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Shashi Deshpande Biography

Shashi Deshpande comments:

Nationality: Indian. Born: Dharwad, 1938. Education: The University of Bombay, B.A. (honors) in economics 1956, diploma in journalism 1970, M.A. in English 1970; University of Mysore, Karnataka, B.L. 1959. Awards: Raugammal prize, 1984; Nanjangud Tirumalamba award, for The Dark Holds No Terrors, 1989; Sahitya Academy award, 1990.



The Dark Holds No Terrors. New Delhi, Vikas, 1980.

If I Die Today. New Delhi, Vikas, 1982.

Roots and Shadows. Bombay, Sangam, 1983.

Come Up and Be Dead. New Delhi, Vikas, 1985.

That Long Silence. London, Virago Press, 1988.

The Binding Vine. London, Virago Press, 1994.

A Matter of Time. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 1996; afterword byRitu Menon, New York, Feminist Press, 1999.

Small Remedies. New York, Viking, 2000.

Short Stories

The Legacy and Other Stories. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1978.

It Was Dark. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1986.

The Miracle and Other Stories. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1986.

It Was the Nightingale. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1986.

The Intrusion and Other Stories. New Delhi, Penguin India, 1994.



Drishte, 1990.

Other (for children)

A Summer Adventure. Bombay, IBH, 1978.

The Hidden Treasure. Bombay, IBH, 1980.

The Only Witness. Bombay, IBH, 1980.

The Narayanpur Incident. Bombay, IBH, 1982.


Critical Studies:

Indian Women Novelists, Vol. 5, Delhi, Prestige Books, 1991; The Novels of Shashi Deshpande by Sarabjit Sandhu, Delhi, Prestige Books, 1991; Man-Woman Relationship in Indian Fiction, with a Focus on Shashi Deshpande, Rajendra Awasthy, and Syed Abdul Malik by Seema Suneel. New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1995; Shashi Deshpande: A Feminist Study of Her Fiction by Mukta Atrey and Viney Kripal. New Delhi, D. K. Publishers, 1998; The Fiction of Shashi Deshpande, edited by R. S. Pathak. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1998.

Though no writer in India can get away from the idea of social commitment or social responsibility, committed writing has always seemed to me to have dubious literary values. However, after 25 years of writing, I cannot close my eyes to the fact that my own writing comes out of a deep involvement with the society I live in, especially with women. My novels are about women trying to understand themselves, their history, their roles and their place in this society, and above all their relationships with others. To me, my novels are always explorations; each time in the process of writing, I find myself confronted by discoveries which make me rethink the ideas I started off with. In all my novels, from Roots and Shadows to The Binding Vine, I have rejected stereotypes and requestioned the myths which have so shaped the image of women, even the self-image of women, in this country. In a way, through my writing, I have tried to break the long silence of women in our country.

* * *

Shashi Deshpande's first book was The Legacy, a collection of short stories, and since then she has published dozens of stories. The authentic recreation of India, the outstanding feature of her stories, is a distinct feature of her novels also. There is nothing sensational or exotic about her India—no Maharajahs or snake charmers. She does not write about the grinding poverty of the Indian masses; she describes another kind of deprivation—emotional. The woman deprived of love, understanding, and companionship is the center of her work. She shows how traditional Indian society is biased against woman, but she recognizes that it is very often women who oppress their sisters, though their values are the result of centuries of indoctrination.

An early short story, "A Liberated Woman," is about a young woman who falls in love with a man of a different caste, and marries him in spite of parental opposition. She is intelligent and hardworking, and becomes a successful doctor, but her marriage breaks up because of her success. The Dark Holds No Terrors, Deshpande's first novel, seems to have grown out of this story. Sarita, the heroine, defies her mother to become a doctor, and defies caste restrictions by marrying the man she loves. Her husband Manu is a failure, and resents the fact that his wife is the primary breadwinner. She uses Boozie to advance her career, and this further vitiates her relationship with Manu. Sarita goes to her parental home, but she cannot escape her past so easily. She realizes that her children and her patients need her, and finally reaches a certain clarity of thought: "All right, so I'm alone. But so's everyone else."

