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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2018



A Critical Study of Changing Indian Marital Relations in Manju Kapur’s Custody

Poonam Sharma, Research Scholar and Dr. Abnish Singh, Assistant Professor, SRM University, Sonepat  



Custody deals with a marriage that crumples leading to a bitter battle over the guardianship of the children. A modern marriage that unites two people and their families can end with divorce that leads to breach of trust, dejection, anxiety, insecurity and disintegration. Raman and Shagun with their two endearing children seem to make a picture perfect family. Their relationship comes to an appalling end when Shagun, the stunning wife of Raman, falls in love with his boss. The affair eventually leads to separation, divorce, re-marriages and a nasty legal battle for the custody of children. Kapur interweaves the tale by introducing yet another female protagonist Ishita, who is on the contrary forced to end her matrimony due to her infertility. Ishita is seen as the victim of social apathy and ultimately highlights the ugly face of the patriarchal system of the society where woman are treated with indignity. Among the clouds of gloom and betrayal one can find the hope in the re-marriages of the leading protagonists. It ascertains the fact that nevertheless marriage remains a social fabric of a peaceful society with changed hue. The novel echoes the suffering each character goes through during the process of divorce. It has been balanced well with equal representation of male and female characters. She has laid considerable stress on the male characterization. Dr. Ram Sharma’s views in this regard seem to be noteworthy. He writes, “But as far as the representation of male characters is concerned she seems to be bit casual sometimes, preconceived other times. However it will be altogether wrong to say that only female characters have got full treatment in her hands” (Sharma 165). Raman is a well-represented male lead in the novel and answer to all her critics who feel male characters are not delineated well in her feministic novels. Even one can say Custody is the best novel by Manju Kapur so far in its honesty of characterization. This also gets along the fact that man and woman play an equally vital role in marriage, divorce or custody.


Marriage and Its Responsibilities

Raman and Shagun is a joyful married couple. Their marriage is arranged by their parents thinking that they would harmonize well with each other since Shagun is exceptionally beautiful and Raman is a man with brilliant prospects. Their first child is born within a year. The birth of a boy adds to Shagun’s pride and makes everyone feel prudish for making such an intelligent match. She has fulfilled her duty by providing a male heir to the family. Raman too has been doing well at work. He is made in charge of Mang-oh. It goes all well till Arjun their son is almost eight years old. Suddenly, things get changed when Shagun finds that she is pregnant again. She is not at all happy with the detection as she is not ready to be tied to a child all over again. It is well established  fact that the psychosocial environment of couples with unplanned pregnancies becomes baffled. Marriage in Hinduism is a moral pragmatism, in which the couple agrees to live together and share their lives, doing their respective duties to keep the institution of family intact but Shagun shows a sign of an individual with her strong opinions which are in disagreement with her husband. Nevertheless, she gives birth to a daughter making their family complete. A successful marriage is laid on the foundation of solidarity, promise and commitment between a man and a woman. The modern society is unable to sustain the ancient concept of marriage due to several reasons. As a result we find a transformed version of marriages which are not union of seven lives rather an agreement that last till their needs are fulfilled. The discomfort and discontent of Shagun in her matrimony is a signal to the end of the road of their marriage.


Marriage Breakdown: Cause and Effect

Arranged marriages are much more about family union, and much less about personal choices and self-fulfillment. Earlier marriages were lifelong relationships which neither men nor women could break on some selfish or whimsical grounds. Urbanization is a double edged sword for women. It has given greater independence to women but it has also pushed them into high risk of seduction. On one hand women are empowered but on the other hand they are becoming selfish, independent and slaves of their own desires. The major reasons for divorce of Shagun in the novel are her extramarital affair with Ashok and her aspirations to lead free and luxurious life whereas the other protagonist of the novel, Ishita become victim of her infertility and the indifferent attitude of her in-laws.

Shagun was married to Raman at an early age and her dream of becoming a model was suppressed by her mother who thought marriage to be means of security and safety. Raman was a good match and Mrs Sabarwal wanted to fulfill her duty of marrying her daughter at the earliest. So, this way, it was end of Shagun’s ambition and her suppressed emotions later became the reason for her disloyalty. Her marriage brought endless responsibilities like duty to her husband, his family and friends, and above all children, which provide no scope for making her career. Booming economy has lured people to earn and spend money to gratify their needs in such a way that they have become selfish individuals leaving their values and morals behind. In such circumstances, family obligation seems a hindrance to one’s own independence. Women have earned greater freedom and exposure after independence.  

Sharun’s exquisite beauty charmed Ashok, who was smart enough to manipulate people and get the best out of them. Raman stayed away from home due to office tours which gave Ashok time to influence Shagun. Ashok thought, “To woo her would thus be that much more difficult: he must first create a need before he could fulfil it. But he was used to creating needs, it was what he did for a living” (Kapur 4). A woman who had been protected by a bond of marriage becomes slaves to her carnal desires in the dazzling lights of liberalization. She forgot her duties as a wife and a mother. Individualism supersedes the moral code of conduct. Mary Wollstonecraft has rightly said in this regard that:

“Highly as I respect marriage, as the foundation of almost every social virtue, I cannot avoid feeling the most lively compassion for those unfortunate females who are broken off from society, and by one error torn from all those affections and relationships that improves the heart and mind”(Wollstonecraft 43).

