Desire of the Moth for the Star: Quest for Organic Living
Shashi Deshpande’s “The Intrusion and Other stories”
Dr. Hemang Desai
“Loneliness is part of all human beings.”1
Modern as well as post modern Indian English short stories written by women writers mark a signal departure from the network of themes like nationalism, the cultural conflict between the East and the West and confrontation of tradition and modernity, which frequently informed the pre-independence literary gamut, in favour of personal and individualistic themes dealing with the secretive problems and predicament besetting the lives of women. The thematic and the ideological preoccupations of the modern Indian short story by women…reflect the efforts of female mind in India to redefine women in the context of the tremendous economic, social and to some extent intellectual changes which have characterized the development of last fifteen to twenty years.2 Shashi Deshpande is one such literary voice which is pointedly devoted to the task of unearthing and unbosoming a well-estimated account of deep-seated reality of female psyche and its operation in post-colonial context. She does this by an exploration of the myths and the stereotypes that they indubitably entail upon women and by showing how entirely fallacious these stereotypes are. Simultaneously she tries to furnish the reader with quintessential woman by closely analyzing the woman’s psychological, emotional and intellectual needs and aspirations, cravings and desires and the conflicts and catastrophes that they inevitably bring in their wake. She explains,
“This has made it possible for us to ask a great many questions, questions which had never been asked before. Writers in India in search of some truths about themselves and their condition invariably go to the epics and the Puranas. So do women. And when they began, they were in effect rediscovering themselves, finding things relevant to their lives today. What we are now doing is retelling our own tales.”3
The artistic zoom lens through which she approximates the social reality as well as the reality of the working of a woman’s mind is tinctured with a finely honed sensibility – a refined and heightened sense of perspicacity – that acts as a catalyst in charting out the oscillograph of the woman’s inscape. Her stories center on ordinary Indian women and verbalize their most intimate experiences and deal with issues that are often buried in women’s silences with unprecedented candour. She has ferreted out cogent truth of the woman’s emotional and cognitive manoeuvre: her responses to situations and ideas, her thought-processes and nostalgia, her vulnerability and daredevilry, her cravings and aversions all of which in turn are shaped and affected, by and large, by the social milieu in its partial manoeuvre. By shattering the matrix of man-made stereotypes into which women so far have been stiflingly cast and by bringing the reader face to face with their real nature, Shashi Deshpande tires to carve out the effigy of a new woman who is more palatable and real to the mind of the reader. She seems to be breathing life into what Elizabeth Cady has termed women of future.
“Thus far women have been mere echoes of men. Our laws and constitutions, our creeds and codes, and customs of social life are all of masculine origin. The true woman is yet a dream of future.”
Thus emotional estrangement and temperamental incompatibility in man-woman relationship, a woman’s sense of suffocation and alienation, their mute miseries and helplessness, inner conflicts and trauma of ostracized existence are repeatedly explored by her in a majority of her short stories. In her consummate delineation of miseries of women’s life, she has held her spotlight on the collective forces of female subordination such as sexual differentiation, denial of socio-economic privileges, restrictive patterns of behaviour and lack of emotional and intellectual life, under the shattering effects of which a woman gets marginalized and in turn segregated from the mainstream of life.
The story which, as the writer admits, wrote itself and which made the writer conscious of her own voice is “The Intrusion” in which the protagonist writhes under the ravages of psychological alienation, which assumes lethal proportions when it is juxtaposed with physical union. With stethoscopic expertise the writer endeavours to plumb the abstruse abysses of the psyche of pusillanimous, just-married, dainty lass whose female sensitivity gets overshadowed by a sex-maniac husband who heaves contumelies of ‘marital rape’ on her self on the very first night of honeymoon. The husband is an accurate typification of all those obtuse patriarchs whose only possible apprehension of marriage is utilizing the otiose hours of solitariness into indulgence in the game of ‘relentless pounding’ and clawing. The husband quite guiltlessly extorts what is due to him by the way of a forcible rape if it is not given to him consent. He gets flabbergasted when she denies him sexual access on account of their being unknown to each other. “Know each other? What has that to do with it? Aren’t we married now?” (TIAOS p.40) On the other hand her aspirations are diametrically different.
“I had a great longing to go down, to scuff my bare toes in the sand, to pick up shells and sit on the rocks, letting the friendly waves climb up my bare legs. He would swim, I thought, and call out to me in a lazy way and I would respond with a wave and a smile.” (TIAOS p.37-38)
Shashi Deshpande has masterfully pinpointed the discrepancies in the ways in which both sexes decipher the meaning of love, to wife love should cater the opiate of soothing companionship rife with fervent reciprocation of affection and loving care but the husband’s understanding is profoundly tinged with sheer celebration of somatic union. Through this story the authoress seeks to sensitize the reader to the pathetic condition of women entrapped in nuptial system where they have to mutely countenance scores of humiliations, intrusion into privacy and glum servility inflicted by gratuitous fiats.
