Magazines in India in the 1970s had probably not yet discovered the “Thirty Under 30” list – that exercise in literary appreciation so dazzled by the claims of youth and privilege. If such lists existed then, Shashi Deshpande would not have made it to any. She lived in Bombay then, a woman desperately squeezing out time to write between caring for her two boys and the demands of the house. Let alone a room of her own, she did not own a typewriter. She would wait for her doctor husband to finish his consultations, climb up the stairs into his room above a morgue, bang out her stories on his Remington, before sending them off to women’s magazines.
Much later, when Indian writing in English (IWE) was getting drunk on Western attention and mega advances, Deshpande, by then an acclaimed writer, was not invited to the party. “In the 1990s, I saw writers becoming stars, and I realised that I could not be one of them. I was from a small town. I had not studied abroad. I had few contacts. All these things go into the making of an English writer. I was completely on my own,”she says.
In Listen to Me (Context), her new book, Deshpande, now 80,tells the remarkable story of that lonely journey. The memoir is reticent about her personal life but it is valuable for what it reveals: a life spent honing a distinct literary voice, despite the condescension that came her way because she wrote primarily about women. “For years, I have been saying things about‘women’s writing’, about Indian writing in English – but they were ignored…I was belittled for writing about women…So I thought this book is where I am going to have my say,” she says, when we meet at her home in Bengaluru.
Writing about Deshpande in 2000 in The Hindu, critic Meenakshi Mukherjee said, “Her early novels were published just at the time the post-Midnight’s Children generation of writers was becoming big news. Since she refused to play by global rules, she could not be included in this league. The only other slot the media could think of was the Champion of Oppressed Women.” But, as writer and publisher Ritu Menon points out, Deshpande’s characters were anything but. “Her work is a sustained, steady consideration of women in urban, middle-class India — no exoticism of feudal families or village belles. The women in her novels chart their own path, and make unconventional choices. They look at life and their place in the world at a tangent,” says Menon.
Deshpande grew up in Dharwad in the early 1940s, an idyllic, fuss-free childhood. “My sister and I were never told that we could not do something because we were girls. We were quite wild. That was something I have wanted all my life: freedom,” she recalls. She grew up amid three languages (the Kannada of her father, the Marathi spoken by her mother and the English of the books she devoured). She watched her father Shriranga, a scholar-dramatist of repute, struggle with the task of earning a living. She was also bothered by her own lack of clarity about her future, despite a clear intellectual hunger for more. She found her way to writing via a short journalism course, degrees in economics and law, and marriage.
Marriage and motherhood brought a keen awareness of difference in the socially-approved destinies of men and women. That disquiet grated at her, but sharpened her writing. Though she would read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) years later, her writing articulated, for the middle-class Indian woman (and the man, if he cared to read) “the problem that had no name”. “After marriage, I saw such a compliance in everything. I thought this can’t be true. You can’t be so happy to be going on this well-trodden path. Surely, there is something more to you, because I knew there was something more to me… I felt that women were not living their full lives. We are not born to only manage the house, cook and be patted on the back for being a good housewife,” she says.
Her examination of the inequalities in marriage also extended to the violence that came with it. It began with ‘The Intrusion’, a story about a couple on their honeymoon. “They don’t know each other at all. She senses he wants to have sex with her. She doesn’t want to until she knows him better. But he has his way with her. It says so much about what is being said today. But I wrote it in 1971. And it revealed to me what I wanted to do in my writing,” says Deshpande. She returned to marital rape — not sensationally, but as a way to scrutinise the warped mesh of affection and power in domestic life — in The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980), her first novel that met critical acclaim, and The Binding Vine (1993). The first- person narrative, common to many of her novels, offered a rare, intimate entry into a woman’s perspective, and made the reader an ally in the character’s journey towards self-awareness.
