FICTION: Why has the writer chosen to abandon the up-close and revealing depiction of relationships?
Shashi Deshpande’s strong suit has always been the family, relationships, intimacies and disappointments. Within this often claustrophobic structure she has explored the ways in which the woman reacts, survives, compromises or moves on. Having made this province convincingly her own, Deshpande has one other victory to her credit — the absence of consciousness of being an Indian writing in English; we don’t get any “self-conscious ethnicity”. Her characters, settings and conflicts are familiar, their tongue one we have made uniquely our own.
While a certain tedium and patchiness is something one has come to anticipate from Deshpande, we still harbour huge expectations from the conflict in her novels and the subsequent insight. If anything, Deshpande is scrupulously honest to her craft. She once wrote, “When I begin writing, I leave a huge margin, a blank space which I know will soon fill up… finally, because what I am now saying comes mostly from the margin, the margin takes over, it becomes the real text.” This intimate glimpse into the act of creation cannot leave us unmoved.
It is this knowledge that makes Ships That Pass so much more disappointing. It is difficult to know why Deshpande has chosen to abandon the up-close and revealing depiction of relationships, a space she so confidently owns. Her Preface speaks of having always wanted to revisit a murder mystery that she serialised four decades ago for Eve's Weekly. But even so, she makes it clear that relationships will be her first priority: “the mystery of the human mind still remains the greatest mystery of all”. Sadly, she chooses to underplay this very aspect.
It is not that the book focuses more on the mystery; that could well have been profitably explored. It is rather that the book fails to decide quite what it wants to be. It commits the cardinal sin of faltering in its loyalties — whether to Tara’s death and its mystery, to the death of Tara's marriage and its tragedy, or to the birth of Radhika’s love. This irresoluteness is all-pervasive and sets the book adrift.
Here are Tara and Shaan, childhood sweethearts and happy couple, who have lost their baby girl to illness. Their son Abhi is paying the price of his sister’s death with the loss of his own childhood. Radhika, Tara’s sister and the first-person narrator, has been invited by Shaan to look after his mysteriously ailing wife. Childhood friend Ram Mohan is hovering and we are left guessing if he is in love with Tara or her sister. The marriage is unravelling, Abhi has withdrawn into a shell, and Tara is frightened for her life. But all this leaves us entirely unmoved.
Deshpande’s equanimity is well known but characters whose emotional charts don’t register a blip cannot touch us, and that’s an impossible bargain for a novel to make. How can we, for instance, be asked to believe that a typical, relentlessly loving Indian family is unaware of daughter Tara’s illness and have not met her since her baby daughter died two years ago? At the least, this is clumsy plotting.
And what happened to the Deshpande who wrote: “Ultimately, I did it because he was Ashok, because we met. That's all.” For me, that’s an entire love story in 13 words. It is mastery over brevity.
Instead we get a Radhika who says things like, “Oh hell! Oh hell! Oh hell! You can never lay ghosts to rest, can you? ... there they are, springing up again. And again. And again. Hell, hell, hell.” Maybe we need not expect authentic, overpowering passion from everything we read but convincing emotions we can. And we must, if we respect literature enough to feel compelled to critique it with at least a modicum of rigour.
Finally, the book overwhelmingly fails to give us a heroine whose fate we care about. Radhika is uncharismatic, annoying and jejune. I remembered Catherine Sloper in Henry James' Washington Square, a woman I instantly disliked for her insipidity. But James’ book gets under your skin with its relentless unravelling of events, its “argument of insidious intent”, its very celebration of Catherine’s dullness. That conviction is missing here. Deshpande can deliberately choose a carefully shorn prose and colourless protagonist to bring home the tedium of middle-class existence, but that very tedium must come alive in the hands of someone who enjoys the stature of being a bit of the grande dame of Indian writing.
Ships That Pass; Shashi Deshpande, Rupa, Rs. 295.