necessarily sit well even with how we think, let alone what the rest of the world thinks. And sometimes, the only way to justify, I think, is through this sort of self-delusion.

CHANG: Yeah.

KAPUR: Look, all of us, in some sense, exercise self-delusion. I mean, you wake up in the morning. I'm not going to think that - yes, in, you know, X number of years, I'm going to be dead because then I probably wouldn't want to get out of bed.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KAPUR: So I mean, there are degrees and degrees of it. Of course, she takes it to one extreme.

CHANG: Perhaps the biggest self-delusion of Renu is that she has this affair under control. I was wondering, could I have you read something?

KAPUR: Absolutely.

(Reading) See, whatever you do - good or bad, right or wrong - it is very, very important to set limits. And I know my limits, and I have set them. I can meet Vineet from time to time, enjoy his mind, enjoy his body. But I'm a good woman. I have a child and a husband and in-laws and a job. And I have duties towards each and every one of these. And I don't like to boast, but the truth is that I've always fulfilled my duties without fail. And I will keep fulfilling my duties until the day that I die.

CHANG: What fascinated me about that passage is that it reads like what women often accuse men of doing when it comes to sex - that men can have sex with no emotional attachment, that men can exit at any time.

KAPUR: Yeah, this is the sort of reversal in that.

CHANG: Exactly. And, you know, maybe this shows my double standards, but it's more jarring when I hear a woman talk like this. Do you think women are expected to talk about sex differently?

KAPUR: Oh, absolutely. But I think she's not doing that to try and assert her, sort of, feminism. She's doing that simply to say that I'm just having fun. But remember - I mean, what's more important is that I'm still a good wife, and I still do my duties. And it's still about her husband and her son and the apartment with the Italian marble and all of that.

CHANG: But you don't think Renu sees any contradiction between her having an affair and being a dutiful wife?

KAPUR: She doesn't allow herself to see that contradiction. Her delusion - her self-delusion allows her to just sort of, you know, overlook this contradiction.

CHANG: Ratika Kapur - her new book is called "The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma."

Thank you so much for being with us.

KAPUR: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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