Her breakout novel was That Long Silence (1988), a brooding, interior narrative told in the voice of an aspiring writer, Jaya. Deshpande was then 50 years old. That was a tipping point, and not just because That Long Silence had been published by the British feminist press, Virago (she had simply mailed her manuscript). Always painfully shy and socially awkward, her first visit to the United Kingdom for the book launch gave her the validation she had missed in India. “I was never a very confident person, personally or professionally — except when I sit at my table and write. Then I have full confidence. So, that experience was a crucial point in my career.”
That Long Silence, which also won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1990, remains a much-loved work, though she would later attempt works of greater complexity in A Matter of Time (1996) and Small Remedies (2000). But the novel brings back charged memories. “There was a lot of anger in me when I wrote it. It was not directed against my family. My conscience told me it was an equally important part of my life, if not more. I was angry at my position—that I had no time for myself or to write. I remember writing in a notebook: ‘I can’t go on.’ Over and over, I would write that sentence,” she says. In a four-decade-long career, she has won a Padma Shri but also seen her work being dumped in the ghetto of women’s writing. Menon says Deshpande remained underrated because of a clear “gender gap” in the Indian literary establishment.
“The quiet, reflective writing done most often by women is ignored all the time. Look at Nayantara Sahgal or Sunetra Gupta or Nabaneeta Dev Sen in Bengali. There is a clear bias towards the young male writer, or the young, good-looking, sassy female writer,” Menon says. Deshpande rues that both the female experience and the woman writer is considered inferior to the real deal: men. “We are dismissed because we write about the domestic space. But when Jonathan Franzen writes about family life, he is given extra marks…But I find women far more interesting than men. I think they are complicated, interesting people, and especially considering the lives we have had to live, how much we have had to suppress ourselves,” she says.
In Listen to Me, she recounts being interviewed by the India Today magazine, when her grandson, a toddler then, walked in. The article that was published was headlined: “Grandmother writes old-fashioned way.” “I called up and asked the editor: UR Anantamurthy was alive and had grandchildren by then. Could you dare call him a grandfather?”
It seems almost apt that this quiet feminist would have runs-in with the two biggest male celebrities of India: Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul. Naipaul famously flew off the handle at a literary gathering in Neemrana in 2002 and shouted Deshpande and Nayantara Sahgal down. Rushdie, in the spirit of a petulant schoolyard bully, derided her in a piece for an American publication as the “stone-faced” Indian judge who had denied him the 1999 Commonwealth Prize. “I was a nobody to both. To Rushdie, I was an obstacle in his way. He wanted that prize very bad. But his book (The Ground Beneath Her Feet) was not good enough (he lost to JM Coetzee’s Disgrace) and it was in very poor taste to write about it later. Male writers and their egos,” she says.
In Neemrana, especially, she found a dizzying worship of the diaspora and English writer, even if the giants from the bhasha literatures had been invited. “I could see MT Vasudevan Nair and how subdued and angry he was. It was all for the English writers, all about Naipaul and the celebrities of the western world,” she recalls. To her, it exemplified all that was wrong with IWE and its shining success. “A sudden global celebration had created a character of Indian writing which was appreciated in the West, but totally disengaged from the writing going on here. Writing has to be directed first at the Indian reader and her response is the most important,” she says.
Looking back, she says, it is the tradition of writing in Indian languages —its milieu and concerns—where she finds home. “And while I don’t want to boast, I think I took on a tradition and made it available to other writers. Several women writers tell me that you made it possible for us to write in English,” she says.
The blinds are drawn in the room in which she writes, as the light hurts the glaucoma in her eyes. Behind her desk is a wall-to-wall cabinet of alphabetically arranged books. It is a quiet house, made quieter by the pall of grief over it — the reason why after four decades of constant work, writing eludes Deshpande these days. “In December 2017, we lost our older son to cancer. After that, I have not been able to write. We feel orphaned. It’s not only children who can feel orphaned. Parents can too,” she says, turning her head away. Then she lifts her chin and looks up. “But I do hope I will be able to write because life seems to have no meaning without it,” she says.