New Delhi, India’s capital city, is a teeming metropolis of more than 21 million inhabitants of various religions, social classes, and economic means. For most people, everyday life in New Delhi (as it is in most Indian cities) is rife with delays, frustrations, chaos, and the delicate act of balancing means and ends. In The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, the protagonist, Renuka Sharma, manages this everyday balancing act quite well, given that her husband is away in Dubai and her only child, a teenage son, is exhibiting his growing-up angst in myriad mundane ways.
In an effort to address traffic congestion, New Delhi built a metro transit system in 2002. Accounting for nearly three million riders every day, the metro is an oasis of calm and order amidst the chaos of the country’s capital city. In Ratika Kapur’s first-person narrative of Renuka Sharma’s misadventures, the city’s and the metro’s roles are reversed; it is the city, or Mrs. Sharma’s outward life, that is orderly and managed with remarkable composure. It is the metro which introduces disorder into her life.
Waiting for her train one day, Renuka Sharma meets Vineet Sehga. She strikes a friendship with the young hotel manager and--one thing leads to another--goes on to have an adulterous affair. The interesting part of the novel is how Kapur, in Renuka Sharma’s voice, rationalizes her affair. Renuka Sharma adroitly blends her obligations to her family (not just to her absent spouse and her son, but also to her in-laws who stay with her) with her own needs to convince herself (and the reader) that her friendship with Vineet, at first platonic and later physical, is the logical path.
This is a novel of modern India, an India where economic upward mobility means working in the Middle East, an India where women are more apt to demand an avenue for their desires and needs, and yet where traditions and a conservative culture informs much of everyday living. Renuka Sharma is an actor in a modern India, and while this story has an awkward and contrived denouement, it is singular in personalizing what it means to be a citizen of a country in transition.