Fiercely honest memoir
The book takes the reader into the writer’s mind, offering glimpses of the creative process, and is a forceful argument against labelling writers by gender and issues.
“FOR all my writing life I have been asked, ‘Why do you write about women?’ … ‘Is your next novel also about women?’ … Damn it, I want to say to all those who ask these questions, writers write about people they know best, they write about things that trouble them. And so do I. … do you ask a male writer why his protagonists are almost always male? And why, when he writes about women, is he lauded for that fact?”
This is Shashi Deshpande landing her punches in Listen to Me, her recently released memoir. Only occasionally does the private seep into her narrative and that only because she so chooses. For the most, it is the writerly self the reader meets in the book, and the direct, bold, lucid “self” that emerges is one who, it seems, has evolved over years of observing, listening and reflecting.
Author of books such as The Dark Holds No Terrors, That Long Silence (Sahitya Akademi awardwinner, 1990), The Binding Vine, Moving On, Small Remedies and A Matter of Time , and on whom the government conferred the Padma Shri in 2009, Shashi Deshpande is scrupulously honest about and in her writing. “The discipline, the rigour, the integrity that writing demands, emphatically rejects self-indulgence,” she writes. “Just as there is no room for love of oneself, love of your own words is also taboo. Writing demands honesty, it asks for ruthless self-criticism. And yet, while it may be cathartic to be open about yourself, it is also dangerous, because we live by some of our beliefs about ourselves.”
In the process of shar- ing, almost despite herself, we see how she confronted the dangers so that, “After I had written The Dark Holds No Terrors, I realised that to write is to know the power in yourself, it is to defeat powerlessness. … I had to go on writing.”
Those who do not know or choose not to see, assume that Shashi Deshpande’s life has followed the standard trajectory of daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, during the course of which, well, she also wrote. In fact, she speaks with distress of an interview published in India Today headlined “Grandmother writes old fashioned way”, possibly because her grandson walked in on the interview and because she had said she wrote her first drafts with a fountain pen. “To bring a personal identity… into a professional interview was just not done. Even more offensive was the fact that they didn’t seem to understand… that they wrote this insulting headline only because I was a woman…. Would they have called a senior writer a grandfather… ?” A fair question.
This is an individual who has written 11 novels, two crime novellas, a number of short stories, a book of essays, four children’s books, translated from Kannada and Marathi into English, and has herself been translated into various Indian and European languages, not to speak of the conferences and festivals she has attended and lectures she has delivered in universities. The memoir, then, is a forceful argument against labelling writers by gender and issues.
Like much of her writing, the memoir, too, churns to the surface the human condition rendered with fierce honesty and fine nuance. It begins quietly, again, like her novels, but as you read on, you are so caught up in the crosscurrents of experiences and insights that it becomes impossible to put the book down. There are many references to issues concerning writers, such as the vexing business of reviews. But why worry about reviews? Because “there is no other feedback for a writer”, explains the
author. “Actors, musicians, dancers at least get an instant response from their audience. For authors, until the reviews come out, there is nothing. Without reviews, one is left feeling completely at sea about one’s work.”
Shashi Deshpande paints a canvas of writers and others she admires; equally, she is unsparing about those she cares somewhat less about and there are, in fact, some tasty morsels with respect to Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, for instance. A Wodehouse fan, she points out that he, “in spite of saying things in a light, flippant way, said many wise things about writers and writing: ‘There are two ways of writing a novel. One is to ignore real life altogether… the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn’.” She herself went “deep down into real life. But that real life for me was the life I lived at home in India, the life I knew so well.… Excellent though some of the Indian diasporic writers were, I often felt that after the initial surge of writing, which came out of nostalgia about their early years at home, there was a faltering.”
Her views on the fraught relationship between Indian writers/ writing in English and bhasha writers provide perspective, and she is clear on the question of who may write about whom: “Almost no foreign writer can write about mainstream American life, no Indian writer can write a novel without having Indians as protagonists. Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music is a rare novel.… The problem starts with the publisher, who expects foreign writers to provide the exotic element, so that the books find a slot to fit into. Perhaps it is because of this that almost no foreign writer has made an impact on American literature.” Coming from Shashi Deshpande, these opinions cannot be ignored.
Simultaneously, she is generous about sharing insights about the craft of writing. In the course of working on Small Remedies, she says, she learned “to hold on tightly to the characters and to let the facts seep through them, through their lives. Never to introduce facts which are not relevant to the story.” Of course, she has the pedigree. As the daughter of the Kannada writer Adya Rangacharya ‘Shriranga’, she was exposed to the literary world from childhood. However, with this came an unspoken literary responsibility. It would appear that even as she bears this with grace, she has not allowed herself to be borne down by it.
It is clear that her intimate connection with the real world has made Shashi Deshpande the writer she is, quietly defying stereotypes in spite of presenting a “typical” outward appearance. “Recently,” she writes, “when an image of Indian women scientists in silk saris, with flowers in their hair, celebrating the successful launch of a satellite, went viral, I …thought… , ‘Bang! There goes a stereotype!’” And in the context of rape, she makes this sensitively discerning comment: “Men spend some of the best moments of their lives, some of the most tender moments of their lives, with
Where does come from?”
There are as many different kind of writers as there are readers, and all of them advise aspiring writers in their own unique ways. Shashi Deshapande says that if she is asked, “What have you done with your life?”, she will say: “‘I have read. I have read many books. I have read many good books, some great books.’ And if the voice then asks, ‘And…?’ I will add in a small voice, ‘I have written.’”
She then goes on to speak of her wonder at the aplomb with which a young writer, “presented to the audience as the author who has sold more books than most writers” accepted the adulation. “Such enormous self-confidence can only come, I thought then, and still think,” she goes on, “with success, through earning large sums of money. And, perhaps, let me add, because the author has not read much, has not read the greats, she has no idea of her place in the world of literature.” The frankness is refreshing and the love of reading, palpable. The passages describing, for instance, the excitement she felt when the Karnatak Granthalaya came to Dharwad where she spent her childhood should inspire everyone to go to the library.
Listen to Me is a journey unravelling places, people and ideas. More, it takes the reader into the writer’s mind and offers glimpses of the creative process. Best, it motivates you to pick up books and start reading.
women.… the hatred
Listen to MeBy Shashi DeshpandeContext, an imprint of Westland, Chennai, 2018 Pages: 370Price: Rs.699 (hardback)
SHASHI DESHPANDE, during a discussion on “Listen to me” at the Bangalore Literature Festival in Bengaluru on October 27, 2018.