The same theme gains resonance in another story “It was Dark” where the writer castigates the matrimonial system legalizing the acts of physical violation of a woman’s right to herself. The story is set in a tenebrous environment, which palls over the house as a result of the rape unleashed upon the young and innocent daughter. The girl was inveigled into taking a lift from the unknown man and then fell a prey to his concupiscence. The flummoxed father scolds his wife for not warning their daughter against the pitfalls, which a girl is umpteen times vulnerable to. The wife revealingly ponders, “Do you rage against the inevitable?” (TIAOS p.31) The dictum pungently demonstrates that the harrowing experience is inevitably common to every woman’s life; the regrettable difference between her and her daughter’s experiences is that in the latter’s case it came earlier and out of wedlock. But that doesn’t palliate the degree of horrendous sadism, brutal violence and subsequent feel of humiliation that both the nightmarish experiences unmistakably exert. The comment of the husband about the criminal has telltale bulge of irony: “This man isn’t known offender-this seems to be his first offence…” (TIAOS p.31) The husband himself is yet another reprobate but with a license for violence and his crime doesn’t get publicized. But in the tribulations of both sorts the woman has to submit taciturnly to make ‘things easier’. Speaking about ‘marital rape’ Shashi Deshpande said:
“It is part of the male idea of owning a woman’s body, of worst kind of violence because it violates the woman’s inner self. It also destroys the delicate fabric of between the two sexes.”3
The same vein of strangulating sense of sequestration and helpless reticence runs through the story “My Beloved Charioteer” where Arti’s mother, the protagonist, is extremely surprised when she eavesdrops to the tête-à-tête of her daughter and son-in-law. “And I stood outside and wondered- what could you be talking about? I felt like I did when I looked at a book as a child before I learned to read.” (TIAOS p.59) Her stupefaction emanates from her interminable training in unfailing observance of wifely duties, like self-effacing, non-covetous, demure, obedient and most importantly being ‘available’ to her husband all the time. The sheer loveless monotony and the uncommunicative dreariness of the experience are mortifying. “ When he wanted me, he said ‘Come Here’. And I went. And when he finished, if I didn’t get out of his bedfast enough, he said, ‘You can go.’ And I got out.” (TIAOS p.59) The protagonist of the story unfailingly epitomizes the stereotype of ‘good woman’ who uncomplainingly accepts her miserable lot as definitive and irrevocably correct. Shashi Deshpande says,
“We may laugh at the crudeness with which the movies present us with these stereotypes, but there is no doubt that these women from the myths are a very powerful influence on us even today. To be as pure as Sita, as loyal as Draupadi, as beautiful as Lakshmi, as bountiful a provider as Annapoorna, as dogged in devotion as Savitri, as strong as Durga - these are all the ultimate role models we cannot entirely dismiss.”
In the story “An Antidote to Boredom” lovemaking to a bland and stolid husband becomes obnoxious chore for the protagonist. She fills like fill de joie as physical unification gains upper hand over the concord of souls. She has a feeling “of being cheated, of being defrauded of something that was the right of our womanhood.” (TIAOS P. 65) Consequently she traipses down the path of perversion as an inevitable backlash against asphyxiating privation and enters a liaison with a man whose genial liveliness presents a propitious contrast to her crass husband. This vivacious man is solicitously mindful of each and every trivialities appertaining to the physical as well as emotional metabolism of the protagonist. He gives her what she craved for, “And the thought of meeting him kept me keyed up to a more intense pitch of living…until then, nobody had cared what I wore, how I dressed.” (TIAOS p.64)
If we get down to the bedrock of the generic connubial discord which significantly underscores these stories, we can infer that all the female protagonists unerringly pine for emotional cohesiveness and its unmitigated absence in their post-nuptial life renders them morose, disconcerted and sometimes insurgent. Their dolorous psychological syndrome is a corollary of the pitch-dark pall of the loneliness and seclusion that cloud their emotional firmament depriving them of the sunshine of love in which they wish to bask. The loneliness of her heroines is much more nerve-racking because it is tendentiously inflicted. The trivialization of self and the reduction of individuality to insignificant marionette are greatly distressing to them. Their marginalization is reminiscent of Tillie Olsen’s observation on woman’s condition:
“Cabined, Cribb’d, confin’d; the private sphere. Bound feet: corseted, bedecked; denied one’s body, powerless.”5
The protagonist of the story “The Stone Women” is shown to be sincerely dubious about the reality of “…the joyous, playful, narcissistic existence” of the women who were dancing, playing on musical instruments, hunting, looking into mirrors, dressing up and who were chiseled into ‘beautiful’ shapes on the wall of a temple. She asks,
“Were they really like this? Could any woman ever have been like this?” (TIAOS p.143)
To Shashi Deshpande, as she admits, it was “… a picture far removed from the picture I have of women's daily lives. And as I thought of this, it came to me - but these are women created by men. They are male fantasies which they have worked out into stone!”7
The silver bracelet, which the protagonist unwillingly puts away on the bidding of her husband, suggests that so far women have been what men have wished them to be. Again the “…galaxy of gods…dressed like gods in TV serials in plastic heads and tinsel crowns” in front of whom the royal queen is reported to have been dancing are none but men of society who make the woman dance to the tune of their whims like a puppet.
