Fiercely hon­est mem­oir

FrontLine - - BOOKS IN REVIEW - BY SAND­HYA RAO

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.

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