A Familiar Passage

Shashi Deshpande returns to fragile family relationships

Written by Dilip Bobb | Published: June 2, 2012 2:17 am

Book: Ships That Pass

Author: Shashi Deshpande

Publisher: Rain Tree

Pages: 136

Price: Rs 295

No Indian author captures the intricacies and intrigues of family relationships quite like Shashi Deshpande. Now in her 70s,she still has her literary focus fine-tuned to the clash between tradition and change in Indian society,especially the evolving role of women in middle class families. She is also a writer whose works are deeply rooted in India and Indian sensibilities,whether it is the characters,the relationships,the setting and,above all,the conflicts.

Conflict has been at the heart of her eight novels so far,and all to do with women,whether mother,daughter,sister or wife. It has led to her being branded a feminist author,which is a misnomer,but it is easy to see why. Ships That Pass is instantly recognisable as a Deshpande novel because of the characters and the situations: an independent-minded middle class,urban woman caught in a family tragedy of a doomed marriage and broken dreams.

What adds poignancy,empathy and immediacy to Deshpande’s novels,or novella as this is classified,is her writing style: clear,clean,simple and compelling,which adds so much credibility to her narratives of sacrifice and suffering involving familial issues and crises. In her latest,as in her earlier works,this one is about women who are forced by circumstance to break with their traditional role in a middle class family and also break their silence,even if it can only end in tragedy. In fact,her best-known novel,That Long Silence,which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award,was an equally complex story about a woman who emerges from a long marriage and comes to terms with some ugly realities about her husband. It dealt with the confusion,disappointment and anger that can build behind the facade of a middle class marriage.

Her latest,Ships That Pass,deals with much the same issues. A 14-year-old marriage,leading to angst,anger and tragedy,and,alongside,the start of a parallel romance. Deshpande’s forte lies in creating sympathy for her characters,however flawed their lives and personalities. The central character is not the one in the doomed marriage,but her younger sister,who joins them for a holiday and gets caught up in the ballooning crisis. Like most Deshpande novels,there is no unbridled passion and sexually charged encounters, instead,relationships and love affairs progress in a restrained and natural manner,adding authenticity to the middle class lives. This is a slim book containing a well crafted story with some unexpected twists but here’s where the criticism lies: the reader comes away with the feeling of having read this before. Her first book,The Dark Holds No Terrors,was about the gradual awakening of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage and her subsequent novels have all contained elements of plot and characters found in her latest: ordinary women who are forced to discover hidden resources and courage to deal with what happens behind the closed doors of marital and family life.

Her latest book started out as a short story written 30 years ago which she has expanded into a novella,giving it a more contemporary context and setting. Yet,the instant takeaway is of having been down this literary road before. The worst thing for an author is to become predictable and Deshpande has always been accused of falling into that trap. Yet,it is a world she is instantly comfortable in,one she knows so intimately and writes about with such credibility and skill. For all its sense of deja vue,Ships That Pass sails through turbulent seas but still remains an uplifting journey.

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