Marriage, as an institution and an instrument of hegemony, can only delineate desire. It cannot expunge it. In a post-feminist world, and we cannot overestimate the role of feminism here, it is an institution confronted with either a complete collapse or a deliberate and measured dismantling and refashioning. To live, love, court and couple in such a time is often bewildering, but not so bewildering that the contrasting lack of agency of only a few decades or generations ago has vanished out of sight. The characters of Prema Raghunath’s The Cousins exist in a space of arranged marriages and filial duty, the norms and expectations of their early 20th century upper caste Tamil milieu determining the courses of their lives. They do not have agency as we now assume it. They do, of course, have desire and personal volition – and by extension, must endure consequences and repercussions both of their own making and because of the inextricability of questions of public morality, custodianship and duty from their own choices and the choices made on their behalves.

The book’s titular cousins, Goutami and Krishnanand, spend their entire lives as ships passing in the night. Goutami is the product of an unhappy childhood – she loses her mother as a toddler, loses her sister as a teenager and is raised as little more than a servant maid by her aunt. Krishnanand is the archetypal playboy – he deflowers his female cousins in the days before their weddings, is above reproach on account of his superior charm and the fact of his gender, and squanders opportunities at home and abroad in carefree sprees. She falls in love with him while still little more than a child, her older brother Achyutan (who loses himself in drink and mourning) discourages the match, and Goutami is married off to the dependable and conscientious Seshadri. Krishnanand also marries briefly, to a haughty woman who essentially puts him in his place and leaves him repentant in a number of ways.

Goutami and Krishnanand share only one kiss, that too in their youth, and remain consumed by longing well into old age. Their paths cross often, and sometimes improbably, such as in a distant Himalayan town where both Seshadri and Krishnanand are coincidentally posted. Goutami is unfaithful to her husband, a matter which both her own father and Seshadri himself handle with little emotion. “You were a bad girl,” says her father to her, many years after an affair, as though this is how a woman’s infidelity has ever been dealt with. Oddly enough, Raghunath’s curious and somewhat unrealistic handling of the nature of desire and its corollaries is the one thing that ultimately makes the book interesting. Unsatisfied by the way this novel explores love, commitment and sexuality, one is left pondering the question of articulation – how did people in less permissive eras express desire? The concept of sin intrinsically lends itself to binaries; how were liminal spaces negotiated? In what ways is our understanding of romance in generations past coloured by our own misperceptions?

The Cousins’ chief problem is in its structure: it shifts constantly between speakers when it could just as easily and probably far more successfully have been told in a single narrative voice.  One moment Goutami is speaking to her granddaughters, relating the story of her life. In the next, Achyutan reflects on how many people’s ashes in urns he has set into rivers. If the star-crossed love between the cousins is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots, this is certainly lost in the cacophony. Instead, all sympathy goes toward an unlikely hero: Seshadri. That he stays by his wife despite her straying is irrelevant, because loyalty is a far more complex subject than this novel chooses to grapple with. What makes him likable is that he chooses to educate his daughters, first defers the default option of marrying them off and then allows them to marry to their own liking, and even arranges at one point for Goutami to spend time living and working in England while he remains in India. He emerges as far more progressive in his thinking and actions than the self-involved and fairly insipid duo the novel is ostensibly about. In contrast, it’s difficult to feel much for Krishnanand and Goutami, who have no qualms about running roughshod over other people in general but lack the courage to find a way to be together.

It’s not clear what Raghunath attempts with this novel: to tell a love story, to present a portrait of a bygone era, or to explore the ambiguities of lived experience. In the first two regards it does not fare well. In the last, however, it does in some way inspire thoughts and questions. An otherwise completely mediocre work, The Cousins is salvaged, ironically, by the fact it does not satisfy, and in doing so prompts the reader to turn those questions elsewhere: to the self, to other people, and to better-written books.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.