Shagun did not wish to lead a monotonous life so to experience the thrill and excitement back in her life she accepted the acting offer in an ad by Ashok. After that, soon she was like yet another achievement under his belt. She just wished to be exploratory and assert her individuality. Little did she know that it would change her life permanently and her extra-marital affair would break her family ties?

“When she started her affair she had thought a lover would add to her experience, make up for all the things she had missed having married straight out of college. She had heard of other women who took lovers—their whole lives didn’t change. (Kapur 82)” Shagun’s mother, through her experience, was the first one to smell the rat and she tried her best to persuade her to remain faithful to her husband. Shagun, being the only child of her widowed mother, threatened to completely stop divulging about her life if she took Raman’s side. Eventually, her infidelity and ambition implanted the seed of their divorce. Marital life in India is fast disintegrating after being influenced by western society where extra marital affairs, materialistic pursuits, divorces, and remarriages are common. As a parallel story, the plot progresses to yet another heart rendering divorce saga. Ishita, the daughter of Raman’s mother’s friend and neighbour passed her BA and her marriage was settled with a twenty-five year old boy of their caste. “The prospective in-laws said they wanted a homely family-minded girl, dowry was not a consideration, they had enough money of their own. Suryakanta was their only son, and grandchildren were expected within a year. (Kapur 51)” Evidently the marriage was a bond with terms and condition applied. It was bound to fail when Ishita was unable to conceive. All love that she received in her in-laws’ home vanished overnight when they realized that she was medically pronounced unfit to bear a child. She was driven out of the house by her in-laws and left to lead a life of ignominy. Her life became miserable. “Head buried in the pillow, she thought of the body that had known so much love, and then so much punishment. Stubbornly it had remained barren despite the money spent, the hormones, the injections, the painful procedures. She couldn’t conceive, whereupon SK had decided he could not love her. If only she could tear out her whole reproductive system and throw it on the road. She hated her body, hated it” (Kapur 121). She was forced to end her marriage. Divorce affected her economically, mentally, emotionally, and physically. She lied down listlessly on her bed trying to fight her distress. After some time, Ishita recovered from her agony and started teaching the slum children under the supervision of Mrs Hingorani. When she met Roohi, she showered her love on her to feel the bliss of motherhood. Their bonding also made Raman appreciate Ishita’s sweet, simple and innocent nature. Raman fell in love with Ishita. She too agreed to marry Raman to get what destiny had so rudely snatched from her. She was once belittled by her in-laws on the pretext of infertility. In the patriarchal system of society no mercy is shown to a woman who is infertile. Ishita’s marriage to Raman elevated her social position. She felt empowered to fight for the custody of Roohi. Her marriage was yet another chance to lead a respectable and enriching life. Remarriages in such cases are boon to the devastated individuals who have lost all hopes. Remarriage provides another beginning to divorcees and heals their past wounds.   

Divorce gravely affects children’s psyche and their life.  The loss of family, friends, home and neighbourhood lead them to insecurity. Unfortunately, no one thinks about the consequences of maligning their own ex-spouse before their children who are loyal to both parents.  Arjun stopped going to school because he found it shameful to be a son of a divorcee mother. Roohi too started sucking her thumb and wetting the bed at night. Throughout the novel, Kapur recounts the sufferings and mistreatment of children due to the inevitable divorce of their parents.

There is an urgent need to discuss the future of marriage, given recent social, economic, and political changes in India. There are a number of reasons to get married today, but some might not be the right ones. No more one can think of getting married for imprudent reasons like financial security, physical or sexual attraction, or just to get liberty and freedom. Marriages that are solemnized for these reasons usually ends up in divorce, the protagonists of the novel too suffered divorce due to lack of sincerity in the objectives of their marriage.


