Aesthetics of Subjectivity, Ethics of ‘Otherness':
The fiction of Shashi Deshpande

Saikat Majumdar, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA

Written 65 years ago, Raja Rao’s lines in his Foreword to Kanthapura have become much debated buzzwords in Indian-English writing, and perhaps postcolonial Anglophone writing in general:

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the word ‘alien,’ yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up — like Sanskrit or Persian was before — but not of our emotional make-up. (Rao vii)

The issue of whether English is the language of emotional or intellectual make-up in colonial or postcolonial India, admittedly an important one, is not of interest to me here. What is of interest is the curious hybridity of experience and expression Rao sees English as signifying in the context of Indian life, in the liminality of its position between alienness and familiarity, never quite committing itself to either. He goes on to write: “We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us.” (Rao vii)

Rao was writing in 1937, ten years before India’s independence from British rule. Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge, not only with respect to the complex cultural politics of decolonization and consequently the status of the colonial language in a country of dozens of indigenous languages, but also in terms of the theorization of such politics in the academia, both in India and elsewhere, including the metropolitan universities of the West. Even so, many today would probably be in varying degrees of sympathy with the Indian poet and critic P. Lal’s argument, made to much controversy in the sixties: “English is one of the Indian languages, or putting it differently, a recent and very much alive and kicking adoption in the Indian family of ‘vernaculars’” (Lal 30). Lal is of course, very much aware that if English is an Indian language, it is so in a different way than Hindi or Bengali or Tamil is, and this awareness is reflected in his comparison of the position of English in India to that of Latin in unbalkanized, pre-Reformation Europe, even though the statistics he draws attention to—that of around two million Indian native speakers of English (at that time)—simultaneously complicates his analogy. Clearly he is himself conscious of this complication, which puts him in sympathy with Rao’s observation above, and this echoes in his call for a vital language for Indian-English literature that can contain such dichotomies: “King’s and Queen’s English, yes; Indian English, why not?; pidgin, inflated and gluey English, no” (Lal 18).

The status of English in India as an official, institutional language that shapes a large part of its public discourse—that of bureaucracy, higher education, governmental and corporate business inscribes it partly as a predominant pan-Indian written language. This is perhaps one important way in which it differs from countries where primacy is easily attached to the spoken form—“the English speaking world,” as the expression goes, there being none that approximates the realities of the English reading (or writing) world. Part of the significance of English comes from its presence in “writing”—clearly due to infrastructural and political implications of a colonial past. This entry of this “writing” presence, as it were, is indicative of its powerful “supplementarity” that Derrida perceives as “contaminating” mythic notions of the original purity of spoken language as those Rousseau subscribes to. As he writes: “Our language, even if we are pleased to speak it, has already substituted too many articulations or too many accents, it has lost life and warmth, it is already eaten by writing” (Derrida 226). The primacy of the colonial language in spoken discourse in a postcolonial country like India, demonstrates, even literalizes the degree to which the holistic reality of the language can be largely ascribed to the “insertion” of “that dangerous supplement” (Derrida 141).

This “contaminated” appearance of the colonial language may initially appear to have affinities with Raja Rao’s attribution of “intellectual” (as opposed to “emotional”) status to it, but eventually it goes beyond it—the intellect seeps into emotion, writing into speech; spoken English is just as much as a reality in India, even if its historical power may lie in the domain of the written. Such a deconstruction of binaries eventually leaves the English language in the liminal space where Rao sees it suspended within the matrix of Indian reality, even though it defeats his binarism of the discourses of emotion and intellect. Next to admittedly pertinent debates as to which figure is more vulnerable to “othering” in postcolonial literatures—that of the colonizer or the colonized—what remains an oft-ignored truth is that within this reality it is therefore the English language itself that most affects, and is affected by, the duality of subjectivity and “otherness.” It lingers in between, deconstructing the polarities of intellect and emotion, strangeness and familiarity, institutional power and familial intimacy, writing and speech.  

