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Whys and otherwise

Well-known writer Shashi Deshpande tackles the barrage of questions that have come her way in the 30-odd years of her literary career, in her latest collection of essays

Shashi Deshpande: `I'd like to form my own canon.' — Photo: K. Gopinathan

SHASHI DESHPANDE writes in her introduction to Writing from the Margin and Other Essays: "Personally, it seems to me that any question that begins with a `why' is one which cannot be answered: like, why do you write in this language? Or why this character? Or why this theme? etc."

Shashi has faced a barrage of whys, whats, and hows in the 30-odd years of her writing career. Perhaps more than the normal share, by virtue of being a woman who writes (since she abhors the category `woman writer') and the daughter of Sriranga, one of the greatest playwrights in Kannada. (She, in fact, has dedicated the book to him, "a man of ideas and a fiercely independent thinker".) Chandrashekhar Patil, the Kannada writer known for his acerbic wit, writes at the end of an article that pays a tribute to Sriranga's harp intellect and innovative use of language: "But Prof. Jagirdar never taught his children Kannada. That's strange indeed. His daughter Shashi Deshpande is a well-known writer. It is said that Prof. Jagirdar himself used to translate his daughter's stories in to Kannada and send them to magazines!" (Sankramana, Sept.-Oct., 2003)

As one reads what Shashi has to say about all that she read in her childhood ("... my passion for words was so great that I even read all the dictionaries at home — Hindi-English, Sanskrit-English, German-English, French-English... "), yet another `why' crops up in one's head: "Why not a Kannada-English or an English-Kannada dictionary?!

Writing from the Margin and Other stories — excerpts from which she read at Oxford Bookstore in Leela Galleria — is Shashi's attempt to respond to all these questions and more that she has had to answer as a woman, a "woman writer", a "woman, Asian, post-colonial, Indo-Anglian writer"... so on and so forth.

Shashi read parts of three interesting chapters in the book ("which was not meant to be a book") — "Dear Reader" that looks at the many facets of the relationship between the reader and the writer, the title essay that talks about the business of being a "woman writer", and "The Last Frontier" that explores the genre of crime fiction.

The excerpts revealed Shashi's range of interests — from language debates to feminist criticism to crime fiction — and were tantalising enough to make one want to read more, whether to nod in agreement enthusiastically or to pick quarrels with her. Or simply to be fascinated by the use of an image. See how cleverly she uses the metaphor of a margin to "cock a snook" at those who regard writing by women marginal: "When I first begin writing, I leave a huge margin, a large blank space which I know I will soon fill up with alterations, corrections, new ideas, and so on. And, sure enough, in time the margin is full, the words begin creeping into the centre of the page, the margin and the text merge and finally, because what I am now saying comes mostly from the margin, the margin takes over, it becomes the real text. Writing from the margin? Yes, that's the way I do it."

The most interesting essay is, perhaps, the witty and perceptive one on crime fiction, simply because the choice of subject itself takes you by surprise (like a good crime writer would!). She writes how the genre has evolved from Hercule Poirot's and Agatha Christie's scheme of things where the guilty are punished to "a shaded Graham Greene sense of the subtle shades of guilt and innocence that colours all of us". She writes: "It's almost as if we have come in a full circle back to the idea enunciated in the Upanishads — that the gods, demons, and men are the threefold offspring of Prajapathi." And writing about the large presence of women among crime fiction writers, she quotes Sue Grafton: "For months, I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I'd bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead."

In the interactive session that followed the reading, historian-sociologist Ramachandra Guha made a point (rather forcefully) that "women are anthropologists of violence" since they are so often at the receiving end. Though Shashi had "vowed not to talk about feminism", since she has spoken about it endlessly and "people are not changing", there were a couple of questions about the role of gender in writing and so on. The essay in the collection, "Why I am a Feminist", has more to say about her non-combative brand of feminism. Questions on literary canon ("I'd like to form my own canon") and role of translation (Shashi is, incidentally, now translating her father's autobiography) followed.

Responding to a question on the choices before a reader, Shashi talked of how one is constantly hoodwinked by the "tyranny of marketing". There's more on this forced canonisation in "Dear Reader": "The tyranny of publishers, literary agents, marketing forces, and the celebrity-hungry media are trying to snuff out the reader, to take away the reader's freedom of choice, of thinking for oneself." These words, somehow, acquire a tinge of irony when read to an august gathering in the plush environs of a star hotel! And that takes us to what Shashi writes in "Toppling a Worldview", another interesting (if debatable) essay on the Indian cultural heritage: "As I have lived, I have come to a realisation that to get a clue to the manifold `whys' of life, one needs to accept the duality inherent in life."


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