Change in Family Structure       

The change in matrimony is also due to the increasing emancipation of woman. The old concept of marriage is slowly giving way to more pragmatic one. Earlier mother prepares her daughter to be future docile wife who carry out all the commands of her husband. Anita Nair uses female characters in her novel “Ladies Coupe” like Akhila’s mother, to expose how women have been strong traditionalist supporter of the patriarchal structure and lack individuality. According to Akhila’s mother, “A good wife learnt to put her husband’s interests before anyone else’s, even her father’s. A good wife listened to her husband and did as she said. There is no such thing as an equal marriage. It is best to accept that the wife is inferior to the husband. That way, there can be no strife, no disharmony.” (Nair14). Shagun’s mother was also the harbinger of the same thoughts. She got her daughter married early thinking that her husband would take care of her and there would be no risk of her daughter to be misled or bringing bad name to her. Shagun regarded marriage as a means to escape her mother’s home and lead a life of freedom. In traditional family, while power and authority was totally vested in the patriarch. Husband no longer regards his wife as inferior to him and Raman too gave freedom and respect to Shagun. He took good care of her needs and wanted to give her everything she wanted. But she got bored with her dull and uninteresting married life. Being an educated and remarkably beautiful lady, she was given a choice by Ashok Khanna to lead a life of freedom, opulence and glamour. She chose her aspirations over her family life. Although, she regretted her action several times but there was no looking back. Her action brought an array of miseries to all family members. Kapur in a quite subtle way exposes the ugly sight of a divorce.  The novel gives insight of a fragmented family where children live with their step-father or step-mother and try to acclimatize themselves in a new set-up. Ishita and Shagun showed no respect to children’s emotions. Their egos and personal desires put heavy burden on children’s shoulders. For the custody of the children, the path of manipulation and falsification followed by Shagun and Ishita had left a lasting impression on their tender minds that would eventually make them into adults with uneasy emotions. Children may escape the negative impact of their parents’ divorce, if they are given psychological support and stability. It all depends on how parents behave with each other after their divorce. When Shagun took the decision of taking divorce from Raman, she did not think about her children’s future. “One month later the phone rang, and it was Shagun asking for a divorce by mutual consent. She also wanted some arrangement by which she could visit Arjun and Roo” (Kapur 109). It is evident from these lines that for a month she neither had any contact with her children nor she had planned anything for them. Moreover, during the case of custody Ishita and Shagun both tried all means to manipulate the children causing much damage to their children’s consciousness. Elders blurred their children’s vision with their egos and snatch their innocence. Unfortunately, children find their own parents fighting like enemies for the custody. It leads to trust deficit and choosing any one parent becomes devastating. A family who cared for one another turned to different directions. Raman, a protector of his wife, spies on his own wife to know the truth. Raman was left alone by Shagun even when cardiac arrest left him physically broken. She even kidnapped her own children to negotiate for divorce from Raman. Arjun and Roohi not only lost the beautiful relation of sister and brother but also turned against each other by their parents. If all the four elders – Shagun, Ashok, Raman, and Ishita had chosen to safeguard the children’s welfare, they would have made it easy for the children. They would have never dragged them into the ugly battle of legal custody and saved them from any sort of mental agony with their mutual understanding. They would have been allowed to form an extended family with their step-parents. Parents can make sure that their children don’t become part of a broken home rather should have proud feeling of being a member of two homes. If divorce becomes inevitable then it eventually becomes the moral responsibility of the parents to ensure that their children get a secure and carefree childhood. A family forms a natural system for the growth and development of an individual. It shapes the form of an individual for his lifetime. Successful marriages lead to healthy family bonds. Broken marriages lay foundation of sick and fragmented relations.


Kapur highlights plight of broken family and advocates women's emancipation, drawing attention to the need of healthy relations within the family. We see that changes have occurred in the institution of marriage, because of several factors such as urbanization, globalization, industrialization, liberalization, and westernization. These factors have brought changes in the objectives, forms and values of marriage. The main objective of marriage was religious and social obligations. Sex was one of the least sought-after aims. In recent years, the order of aims of marriage has undergone a change and Sex has become the primary objective.  Marriage has lost that sacrament and it has become more like a social contract which can be ended with divorce. It is no more considered a relation of seven lives. Family forms are too becoming more and more diverse due to these changes. Pre-marital and extra-marital relations are becoming common. There are many couples who live together without being married. Live in relationships are also gaining momentum in India. There are many reasons for its popularity among youth like there is no obligation, one can dissolve them any moment, it gives equal status to men and women etc. People are experimenting with different forms of marriages. Gay or lesbian couples too are becoming reality in Indian domain. I strongly feel that there is a need to promote and protect traditional marriages to secure a safe and healthy society. Marriage provides legitimate way to sanction union of two individuals. Both man and woman can enjoy equal status in traditional marriages too. Manju Kapur has always shown her preference to protect and sustain the institution of marriage through her novels. She has satirized the different weaknesses of the traditional society and highlighted the brutal consequences. She has laid emphasis on forming better social institutions. Custody warns against the appalling consequences of divorce and advocates remarriage to safeguard the broken family and individuals. Thus the novel is not limited to man-woman relationship rather it deals with the changing forms of matrimony in the light of growing impact of westernization and liberalization in India. It also highlights the impact of divorce on children.  




Kapur, Manju. Custody. New Delhi: Random House, India, 2011. Print.

Sharma, Ram. “Representation of Man in the Novels of Manju Kapur” Rise of New Woman Novels of Manju Kapur, edited by Ram Sharma. Manglam Publications, 2013, pp. 165.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London, Vintage, 2015. Print.

Nair, Anita. Ladies Coupe, New Delhi: Penguin Book, India, 2015. Print.