The next novel, If I Die Today, contains elements of detective fiction. The narrator, a young college lecturer, is married to a doctor, and they live on the campus of a big medical college and hospital. The arrival of Guru, a terminal cancer patient, disturbs the lives of the doctors and their families. Old secrets are revealed, two people murdered, but the tensions in the families is resolved after the culprit is unmasked. One of the memorable characters is Mriga, a 14-year-old girl. Her father, Dr. Kulkarni, appears modern and westernized, yet he is seized by the Hindu desire for a son and heir, and never forgives Mriga for not being a son; her mother, too, is a sad, suppressed creature, too weak to give Mriga the support and love a child needs to grow up into a well balanced adult.

Roots and Shadows describes the break-up of a joint family, held together by the money and authority of an old aunt, a childless widow. When she dies, she leaves her money to the heroine, Indu, a rebel. Indu left home as a teenager to study in the big city, and is now a journalist; she has married the man of her choice. But she realizes that her freedom is illusory; she has exchanged the orthodoxy of the village home for the conventions of the "smart young set" of the city, where material well-being has to be assured by sacrificing principles, if necessary. Indu returns to the house when her great-aunt dies after more than 12 years' absence. As she attempts to take charge of her legacy, she comes to realize the strength and the resilience of the village women she had previously dismissed as weak.

Perhaps Deshpande's best work is her fifth novel, That Long Silence. The narrator Jaya, an upper-middle-class housewife with two teenage children, is forced to take stock of her life when her husband is suspected of fraud. They move into a small flat in a poorer locality of Bombay, giving up their luxurious house. The novel reveals the hollowness of modern Indian life, where success is seen as a convenient arranged marriage to an upwardly mobile husband with the children studying in "good" schools. The repetitiveness and sheer drabness of the life of a woman with material comforts is vividly represented, "the glassware that had to sparkle, the furniture and curios that had to be kept spotless and dust-free, and those clothes, God, all those never-ending piles of clothes that had to be washed and ironed, so that they could be worn and washed and ironed once again." Though she is a writer, Jaya has not achieved true self-expression. There is something almost suffocating about the narrowness of the narrator's life. The novel contains nothing outside the narrator's narrow ambit. India's tradition and philosophy (which occupy an important place in the work of novelists like Raja Rao) have no place here. We get a glimpse of Hinduism in the numerous fasts observed by women for the well being of husbands, sons or brothers. Jaya's irritation at such sexist rituals is palpable—it is clear that she feels strongly about the ill-treatment of the girl-child in India. The only reference to India's "glorious" past is in Jaya's comment that in Sanskrit drama, the women did not speak Sanskrit—they were confined to Prakrit, a less polished language, imposing a kind of silence on them. In spite of her English education, Jaya is like the other women in the novel, such as the half-crazed Kusum, a distant relative, or Jeeja, their poor maid-servant. They are all trapped in their own self-created silence, and are incapable of breaking away from the supportive yet stifling extended family. The narrow focus of the novel results in an intensity which is almost painful. All the characters, including Mohan, Jaya's husband, are fully realized, though none of them, including the narrator Jaya, are likable.

Deshpande usually has the heroine as the narrator, and employs a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique. The narrative goes back and forth in time, so the narrator can describe events with the benefit of hindsight. It would not be correct to term her a feminist, because there is nothing doctrinaire about her fiction; she simply portrays, in depth, the meaning of being a woman in modern India. Exemplary of her worldview is A Matter of Time, her first novel published in the United States: it is the tale of a woman abandoned by a man. The woman is Sumi, who has three daughters; the man is her husband, a professor named Gopal; and her abandonment forces her to return to the family's home in Bangalore. The issues Sumi faces are not Indian problems; they are universal ones—not just the difficulties in her marriage, but the conflicts within her family as well.

—Shyamala A. Narayan

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