Book: Strangers to Ourselves
Author: Shashi Deshpande
Price: Rs 450
In her Sahitya Akademi-winning novel, That Long Silence, Shashi Deshpande introduces us to Jaya — wife, mother of two, and a failed writer — who is trying to come to terms with her life as it begins to unravel after her husband loses his job. As she takes on the home and the world, there is a sense of unease, a feeling that she is taking on much more than she can. Yet, she is strong and knows that “to achieve something”, to be somebody in life, “you have got to be hard and ruthless”. Deshpande’s women — and men — characters have come a long way since Jaya’s story was heard in 1988. In Small Remedies (2000), the key characters are so tough that there isn’t a hint of sentimentality about them. Think of Madhu in Small Remedies, Aru in Shadow Play and now Aparna in Strangers to Ourselves and you realise that they live on their own terms.
With Strangers to Ourselves, there is an unlikely coming together of an oncologist and an artist, the musician we had met in Shadow Play, Shree Hari. What follows is a whirlwind romance. But the doctor, Aparna, is held back by self-doubt, not social concerns, before she gives in to her heart — and desires. It is a little difficult to accept Aparna and Shree Hari’s panting love for each other, but when we are in love, perhaps we become strangers to ourselves.
Aparna is successful at work but has “lost confidence in herself and the very idea of love” having being “singed and burnt” in a marriage. As the rising star of the musical world woos her with raga Yaman — “it does extraordinary things to me” — and sweet exhortations, Aparna confronts herself: “I never thought I would get this kind of love, I never imagined I would feel this way for a man. So why am I hesitating? What am I afraid of?” In the end, “the two passions that govern human life: one is the desire for progeny, the other for a place of one’s own…. All else is ephemeral,” helps Aparna come to a decision.
The love story plays out around other lives, past and present — we are used to Deshpande’s rich stories-within-stories template. As she grapples with her love for Shree Hari, Aparna is strengthened by her parents’ beautiful yet tumultuous relationship, her great grandmother Ahalya’s amazing story and her patient Jyoti’s wonderful turn at writing. She stumbles onto Ahalya’s story in the notebooks her father has left behind and it tells us how women have always been trying to assert themselves. Like Savitribai in Small Remedies, Ahalya, too, makes a life for herself by defying the conventions of the time.
One of the stronger male characters Deshpande has created is that of Aparna’s father Gajanan Vidyadhar Dandekar, a playwright. (Deshpande’s father was the famous Kannada dramatist and writer Sriranga.) Aparna finds it difficult to come to terms with her father’s tragic choices. He had strayed into another relationship and her mother could never forgive him. He died a bitter and lonely man. Deshpande’s epigraph echoes through the pages: “Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as the body? – Thomas Hardy.”
With 10 novels, two novellas and an impressive number of short stories behind her, we know what to expect from a Deshpande story. It will be about the essential loneliness of human beings and their place in the family, which can give them either a sense of belonging or alienation. In that, Strangers to Ourselves doesn’t disappoint.