Gender is between the ears

Shashi Deshpande’s autobiography Listen To Me captures the joyful innocence of childhood, her admiration for her writer father Sriranga, even as she discusses issues of literature and the place of women in it

December 25, 2018 01:33 pm | Updated 01:33 pm IST

Shashi Deshpande’s fictional narratives opened up closed worlds. Sensitive to the woman’s feelings and her place in society, Shashi Deshpande has posed difficult questions and laid bare uncomfortable truths in her writing career of four decades. A writer with 11 novels, short story collections, children’s books, essay collections and more, Shashi Deshpande is among the most important voices in Indian Writing in English. Listen to Me , her autobiography has hit the stands, and as she herself says, “I thought my life was a dull one, but the response has been stupendous”.

Excerpts from a conversation.

Writing an autobiography is an act of courage. One’s own story has to be laid bare, it also is a perspective about others. It will have real names, real incidents, opinions, likes, dislikes etc. You call it an “emotional striptease” in your introduction. Was it an intimidating experience?

Initially, I thought I could get away without bringing others into the picture. But that was stupid. When I asked my editor Karthika to read my first draft, “there’s no You in it”, she said. It was like a series of essays on Women’s writing, Indian writing in English etc. Karthika felt I had a special childhood. That I lived between parents speaking two different languages, Marathi and Kannada, and in a small town like Dharwad. I didn’t study abroad, live abroad… something rare for a writer writing in English.

Some things about my life were troubling me and so I asked my sister if I could write about it. She gave me a go ahead, and I felt if one cannot be honest, why write an autobiography? I had no nasty things to say about anyone. I began to rethink on these lines and my father’s memoir, Sahitiya Atma Jignaase, was in my mind. Little did I imagine writing it would be difficult. Once I imagined it as a novel, it flowed.

How different was the second draft from the first?

It was completely different. By the time I started working on my second draft I had a lot of clarity. The first one was absolutely boring, chunks of opinions on various issues. I am glad my Editor had the courage to tell me this. For three years, I worked like someone possessed.

Do you feel writing an autobiography is different for a woman? It may involve many things that this world may not want to know, hear or recognize? A certain breaking of stereotypes….

I had discarded stereotypes at the very beginning of my writing career. My preoccupations were intellectual and my emotions were within the family. My feelings about writing, my relationship with my father, mother, sister and brother had to come in. Of course, my marriage which has been a huge support to me had to come in.

All my apprehensions ended 40 years ago, when I wrote my short story, Intrusion . It used to be a queer feeling, as if someone was looking over my shoulder. But it was over, what I write is what I feel, and there is rarely a dilemma. Moreover, I have no secrets.

In the case of men, they are conscious of their greatness and it becomes their pre-occupation. Women play many roles and it is an effort for them to talk about themselves.

In the sleeve note of the book, there is this narration of an incident that took place in Australia. When you were judged by your looks. That’s the kind of stereotype I’m referring to.

Oh yes, it happens to me all the time. I used to go to the Eve’s Weekly office in those days. Ammu Joseph, the editor, had said that she couldn’t believe that I wrote my stories, since I looked a typical middle class housewife! Well, but what is inside me is so different from what I am outside. You cannot be your looks.

In Mumbai, people used to call me Deshpande kaaki, Deshpande vaini, Nanduchi aayi, Vikram chi aayi, like I had no identity of my own. I had to find my way to what I am, it was a lot of hard work to get there.

Let me tell you a later incident as well. One magazine said I was, “a grandmother who writes in an old-fashioned way”! I was livid. The editor of the magazine, Swapan Dasgupta called to explain. “U.R. Ananthamurthy is also a grandfather, but would you dare call him that…?” I had asked him. I was a woman writer and they could fix me in my social roles. I had to nerve myself to retort.

After all these years, with strong women’s voices, these things haven’t changed much, have they? I am sure you remember how in Kannada, male writers called women “aduge mane sahitigalu”.

My generation had to cope with a lot. Today’s generation may not have to cope with that much. Intellectually, things have changed quite a bit. However, as far as the sexual thing is concerned, men may perhaps never change.

Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, changed me a lot. What is important to me is important to me. It doesn’t matter what it means to you. The publishing house Virago started around a kitchen table.

Would Listen To Me be different if it were written in Kannada or Marathi?

Firstly, I never learnt to write either in Marathi or Kannada. Secondly, I believe that reading shapes a writing, and not so much a language. I am what I am because of my reading. It did however, take me some time to know that I was rooted here, in this context and language, though my writing was taking place in English. It is very interesting – each novel has had its own language. That Long Silence took place in Kannada and Marathi, The Dark Holds No Terrors happened in Marathi, A Matter of Time took place in Kannada, and Binding Wine in Kannada, Marathi and Gujarathi. I was hearing it in these languages and then I had to translate it.

Was it difficult? Did you feel that what came in English was a diminished version?

It was not difficult, because it was unconscious. Nevertheless, how do I make it clear that I was writing in three languages? The text had to speak for itself, that was hard work. For instance, in Small Remedies , Leela speaks to her niece in Marathi. The word Aga, kept coming to me. Finally, I decided to retain it but not unspool it for the reader. From the relationship between the two women he had to guess it was an endearment.

I guess it is tough, because however comfortable one is with English, you speak to children or your pets in your mother tongue.

That’s right. I always spoke to my children only in Marathi, because my mother spoke to me in Marathi. It is my emotional language.

Recollected memory is always different from the actual incident. You yourself talk about how your sister and you have complete different versions about the same episode in your lives. How authentic is autobiography as a form, and what is the value you attach to it?

Right! (Laughs) I checked with my sister on many of these incidents, and she either has no memory of it, or it is different. I’m amazed.

The value of the autobiography is that it is from a certain era. Also about a particular kind of writing in India which has not been written about much. I had many misgivings about Indian Writing in English, but I am also its strong defender. I had a lot of questions about being a woman writer and Woman’s writing in India. There are certain questions that every writer in English has to confront. Why are we not talking about them? It is only Naipul, Amitav Ghosh… who are discussed whenever there is a discussion on Indian writers. How come we who live here, write here, and have readers here are never talked about? So apart from personal details, I wanted to bring all these issues to discussion.

The perception is that Feminism, Women’s Writing – all of these have women at the centre of their narratives. Is Feminism always confined to gender? In your book, your father is the central character, he is more special than your mother.

Gender is important, but we need to re-read our notions about feminism and women’s writing. Feminism is about equal opportunity and equal justice. Gender is not is biggest constituent. My father was a big influence and very dear to me. I felt immensely close to him.

You portray him as very nurturing, caring… very feminine characters.

He was that. He looked after us so gently and lovingly. There was so much in him that the world did not see. There are always overlaps in gender roles. My husband is also similar.

As you portray yourself, you were unambitious. But you went on to win the Padmashri. How would your father have reacted to this, were he alive?

My father called me ‘nirupayogi’ and my sister was the ‘jaane’. Of course, later he changed his opinion about me. When the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award was announced, I remembered him first. Strangely, he had once told me that I will get a big award!

Has this piece of writing changed you as a person? I recall that you write about the grace with which your parents handled your difficult days even as you feel they were too harsh on the family.

I think it changed me. I am a grumbler as I write in my last chapter. I realised I was extremely privileged. My parents made no distinction between us and our brother. So many great people, Masti, Shivaram Karanth and others visited us. The atmosphere was intellectual, I read so much – I have no reason to complain. Realisations don’t necessarily make you a better person though!

Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande is published Westland. Priced at ₹699

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