Shashi Deshpande is one of the novelists whom you can read with seriousness. She is never after gimmicks. There is an ernest voice, very serious about the story being told and its manner. She is one of the writers with little posturing.
Her novels usually have women as the protagonists. This has led readers to call her a feminst writer. She has often complained against this title. Earlier I used to find this discomfort puzzling. In an earlier entry on Kamaladas here, I have in fact been vocal about writers’ hesitation to the ‘feminst’ title. But then I heard her at a seminar in Dharwad where in interactions she explained her reluctance.
Shashi Deshpande is of the view that in calling her novels feminst, one straitjackets the works; imprisons them with the label. She feels that while she is feminist, her novels are novels. She hasnt written the novels as a debating voice, to develop a thesis in a debate. She feels her novels are open examinations of the experiences of people in specific setting. In other words, I understodd her to be saying that ‘do not read these novels only within the framework of feminist concerns, they are novels like any other with a gamut of issues and experiences.
Absolutely fair. It is true that labeling a work is not much of a tribute. Categorizations invariably raise questions of in and out. Every category becomes an exercise in the imposition of certain limits. Then these categories themselves become a type of concession. For example, first label Shashi D as a feminist, then read her within the limits of feminist concerns, then make concessions by saying things like: ‘she is ok among the feminist writers’ as if outside the confines of the label she would not deserve place. This becomes another way of exclusion.
The issue is equally relevant in the case of Dalit literature too. More discussion here. Assertion of identity cannot be punished with a ghetto label. The issue is rather complex, not available to this kind of simple discussion. For example, one may say that the category is an assertion of identity, not a limiting label. That through the label one is signifying ones politics. That the work itself is political in its claim of that label. For example, a dalit writer may say that in claiming the label ‘dalit’ for the work, s/he is asserting the value of the work.
Sucharita, a friend of mine, herself a writer, has an interesting take on Shashi D here. I found the reaction of her mother v. interesting. Let me quote.
I remember presenting Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence to my mother. She was still teaching English Literature in college at that time and managing life in an extended family. She said she lapped up the narrative not for its literary subtleties or niceties but for the empathy it created for the woman in the narrative.
Sucharita goes onto further observe:
I remember asking the question of other ‘female’ elders who read the book after that. It was identification primarily that made the novel appealing to them. Jaya, Indu, Sumi, the list goes on …. strong, intelligent, educated, urban women who speak out, question, introspect, present in a literary microcosm the condition of women in India at large. Her prose is clear, simple, stark, setting forth a narrative of familial issues and crises arising from them. The long silence that has enveloped women across cultures forms the crux of her plots, the silence eloquent with unheard and unuttered doubts and worries, self questioning and suppressed grievances.
It appears to me that Shashi D’s appeal lies in the feminist themes. Her plots mold into emphatic pictures of feminist points of view. Many of us are blinded by this optics to such an extent that we fail to see any other merit in her. For example, I was thinking of her novel That Long Silence. I think in this novel the use of the modernist idiom is very interesting. THe manner in which Shashi D in this novel weaves together two kinds of intertextuality is also very interesting.