‘The thought of what it is to be a woman in our society propelled my writing’

Shashi Deshpande on writing,feminism and her new novel.

Written by Amrita Dutta | New Delhi | Published: October 13, 2013 12:31:28 am

Shashi Deshpande on writing,feminism and her new novel.

The reader of A Matter of Time,Shashi Deshpande’s 1996 novel,steps into a forbidding house,“built by a man for his sons and their sons”,where no birds sing,where Kalyani and her daughter,Sumi,both abandoned by their husbands,live with the wrecks of their marriage,and Sumi’s three daughters. Like other novels by Shashi Deshpande,it is full of people who are moored in the dense web of human relationships,but who strain beyond it. In Shadow Play,her 10th novel,she returns to those characters — Aru,Sumi’s daughter,and her father,Gopal,who once stopped “believing in the untruth of life”. In this email interview,Deshpande talks about her writing,and the serendipitous discoveries of a novelist’s life. Excerpts:

Your new novel,Shadow Play,returns to the lives of the characters of A Matter of Time. How are the two novels different?

The two novels are different mainly because of the passage of time. The main concerns too are very different,taking into consideration the fact that the characters,specially Aru and her sisters,are at a different stage in their lives.

Kierkegaard said,“Life must be lived forwards,but it can only be understood backwards”,something Gopal mulls over in A Matter of Time. How important is this dual perspective for your craft and the lives of your characters?

That time has to be viewed as one continuous whole,that it is not divided into segments,is a factor that makes itself felt each time I am telling a story. For my craft,it matters in that I have to decide whether I am writing of what has already happened,or whether I am writing as it is happening. It is not just the grammar and the tenses that have to be taken care of during the writing. The perspective is different. I think that the present contains not just the past but also the future — which,in fact, is what led to my writing Shadow Play!

Urvashi Butalia,while reviewing your novel in our paper,spoke warmly about the gentle feminism of the women in your novels. Do you agree with the adjective? Do you think their resistance is deceptive?

I guess the reviewer used this rather wonderful phrase because she was contrasting the feminism of the women here with a strident and loud feminism. But both Aru and Kasturi,who have arrived at feminism through their experiences in life,have absorbed the idea of feminism into themselves,they express it through their actions; they don’t need to declare it loudly. In fact,today none of us need to do that. I think of Aru as a passionate feminist,Kasturi as a rather fierce one. And no,their resistance is not deceptive,because it comes out of a firm conviction,which in turn comes out of their lives,not any theory.

There are many kinds of mothers in your novels. Some abandon their children,or are forced to; others are inebriated by their love for them. Could you tell us a bit about your mother? How different were you from her?

While it is difficult for me to talk in public about my idea of or my relationship with my mother,I can only say we were different in almost every aspect; our views about almost everything were totally different. I think she found me a rather difficult daughter! I believe that women are not born mothers. A woman becomes a mother only when she has a child. By which time she has a personality of her own,so she is still that person,not just a ‘mother’! I never believe that a woman,when she becomes a mother,gets a halo round her head. She does what nature intends her to do – nurturing the infant. But otherwise,she remains her own self.

What was the first feminist text that you read that made you look at your life differently? How old were you at the time?

It was after I had begun writing that a neighbour,after reading my stories,asked me whether I had read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I hadn’t. ‘Read it,’ she said. Once I read it,I knew my life would never be the same again. Her sentence,‘One is not born,but rather becomes,a woman’,seemed to answer most of my questions,my doubts,my concerns. I must have been just about 30 then. About a decade later,I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own which I still consider the book which has made the greatest impact on me. I would never see myself,or my writing,in the same way again.

Feminist concerns occupy many writers in Indian languages,several of them women,while that does not seem to be the case with Indian writers in English — Manjula Padmanabhan and you being the rare exceptions. Why do you think that is so?

It is hard for me to say why other women writers in English are not much concerned with feminism. I can only say that for me it was always important because it was the thought of what it is to be a woman in our society,in this world,which propelled my writing. Perhaps,the women writers who came after me did not have the same experiences.

Do you remember how your writing career began? And how you became a journalist?

I was working as a trainee with the Onlooker when a colleague asked me,‘Why don’t you write a story for our annual?’ I must have said,‘What! Me?’ But strangely,I did write a story (The Legacy) over the weekend. It was published and so it began — more stories,then novels and more novels …

I joined a journalism course because,after my children were born,I was desperate at losing out on an intellectual life,which had always mattered to me. My family life was wonderful,but it was not enough for me. Once I got into the part-time journalism class,I found I enjoyed the writing — it felt like something I had always been doing. And when I had to do a three months’ apprenticeship,my writing was much appreciated and I was asked to join the staff. Unfortunately,my children were too little to be left on their own,so I didn’t. I stayed home and wrote.

Over three decades as a novelist,of charting the lives of characters,their travels through space and time — how much of human life has the novelist’s “crystal ball” illuminated?

In the 40 years of writing stories and novels,I have done something one normally does not do: I have thought about people and relationships,about how we live our lives and  what it is all about. As I wrote,I stumbled into serendipitous discoveries,but much still remains a mystery. Which is what makes me want to go on.

When you look back at your writing,do you see distinct phases,a move outward from more interior works like That Long Silence (1988)?

Yes,I do see phases. The first two novels were not only very interiorised novels,they were angry novels. I find it hard to read them today. With The Binding Vine,I went out into the public space,asking the questions about rape we asked all over again after what happened in Delhi on December 16 last year. With A Matter of Time,I found myself exploring what I can only call our relationships to ourselves and to the world. I have been particularly fascinated by the concepts in the Upanishads. I now find myself interested in the way our lives are touched,shaped by other people,by events in the outside world.

As a writer,do you also feel unacknowledged by the literary establishment such as there is in India?

I have to say that yes,to a certain,or perhaps even a great extent,my work has not received serious attention. It has most often been put into the slot of “writing by women,writing about women”. I am always conscious of the irony of the situation,that while I have been questioning the subordinate status of women in this world,my writing itself has been accorded the same subordinate status! Even today,there is a reluctance to accord me the status of a major writer because,from the point of view of ‘the literary establishment’ (with its wholly male values),I write about less important matters — women’s lives,human relationships and the family.

What do you think makes a great work of literature?

A great work of literature? Hard to define. And very subjective. But to me,great works are universal,while being deeply rooted in their soil. Characters are alive — no room for stereotypes. The writer writes from her/his heart and has integrity,which means she/he is true to her/his work and to nothing else. Crafted with skill so that the stitches don’t show. And there is so much more than cannot be denied.

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