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Portrait of a writer as a ‘crotchety’ woman

  • Shashi Deshpande recounts her experiences as a woman and writer in her new autobiography
  • She was one of the first women to make a mark among Indian writers in English

Deshpande says her biggest achievement is that she has kept writing. Photo: Meghana Sastry/Mint
Deshpande says her biggest achievement is that she has kept writing. Photo: Meghana Sastry/Mint

Someone, somewhere called me curmudgeonly. I wish people would consult their dictionaries when they use a word not often, or not commonly used. I think the right word would be crotchety." In her delightfully frank and surprisingly funny recent memoir, Listen To Me, Shashi Deshpande takes no prisoners.

For years, Deshpande has talked about how women’s writing is dismissed, a preoccupation that has often led to her being called a moaner, mostly by men. But she is unrepentant. “If I am moaning, there are a great many moaners in the literary world," she writes in the memoir. Today, as the ghettoization of women writers is acknowledged, it is apparent that Deshpande was far ahead of her time.

Why this title, almost a cry in the dark? When I meet her at her Bengaluru home, Deshpande explains, in her usual forthright way: “I just wanted to be understood. All authors want that."

But Listen To Me isn’t just a plea for attention. It’s also a charming account of the books that inspired a generation. This is a happier, more playful Deshpande than is reflected in her novels. She talks about her love for genre literature—P.D. James and Sue Grafton—her obsession with the Brontës, and her clashes with Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul.

Who: Deshpande was one of the early women writers in English in India. In the late 1970s, when she began writing, there was no blueprint for women writers. Later, when Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth were writing sweeping sagas, Deshpande focused on the home, which she found far more fascinating. “Why is it okay for Jonathan Franzen to write about the family, but not me?" she tells me.

This meant that she was often dismissed as a middle-class woman writing about other middle-class women, mostly by prejudiced male reviewers. “At times I felt like I was carrying my identity of middle-class woman writer like Sinbad, the sailor, carried the old man on his back," she writes.

But a closer look at her novels shows that her discontented heroines are anything but conventional matrons. In That Long Silence, deservedly the most celebrated of her novels, the protagonist Jaya is forced to confront her demons when her husband is accused of embezzling. In Small Remedies, Savitribai, a classical singer, leaves her husband to live with her Muslim lover. In In The Country Of Deceit, Devyani, a single woman, falls in love with a married man.

“I write about people. They just happen to be women," she says. At the time she began writing, of course, women were not seen as “people". In the memoir, she writes, “Novel after novel I kept hoping that my work would be recognised not as being about women but about the predicament of human beings, but it never seemed to happen."

She is rightly furious about men not reading books about women. “Men always come up to me at literary fests and say, ‘Please sign this book for my wife,’ as if they are ashamed to be reading me," she says. “Though recently I have noticed younger men are not ashamed to be reading women."

Listen To Me: By Shashi Deshpande, Context, 380 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Listen To Me: By Shashi Deshpande, Context, 380 pages, 699.

What:Listen to Me begins with the story of her childhood as the much loved daughter of the Kannada poet Sriranga in Dharwad, then moves to her life as a wife and mother in Mumbai trying to find her way, before finally getting to her start as a writer fairly late in life. The memoir takes a while to get going; the first half about Deshpande’s pre-writing life drags a bit. But it springs to life when she talks about her writing.

It is also an engrossing chronicle of the early days of Indian writing in English, a time when writers were invariably criticized for writing in a “foreign language". She was constantly asked why she wrote in English. “Was it because I did not look sophisticated enough to be an English writer?" she writes of her “sari-clad and tight bun" appearance.

Towards the end of the book, Deshpande talks about the responsibility of writers to speak up, at a time when free speech is threatened. She walks the talk. When scholar M.M. Kalburgi was murdered, she resigned from the Sahitya Akademi’s Central general council in protest against its silence. As Listen To Me was going to press, journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered. “Writers do need to speak up. But as individuals, we don’t have much clout," says Deshpande. Still, she spoke up at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival last year, where she cautioned against the use of Hindutva as an election plank. “All those who want a Hindu state must think of the consequences of establishing it," she said.

Why: Read this book if you want an incisive look at the early days of Indian writing in English, but also for a blunt look at the life of a working woman. Every woman—not just women writers—will identify with Deshpande’s struggle to juggle home, work, and the pressure to be all things to everybody. Her constant and very relatable refrain is, “I knew that I wanted something more, I knew that my life could not be contained within the four walls of my home."

Deshpande was a late bloomer; her first real success came with That Long Silence, published when she was nearly 50. In the memoir, her struggle to find the focus to write is painfully apparent as she limps to the end of every book. Eleven novels, two crime novellas, several books of essays, four children’s books. “My biggest achievement is that I have kept writing," she says. Indeed, it is no small achievement.

In contrast to her slow, painful slog, we laugh about how writers today are worried if they are not published by 30. “I read about a 24-year-old writer who says she has never read a book in her life, and is proud of it," chuckles Deshpande. “That takes some nerve."

Today, the boom in English publishing that Deshpande so desperately wished for has come to pass. Authors are no longer sneered at for writing in English. But Deshpande is still crotchety. “What I don’t understand or appreciate is that these young writers seem to think that language has to be dumbed down, because presumably, readers are dumb. It shows a contempt for readers that is unforgivable," she writes in her memoir.

In person, she is less harsh. “Maybe literary fiction has been pushed down our throats so often we no longer want to read it. There is definitely a place for neo-literature: literature for people who are learning English now and want simple books," she says.

Deshpande self-deprecatingly calls herself a “born slightee", borrowing the phrase from Saul Bellow. Even as she was accepting the Padma Shri in 2009, Deshpande secretly wished she had got the Padma Bhushan instead. One is tempted to wonder if she is ever satisfied. But then again, as Deshpande might retort: Are male writers ever satisfied?

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

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