Many of her short stories are laid against the background of Hindu mythologies like Mahabharata. In these short stories Shashi Deshpande has breathed in life in the mythical women characters and has made them retell their tales of agony and privation. In these stories she tries to analyze what myths mean to women and how they affect their lives. She said:
“Myths condition our ideas so powerfully that often it is difficult to disentangle the reality of what we perceive from what we learn of ourselves through them. In India, myths are perhaps even more powerful, for they have been with us in a long and unbroken tradition…. The myths continue to be a reference point for people in their daily lives and we have so internalized them that they are part of our psyche, part of our personal, religious and Indian identity. A Ram or a Sita, a Krishna or an Arjuna, a Draupadi or a Savitri - these are not just characters in stories to us. They are as real as the people around us.”
The story “Hear me Sanjaya…” records the monologue of Kunti, a character of Mahabharata, who outpours a piteous account of the segregation and commoditization she suffered at the hands of her father, husband and providence. Her father considering her a displeasing substance gave her away to his friend. “And I thought – what if I displeased this man too? Will he give me away to some one else?” (TIAOS p.137) Her husband preferred Madri, her co-wife, to her, as she was ugly. She sadly tilts,
“He needed her more, even in that other world he would have pined for her. I remember some times I used to listen to them talking; he had so many pet names for her…for me there was only one name.” (TIAOS p.136)
Even providence deemed her negligible and so rashly manipulated against her and deprived her of the joy of motherhood by bludgeoning her into setting her son drifting along the course of a river. After years of penitence when her son appeared before her eyes, he was too angry to understand her. Shashi Deshpande here disrobes Kunti of the garb of glorification that the writer of the Mahabharata has deliberately thatched her in. She has made her speak as a common woman with desires and pining, with dissatisfactions and grievances, with frustrations and repentance.
“Inner Rooms” written in the same mythical vein articulates the feelings and emotional reaction of Amba as a woman to the injustice and humiliations hurled upon her by the male chauvinists of her time. Bhishma abducted Amba along with her two sisters, as brides for Vichitravirya, the boy King of Hastinapur. Amba is in love with another King. In deference to the code of conduct, she is sent to that king, who refuses to accept her as he had lost her in battle with Bhisma and thus legally he could claim no right to the girl. Amba goes back to Bhishma and the boy King, but the boy King this time refuses to marry her as the code of conduct forbids him to marry a woman who is in love with another man. Flustered Amba turns to Bhishma who in turn refuses saying it would be a contravention of his vow of life-long celibacy. Finally, Amba kills herself. By the motif of inner rooms the writer quite unequivocally manifests the truth that women in society don’t have any access to the world of reality beyond their household harems. They are “left behind in the inner rooms, stoically waiting for their husband(s) to visit them at night, living in the constant hope of bearing him sons.” They are forced to live substandard life as playthings and pawns of men. Amba says that the freedom accorded to her to choose a husband of her own liking is illusory as finally it is the man’s will that is done. When women dare even to wish to have things their own way, denying to be duped into accepting the foisted image of a good woman, they are deliberately ostracized, by machinations and iniquitous rules fabricated by them exclusively for women.
Neglected and ignored, Amba complains helplessly,
“Oh, god to be and not to be seen; to speak and not to be heard…trapped in those inner rooms…” (TIAOS p.99)
Thus to Bhishma on his way back to Hastinapur after kidnapping Amba , her pleadings were quite immaterial whereas a shout from Shalva was sufficient for him to stop and listen. A woman has no say in the matter concerning her own life because,
“She was only a woman, she was to be disregarded, ignored; her will, her determination had to be set aside as nothing because she was a woman” (TIAOS p.98)
Shashi Deshpande wrote:
“All these incidents are there in the Mahabharata, narrated straight. I narrated them through Amba and saw her anger, her utter disgust of the games men play, of her despair at having become a pawn in their game and finally, her decision to kill herself, not as a defeat, but because she thinks that if she cannot control her life, atleast she can control her own death.”
