"Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun,” says Idha, a Delhi student who should know. She finds herself splintering away from the life of respectability expected of an Indian girl on the cusp of her twenties, and A Bad Character is her coming-of-age story. It’s the promising first novel from Deepti Kapoor, a journalist and University of Delhi graduate who lives in Goa.
With her mother dead, Idha’s father has abandoned her to the care of an aunt, and given her a car by way of apology. Though the car provides a chink of freedom, and a distraction from the oppressive weight of an uncertain future with dim marriage prospects (a fact that causes exasperation in her staunchly middle-class aunt), the catalyst for Idha’s journey of self-discovery is the nameless boyfriend she meets in the city.
Right at the start, we are told that this man dies when Idha is 21, and that he was known to the police. But as we travel back to their initial meeting, the first thing Idha knows about this “bad character” of the novel’s title is that he is ugly. The second is that he is interested in her, and she is interested in him. His ugliness, which verges on beastlike, is part of the attraction.
Idha notices that most men look at her with “incomprehension, lust” and “rage”, but in this man’s eyes she sees only possibility. Rich, alone and having spent time in America, he offers Idha a seductive promise of danger, far beyond the safe life that university, and her well-meaning but overwhelmed aunt, are providing. But this isn’t the glamorous escapism of a young adult novel: the new world of drugs, sex and darkness that Idha discovers is troubled and frightening, with a magnetic pull.
Kapoor’s version of Delhi in the earliest years of the 21st century avoids the exotic touches favoured by some other Indian writers. Though she writes often of the distinctive heat, the mass of human bodies and the deep colour of the light, her Delhi is mostly claustrophobic and ordinary, right down to the junkie subculture that lurks in any large city. The sparks of exoticism that do glimmer are the Western influences: grocery shops that sell Nutella and Laughing Cow cheese.
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