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Breaking that long silence

For writer Shashi Deshpande, writing was a means to self-discovery. She was exasperated being known as somebody's daughter, somebody's wife, and mother. She speaks her truth gently but firmly, and her words linger on.

Shashi Deshpande: not comfortable with the feminist tag — Photo: K. Gopinathan

SHASHI DESHPANDE has many avatars. In literary circles, she is the author of the 1990 Sahitya Akademi-award-winning novel, That Long Silence, later published by London's Virago Press. At intellectual discussions, she champions the cause of English as an Indian language, and fights for the recognition of women as individuals. She speaks her truth gently but firmly, her words lingering, long after her exit.

But very few readers know of her two short crime novels. On August 30, to mark 30 years of Shashi's life in writing, Bangalore's Dronequill publishing house will be re-issuing one of her India-oriented crime novels, Come Up and Be Dead, originally published by Vikas in 1983.

"I don't like to call myself a feminist writer. I'm a feminist, but I don't write to propagate an ism," stresses Shashi, in a freewheeling interview. With emotion, she recalls initially writing for Femina, Eve's Weekly, and other Indian magazines while nurturing her two young sons in Mumbai: "I feel I came through only because I had faith in myself. The desire to say something was so strong. That was hard, when my whole life was considered unimportant, my work was considered unimportant, even writing by women was considered unimportant. Many women are silenced by lack of time. If I admire anything in myself, it's only that I kept on. It's easy to give up."

Shashi's surefooted literary voice explores predicaments through the female psyche. Her fiction, besides six short story collections, includes Roots and Shadows (1983), The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980), That Long Silence (1988), The Binding Vine (1993), A Matter of Time (1996), and Small Remedies (2000). Her children's titles are A Summer Adventure, The Hidden Treasure, The Only Witness, and The Narayanpur Incident.

The daughter of noted Kannada playwright Sriranga, Shashi had a free-spirited childhood in Dharwad. Married to a doctor from a conservative background at 24, she refers to a turning point in her emotional life: "Despite marriage and motherhood, I felt very incomplete, even dissatisfied. That's when I read Betty Friedan's TheProblem Without a Name. I felt: "I'm not only a woman. I'm not only a mother. I'm not only a wife. I'm not only a female. I'm a human being with a mind. It gave me a lot of unhappiness that my intellect wasn't being connected to my female self. I was always Mrs. Deshpande, Raghunandan's mother, Vikram's mother... That anger ultimately translates into feminism."

Soft-spoken Shashi captured the international limelight when Virago published That Long Silence. Smiling, she notes: "After that, the struggle was over. Once you're published abroad, the Indian publishers are not going to say `no' to you. But after the Booker and the Pulitzer, Indian writers have been under pressure to conform. Once our writers get over that and write honestly — doesn't matter whether a Western publisher wants it or not — we'll have much better writing."

Have the years been critically kind to her? "I should be able to consider myself a senior writer by now. But when the media talks about writers in English, you'll find my name most often omitted, until maybe three years ago. They mention Shashi Tharoor, Allan Sealy, etc. but never my name," Shashi points out. "Or they put me among the women writers. That's ridiculous! If you're writing about domestic things or the family, they immediately put you in an inferior slot. Somehow, women's writing is always the zenana. It's often called by the derogatory term, adige mane sahitya. Criticism has not learnt to deal with writing by women as just writing, whether it's good or bad. I think it's deprived me of my true place in literature." Impishly, she asks: "Should I, then, call men's writing bedroom sahitya?"

Do women's issues in English differ vastly from the Indian languages? Mulling over the Kannada and Marathi literature she has read, besides translations, Shashi replies: "English writing is very urban-oriented. We all belong to a certain class. That's a limitation... I once read a translated Hindi story about a woman who's been told by her husband to stand for a panchayat election. Her dilemma was so contemporary. You don't find this in English. Or take (Tamil writer) C.S. Lakshmi. She says so much through a kitchen, a woman's frame of reference. It you read her as a feminist, you'll lose the beauty of her symbolism, her language, her ideas."

Where are the women's voices in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas, traditionally male-narrated? Shashi interprets these stories through her collection, The Stone Women (2000).

"For me, it's important that I should know who I am. If I'm just a docile, submissive Sita, then I'd be feeling sorry for myself as a victim. But I'm not. Nor is Sita that. I'm looking for Sita in me, Draupadi in me, Kunti in me," she says passionately. "In all our languages, women are doing this. I know there's a story by Vaidehi in Kannada about Sakuntala, in which she does not go back to her husband. To me, it's so true. Why would she, after all that humiliation? At the end she tells her husband: `If you want an heir for the throne, take my son. But I'm not coming.' Most women would do that."

Through myth and modernity, Shashi has held her own, proving an icon to younger writers. With tremendous feeling, she pleads: "You've got to read women's writing differently. If you're going to say this is only a story about a kitchen, and belittle it for that, that's stupid. It's about a human being trying to place herself within relationships, people, and ideas."

Are readers, critics and scholars listening?


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