By exploring the myths the writer brings out the sad truth, that most of our literature is the creation of men and unfortunately women themselves have brought themselves to accept it as the truth. The writer seems to be disgruntled about the fact that women don’t try to peep into their hearts to identify their true selves but they accept the things they read in fictional or mythological books and see existing in society. Shashi Deshpande said:
‘The point is that all these stories in myths legends and oral literature have been created by men to fulfill their various needs. There is the eternal child to be protected and controlled, the self-sacrificing mother to nurture and cherish the man, the chaste partner to guarantee exclusive sexual rights and an undoubted paternity of the children and the temptress to titillate and provide sexual gratification.”
“Why a Robin?” treats of the predicament of a woman who feels that her existence in her house is on sufferance as there was no point of contact between her world and those of her husband and her little daughter. Even after drudging indefatigably for them and whittling down all her hopes, her presence remained unacknowledged. “They…talk of many things, ignoring me…An outsider in my own home. Have they locked me out or have I locked myself in?” (TIAOS p.12) but one day the gulf between her and her daughter is bridged when the daughter serendipitously encounters puberty and the neglected mother provides the necessary comfort and assurance.
Shashi Deshpande eschews being called a feminist.
Though her artistic incentive strictly speaking is not that of blatant vociferation against discriminatory accommodation of human rights to both genders, she has definitely provided momentum to the vanguard of feministic cerebration by imparting the reader proper perspective to gauge the predicament of the woman in male-chauvinistic society.
If her protagonists’ relationships with their husbands throw them deep down in doldrums, their associations with their children mark the nadir of their hope for unison. They strive hard to cement the schisms that insulate their emotional worlds from those of their offspring. Shashi Deshpande delicately delineates the mélange of impressions like isolation, insecurity, guilt, redundancy and interpolishness that emboss in their minds as an upshot of their relationships with their children who fail to apprehend their feelings. The thing that piques them is that they cut an insignificant and good-for –nothing figure in the eyes of their relations in spite of their exemplary sensibilities and ardent love for them.
The story “My Beloved Charioteer” describes the emotional rupture of a widow mother from her widow daughter, Arti, which exists for inscrutable reasons. Here the mother constantly remains on qui vive for an opportunity to please her cross-grained daughter whose sense of dissatisfaction with and resultant aversion to life is canalized towards her docile mother in the form of fury ad anger. The protagonist epitomizes all the attributes of mother ranging from her unremitting anxiety for her child’s well being to self-assumed guilt consciousness at her misery. “If my daughter is so empty that she can hate people who are happy, the fault is, to some extent, mine.” (TIAOS p.56) the dead weight of the mortified love and rebuffed affection keep on assuming ingravescent proportions until one day when the protagonist peeved by the fact that Arti still derives strength for living from her selfish father, she indulges in paroxysms of anger, divulging his crudity and callousness as a husband and thus impels her daughter to ‘see’ her parents as people.
The story, “And then…?” inscribes the anguish felt by a middle-aged widow as throughout her life she savoured nobody’s identity in the judgment of her husband, he daughter, Anju, and her son Vishwa. “I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” (TIAOS p.153) everyone close to her heart deemed her a non-entity and slighted her qualmlesssly for realizing selfish motives by taking an indifferent view of her feelings. Thus as soon as her husband died, her daughter declared her selfish intention of going to States. “Selfish? May be. But I would rather be selfish than become like you…become bitter and hate you and myself for it?” (TIAOS p.151) to her son this illiterate mother is a burden and a source of shame as she didn’t know how to comport herself in the presence of upper echelons. Therefore when she expresses her wish to live along with him, his approval fails to hide smack of disappointment that flits across his face. The authoress has juxtaposed past and present to project the bleariness of her future. “Anju holding my hand, Vishwa holding my hand…but that’s the past, that’s all over. Its I who am holding their hands now. How long can I do that, how
1. Shashi Deshpande in Ink in the veins – An interview by Menaka Jayashankar which appeared in Mumbai Newsline of July29, 2001.
2. Deiter Riemenschneider, Indian Women Writing in English: The Short Story in “World literature written in English” volume-25, No.2 (1985), p.312-318.
3. Ibid.1 above.
4. Quoted in Elien Moers’ “Literary Women” in Mary Eagleton, ed. Feminist literary theory: a reader (Oxford: Blackwell publishers Ltd., 1986) P. 294
5. Tillie Oslen, Silences in. Mary Eagleton, ed. Feminist literary theory: a reader (Oxford: Blackwell publishers Ltd., 1986) p.81.
6. Shashi Deshpande in Ink in the Veins… as above.
7. Shashi Deshpande in Ink in the Veins… as above.