"I don't like to call myself a feminist writer. I say I'm a feminist, but I don't write to propagate an ism," stresses Shashi Deshpande ' Sahitya Akademi award winner in 1990 for her novel 'That Long Silence' ' "Basically, mine is a quest for the human self within the woman," she adds.
Why would one of India's most acclaimed English writers need to reiterate her basic premises?
"I feel I came through only because I had faith in myself. The desire to say something was so strong. That was hard, when my whole life was considered unimportant, my work was considered unimportant, even writing by women was considered unimportant," explains Bangalore-based Deshpande. "Many women are silenced by lack of time. If I admire anything in myself, it's only that I kept on. It's easy to give up," she adds.
In the context of contemporary Indian writing in English, Deshpande is one of the most understated yet confident voices, who explores individual and universal predicaments through the female psyche. Her novels include 'Roots and Shadows' (1983), 'The Dark Holds No Terrors' (1980), 'That Long Silence' (1988), 'The Binding Vine' (1993), 'A Matter of Time' (1996), and 'Small Remedies' (2000). That's in addition to two short crime novels ' 'If I Die Today' (1982) and 'Come Up and Be Dead' (1983) ' and six volumes of short stories. Besides this, Deshpande has also written books for children.
What does Deshpande's success mean amidst media deification of one-book wonders?
Laughing at the derogatory definition of women's writing as 'kitchen literature', she recalls her growing days in Dharwad. "I had a very free, unhampered childhood. My father (the noted playwright Sriranga) was very liberal. He did not differentiate between his son and two daughters. In fact, marriage never entered his agenda for us until my mother reminded him that daughters had to be married," she remembers.
Married at 24 to a doctor from a conservative background, Deshpande felt liberated by her nuclear family in the Bombay of the 1970s. "There I was, happily married with two lovely sons, but I was feeling very incomplete, even dissatisfied," she recalls. "When I read Betty Friedan's 'The problem without a name', it appealed to me. Frankly, that was my problem. I couldn't name it. I felt: 'I'm not only a woman. I'm not only a mother. I'm not only a wife. I'm not only a female. I'm a human being with a mind.' It gave me a lot of unhappiness that my intellect wasn't being connected to my female self. I was always Mrs Deshpande, Raghunandan's mother, Vikram's mother... That anger ultimately translates into feminism."
How did the Indian lens perceive fledgling feminism?
"I think feminism in India has really come from the bottom, through women's own lives. We've always had working women ' not just those who go to offices, but women in our villages have to work," Deshpande says. "Activism spurred on feminism. When crucial court cases and other issues were debated by women, the awareness created was important. Whether within the women's movement against the price rise in Bombay or the uprising of laborers against landed people, it gave us a feeling that our voices mattered," she says.
Deshpande found herself in the international limelight when Virago in the UK published 'That Long Silence'. "After that, the struggle was over. Once you're published abroad, the Indian publishers are not going to say no to you," she notes. "But after the Booker and the Pulitzer, Indian writers have been under pressure to conform. Once our writers get over that and write honestly ' doesn't matter whether a western publisher wants it or not ' we'll have much better writing."
How has criticism impacted her life as a writer?
"I should be able to consider myself a senior writer by now. The books I've written are not insignificant. But when the media talks about writers in English, you'll find my name was most often omitted, until maybe two years ago," Deshpande points out. "Or they put me among the women writers. Invariably, I get asked: 'Is your next novel about women?' I think that's ridiculous! If you're writing about domestic things or the family, they immediately put you in an inferior slot. Somehow, women's writing is always the zenana. Criticism has not learnt to deal with writing by women as just writing, whether it's good or bad. I think it's deprived me of my true place in literature."
Do women's issues in English differ vastly from the Indian languages?
Mulling over the Kannada and Marathi literature she has read, besides translations, Deshpande replies, "English writing is very urban-oriented. We all belong to a certain class. That's a limitation... I once read a translated Hindi story about a woman who's been told by her husband to stand for a Panchayat (local self governance) election. Her dilemma was so contemporary. You don't find this in English."
Deshpande shifts focus to feminist reinterpretations of history and myth. "As part of the recent Neemrana (literary) Conference, we had one session about the way history influenced us. To me, history is also myth. I have a problem with myths, which are all written by men. But where are the women's voices in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, or the Puranas? Women were never allowed into the mainstream," she asks.
Liberating mythological women like Sita, Draupadi and Kunti, Deshpande has reinterpreted their stories through a collection titled 'The Stone Women' (2000). "In all our languages, women are doing this. I know there's a story by Vaidehi in Kannada about Sakuntala, in which she does not go back to her husband," states Deshpande. "To me, it's so true. Why would she, after all that humiliation? In the end, she tells her husband: 'If you want an heir for the throne, take my son. But I'm not coming.' Most women would do that."
Through myth and modernity, past prisms of prejudice, Deshpande has held her own, proving an icon to new writers. With feeling, she pleads, "You've got to read women's writing differently. If you're going to say this is only a story about a kitchen, and belittle it for that, that's stupid. It's the world of a human being trying to place herself within relationships, people, and ideas."
If that isn't the essence of existence, in literature as in life, what is?