A neat spiral of family circles, around a core of strong women.
It begins with a wedding, some tears and a family wrapped up in itself. Shadow Play is a neat spiral of family circles, with a strong centre in Aru, short for Arundhati, the eldest of three sisters. Her mother is dead and her grandmother, fading, whittled down by cancer. The three sisters — Aru, Charu and Seema — form the inner circle of the story, or perhaps, more accurately, Aru’s inner circle. Then there’s Aru’s estranged repentant father, Gopal, who lends his voice and his unique viewpoint of the family’s outsider, as the story’s narrator. As the circle expands, we meet Rohit, Aru’s doting husband; Premi, her aunt; Nikhil, her nephew; and Kasturi, a tenant.
Aru has been lovingly fleshed out. Her inner steel, her reserve, her contriteness, her vulnerability, her convictions have been described with carefully thought-out context. Through a conversation, or a reaction to crisis. The women in general, have been convincingly sketched. The men, on the other hand — decorous Rao, the juvenile Nikhil, even the steady Rohit — all have an air of stereotype. Gopal is the exception. The author gets under Gopal’s skin and manages to convey even his mannerisms, without having to be explicit about it. His brand of humour, his patient attempts at reconciliation make for the story’s heartbeat. A touch of whimsy marks Gopal’s travels, though he shoulders much of the story’s introspection.
Some contrivances in the narrative betray a generation gap. Most tellingly, conversations that don’t involve an elder like those between Aru and her sisters, for instance, or even Kasturi and her friend. Privy as we are to the thought process of the characters, the dialogue seems to do their intelligence an injustice. Another instance was Rohit’s epiphany in the U.S., which was triggered, of all things, by his witnessing a lovers’ tiff in public.
There are also several digressions in plot, most of which pile on misery on Aru’s loved ones — family as well as colleagues — and steadily increase her emotional burden, but without significantly adding value to the main narrative. Some beautifully subtle touches are sprinkled throughout. For instance, Aru ponders over Rohit’s stony silences, “But she has now learnt what his mother Lalita could have told her much earlier - that she has to leave him alone at such times.” That casual dig at the husband’s mother transcends Aru’s nature and reflects, quite simply, the nature of that relationship. The arc of intimacy - from the crackling chemistry of Charu and Hrishi, the steady flame of Aru and Rohit, and the warm embers of Gopal and Kasturi - never falters. However, it is towards the end that the digression catches up and the endearing sensitivity seems to run out.
In an environment where the emotional repercussions of the rebelliousness of a son, the unnatural quiet of a sister, or even a dampening of the spirit are worried over, one would imagine a catastrophe like rape would be irrevocably devastating. Apparently not. The incident, its aftermath, and even a sort of closure, all occur in a span of less than 25 pages! Considering Aru is a feminist and a lawyer, some pursuit of justice does not seem a big ask. But all we get is an unsatisfactory conclusion, and a brief explanation of motives and mindset in an epilogue.
The direction a story takes is subjective but the nature of a character, established through three quarters of the book, is not dispensable. However, the possibility that this contrivance is a writer’s ploy — a mirror suddenly flipped to face the readers, to catch them emotionally tied to the story — cannot be ruled out. “Yes, bad things happen,” the pages seem to say. “We’re family now. Life goes on.” But some scars remain.
Shadow Play; Shashi Deshpande, Aleph, Rs.495.