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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Small Remedies

Three generations of women,and the gentle feminism with which they face the randomness of life.

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
September 28, 2013 1:46:07 am

Book: Shadow Play

Author: Shashi Deshpande

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Price: Rs 495

Pages: 288

In Shadow Play,Shashi Deshpande goes back to the lives of characters she left behind in her previous novel,A Matter of Time. Things have moved on since then,the three women,Aru,Charu and Seema have grown up. Sumi,their mother and the deserted wife,has died in a tragic accident,and Gopal,the father who left to seek an elusive truth,returns,at the behest of Sumi’s mother Kalyani,herself a sort of “abandoned” woman,to the family fold to share a home with his third daughter,Seema. The three generations of women in the earlier novel — Kalyani,Sumi’s mother,saddled with a husband who will not speak to her and pushed thereby into her own silence; Sumi herself,her sister Premi and Sumi’s three daughters,are here transformed into an intergenerational mix of cousins,sisters,aunts,grandmothers,friends and neighbours. She put their lives together,Deshpande tells us,because they came knocking at her door and asking for their lives to be told.

There is a wonderful quiet way in which Deshpande unselfconsciously,and without an iota of self-indulgence,assumes the omniscient authorial voice,a way in which she almost naturally draws you,the reader,into the exercise with her,revealing some things,hinting at others,suggesting caution (but wait,we are jumping ahead of the story) and creating a simultaneous sense of distance and a respect for the privacy of her characters.

Indeed,there are times at which you might almost feel you are being voyeuristic in looking into the lives of these intensely private people,and yet there is a way in which she skillfully creates the distance that every reader needs to feel both involved and apart.

The themes she deals with are,to followers of Deshpande’s work,familiar ones — the baggage that women carry with them into the world,the randomness of life and its twists and turns,the gentle feminism that informs the actions of all her women,the essential aloneness and honesty of so many of her characters,and the possibility of being gently unconventional — as Kasturi is,or Belinda is — and yet wholly acceptable,and the importance of female friendships. And yet they do not pall,nor give you a sense of sameness.

Deshpande also returns to the theme of rape,something she has explored earlier and brings in the discussion that has,in recent months,been so key: is rape the worst thing that can happen to a woman? Or is there life after such a deep violation of body and mind? Children too inhabit the story in different ways — Aru’s longing for a natural child,her resistance to abortion,the silent understanding of this in almost everyone around,everyone who matters to her,and Aru’s final resolution of the question. All these issues stay with you.

As do the finely and sparingly etched characters. I cannot now recall — even though I have only just put the book down — a detailed descripton of how Gopal looks,for example,or of how Kasturi,one of my favourite characters in the book,appears. Yet,I have a mental picture of them created out of their reflections and actions that allows me to feel a sense of familiarity and,yes,almost a kind of knowledge.

Deshpande is one of the few writers who has kept her canvas the way she wants it to,who has stayed with her style of writing,refusing to give in to market demands,and whose novels still deal with the worlds of women,families,relationships,abjuring grand passions or cataclysmic events. And yet,the cataclysms are there in the random attack,the accidental death,or even the throwaway remark which can change things forever. It is this that keeps the reader turning the pages,not an impatience about the next turn in the plot,for these turns are so subtle as to not seem to happen at all. It is also this,when the time comes to leave the story,that allows the writer to gently pull the reader out and advise that it’s now time to let the family be.

Urvashi Butalia is director of Zubaan

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