At the SheThePeople.TV Women Writers Fest at Bengaluru on Saturday, the house was packed to listen in to Shashi Deshpande. With both the Sahitya Akademi and the Padma Shri awarded to her, she has been writing books that are quietly disruptive by talking about the lived experiences of Indian women, whether it is the political inequity that gender brings, marital rape, infidelities, and more.
At the fest to speak about her most recent book, “Listen to me,” which she refuses to call an autobiography but refers to as her memoirs, Mrs Deshpande speaks about the greatest challenge in writing this book, which was primarily to put herself into the story. “I wrote out the first draft and sent it to my editor and didn’t hear back for the longest time. And when I finally mailed her, she replied that this wasn’t me, that she couldn’t find me in the words.” That’s when she decided to sit down and rework what she had written and to tell her story. She is a firm believer of women telling their stories.
“For me the first block in telling my story was that I don’t remember dates,” she confesses most candidly. “So I put that right at the outset of the book, so I couldn’t be accused of mixing up dates.”
She also states it was difficult for her to revisit painful memories, and to decide how to present them, especially things like her brother’s illness which affected her entire family so intensely. As a writer, to turn the lens onto herself was a trifle disconcerting. She is forthright about the fact that women have always have had to battle with their own inner censors which tell them they have nothing important to say, and that women have to reclaim and tell their own stories from their perspective, even if critics and reviewers dismiss them as ‘domestic’ or ‘sentimental’. She recounts an interview that deeply upset her. A magazine interviewed her, where she stated that she enjoyed writing with a pen. The article when it appeared was headlined, “Grandma writes the old fashioned way.” It enraged her. “Would they have dared write ‘Grandpa writes the old fashioned way’ had it been a male author?” she asks. She has also, more notably, publicly taken up cudgels against the late V S Naipaul at a lit fest, who was dismissive of women writers speaking about gender issues and their writing calling them banal. She, at that point, had succinctly replied that anything that doesn’t affect a person personally would be banal, and added that she had been cool listening to the talk about exile (by Naipaul), which to her was banal. Of that incident, she laughs in retrospect. “He was just a very nasty person.”
Her father, an eminent litterateur in Sanskrit was a major influence in that he was a very strong man who never imposed his views on his children but allowed them to come up with their own opinions and ideas. It was a rare kind of parenting for that generation, and it allowed her to become the person she did, questioning societal norms and regulations which eventually found their way into her writing. She began writing late, but as she says, everything that happened in her life before she began writing was just preparation for her plunge into writing. “When I eventually began writing everything within me, for all those years, came out through my writing.”
We need to explore mature romance and love in our fiction. Who can predict love or say why one person falls in love with another.
She speaks about the themes in her books. The story of a woman who is raped on her wedding night by her now husband who is still a complete stranger to her, which is perhaps the lived experience even today of many Indian women in arranged marriages. “The woman wants to get to know the man, to talk to him, and he says what is the need, we are now married.” These conversations of agency and consent that we have today are ones that she was amongst the earliest in initiating back then. About a character who falls in love with a married man and grapples with her own inner conflicts, Deshpande says, “We need to explore mature romance and love in our fiction. Who can predict love or say why one person falls in love with another.” She feels women today are moving ahead and it is the men who are scrambling to keep pace. And finally, in reply to a question from the audience, who asked her what advice would she give herself at 16 in retrospect, Shashi Deshpande gave what should be a life lesson for everyone regardless of age or gender. “I don’t give advice, I don’t take advice.”