In person, Shashi Deshpande will never be heard saying the three words of the title of her memoir. Soft-spoken and self-effacing but with a steely resolve, she has always let her books do all the talking. Yet this retelling of a life in Listen to Me , one she undertook because it asked to be written, is a rich, delightful, layered back story. Of a childhood in Dharwad, the move to the ‘glittering city’ of Bombay, a degree in law, marriage, the shift to Bangalore and, most of all, her journey as a writer which began when she realised that being ‘wife, mother and home-maker’ was not enough.
The stories that flowed out of her — first for magazines, and then in her books ( Roots and Shadows, The Dark Holds No Terrors, That Long Silence, The Binding Vine, Small Remedies and six others) — were about people who were not ‘in any of the books I read’. They filled a gap and she found her voice.
Deshpande’s father, Sriranga, taught Sanskrit at Karnatak College in Dharwad, and she first began reading at their home library. Her ‘enchanted childhood’, when she pored over The World’s Greatest Books and its beautiful pictures, and read the Arabian Nights would ‘never be forgotten’. Nor would the difficult times, her father’s dwindling finances, brother’s mental illness, and other trials. It’s from her father, who wrote plays and several books, including two on the Bhagvad Gita , that she would imbibe a love for our rich literature. The shloka that struck a chord with her comes at the end of the Gita when Krishna tells Arjuna, “I have given you the knowledge, now do as you desire.”
Observant, intelligent and always questioning established social norms, Deshpande had been gathering knowledge ever since she was a little girl traipsing off to school, sometimes barefoot, through shortcuts and tamarind trees-lined avenues, keeping her mind ‘open to ideas, emotions, experiences and the languages’ she heard. When she settled down at Parel in Bombay after marrying a doctor, for example, what went on around the hospital fascinated her. A sense of ‘loud desperation’ at a slum some distance away from their home brought Deshpande out of the ‘safe and cosy world of family and books’, making her aware of struggles, especially for women, and a ‘world of injustice, inequalities, cruelties’.
Novels spring surprises
A collection of Deshpande’s short stories was brought out by Prof. P. Lal of Writers Workshop who she says was the ‘first literary person to think my writing mattered’. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and some ‘political experiences’ informed the first book, Roots and Shadows , but it became a narrative of power within a family. Though she calls it ‘flawed’, what it did was to convince her that the novel was the form which suited her, writing it ‘could be full of surprises’ but it brought ‘immense satisfaction’. This is the most satisfying part of the autobiography too — where we read the stories behind the novels.
With The Dark Holds no Terrors (1980), ‘about marital rape, sibling envy, guilt and parental neglect,’ Deshpande ‘knew that there was no novel like it in English...’ She takes us back to the lines of the epigraph, the words of the Dhammapada: ‘You are your own refuge; there is no other refuge,’ and says this is the philosophy ‘that has connected all my novels: the essential loneliness of the human being.’ Most of her characters, think Sarita in The Dark Holds No Terrors or Jaya in That Long Silence , strive to form relationships, hoping they will last, ‘the ultimate human paradox.’ In Jaya, she found ‘a woman with a beating heart, a human being with talent, desires and aspirations.... A woman who realised her life mattered... and that she, only, she, was responsible for it.’ With her fourth novel, The Binding Vine , which came out of the rape of a nurse at a Bombay hospital, she moved out of the ‘intensely private into the public space.’
Readers found themselves in her books but critics often typecast her as a woman’s writer. She is miffed about several things, not least at the question she was often asked: “Why do you write in English?” She is upset that fellow writers V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie made disparaging remarks about women authors. Despite the success, a Sahitya Akademi Award and a Padma Shri, Deshpande has sometimes wondered where she stands in the Indian Writing in English firmament. Well, if an Arundhati Roy or an Anuradha Roy has dazzled IWE, it’s because writers like Anita Desai and Deshpande articulated their thoughts and did away with stereotypes in the 1970s and 80s.
If you have read her, Listen to Me is a fascinating peek into the mind of a writer — and the wide-ranging influences from the Upanishads to Jane Austen. She always has a book to dip into, for instance, while working on one — ‘ The Golden Notebook once, Dickens’ Bleak House ’ another time. To the new reader, this is a wonderful way to discover the books of a much-loved author.
Listen to Me ; Shashi Deshpande, Westland Books, ₹699.