I would like to argue that this deconstructive balance, especially when reflected in the fractured representation of Indian English literature, is significantly related to an interlocking of a firmly rooted subjectivity and a more destabilizing “otherness” that often demands an intricacy of aesthetic for which the discourse of literary modernism is uniquely suited. Qualifying Raja Rao’s description of the fractured world refracted in Indian-English writing, P. Lal writes: “Tchekov’s bit of broken mirror by a river’s edge catching the full moon, is a good analogy; English used by Indians attempts at present to capture special nuances which ‘full’ mirrors cannot catch” (Lal 34). Such a fractured worldview, in all its wistfulness and humor, significantly corresponds to the way modernism pushes language to the very limits of representation, its dislocated temporal and spatial practices, and finally, to the thematic and stylistic fragmentation that strains the narrative orders of realist fiction.

That modernist aesthetics can be an important means of apprehension of alterity is itself something of a novel claim that is made by Derek Attridge in a forthcoming book on J.M. Coetzee. Attridge writes: “My argument, briefly, is that what often gets called the self-reflexiveness of modernist writing, its foregrounding of its own its own linguistic, figurative, and generic operations, its willed interference with the transparency of discourse, is, in its effects if not always in its intentions, allied to a new apprehension of the claims of otherness” (Attridge 17).

In making this claim, Attridge is as aware of, on one hand, the common accusations made against modernist writing for championing the kind of aesthetic ‘closedness’ that is “insensitive to the otherness produced by patriarchal and imperialist policies and assumptions,” as, on the other, the dangers of too dogmatic a distinction between modernism and postmodernism. Regarding the latter issue, he explains his resistance to call Coetzee’s work “postmodernist” on account of “its tendency to reduce otherness to sameness, in the globalization and commodification of cultures, the pursuit of rapid gratification, etc.” As an example of this “totalizing discourse,” he refers to “Jameson’s description of the depthlessness of postmodern cultural forms as a figuring of its homogenizing drive” (Attridge 21).

That postmodernist projects of theorizing discourse of alterity can lapse into homogenizing, totalizing modes is indeed well-demonstrated by Jameson’s well-known claim that the ‘national allegory’ is the most appropriate form of postcolonial fiction. The fusion of the public and the private that Jameson sees in the life of the developing world facilitates the creation of the national allegory, while the pastiche continues to mold the rambling, magic-realist style that defines its stylistic aesthetics. The best-known example of the postmodernist magic-realist national allegory hinging on this fusion of the public and the private in Anglophone South-Asian fiction would undoubtedly be Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a text that has become such a dominant one in this canon that it has come to set up the national narrative as a hyper-privileged paradigm in such fictional modes, and postmodernism its most significant politico-aesthetic expression.

The preferred site of the national allegory is a unified imaginative topos created out of Indian heterogeneity that works as a pan-Indian milieu, and the favorite subjects of it historical discourse are the larger, public processes of nationalism and nation-building, or nation-breaking for that matter — like the development of the nascent republic and its constitutional ideals, riots, wars and crises in the cabinet government. And after Jameson’s declaration of the fusion that takes place between the private and the public lives in what he sees as “third world” cultures, such larger national processes can be conveniently made to enter a metaphorical relation with the private lives of fictional characters, as Saleem Sinai’s Bildungsroman echoes the growth of the nation. However, such metaphorical or magic-realist conflations of the private and the public oversimplify the more complex ways they influence or find expressions in each other, and implicitly construct a hierarchy where its constructions of the public is always more significant than the private and the latter’s reality is made to fit into certain perceptions of the former. A useful epistemological tool in the further examination of this argument is Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between the “inner” and the “outer” domain of national culture, that of the state and the community, and finally, between “elite” and “subaltern” politics. In The Nation and Its Fragments, Chatterjee emphasizes the significance of the “inner” domain of national culture when he writes: “The home, I suggest, was not a complementary but rather the original site on which the hegemonic project of nationalism was launched” (Chatterjee 147). The recognizable totality of the post-independence, Nehruvian, secular India of the national allegory is therefore likely to suppress, not only narratives of the “inner” domain, but also subaltern histories of local and regional specificities. As Chatterjee writes, after telling the story of the Bengali stage actress Noti Binodini:

Indeed, the opening up of the whole problematic of the national project within and outside the domain of the state makes it possible for us now to make the radical suggestion that the cultural history of nationalism, shaped through its struggle with colonialism, contained many possibilities of the authentic, creative, and plural development of social identities that were violently disrupted by the political history of the postcolonial state seeking to replicate the modular forms of the modern nation-state. (Chatterjee 156)

My concern here is not so much the discourse of the historical as that of the literary, a distinction I need to make if only for epistemological purposes. If the frequent conflation of postcolonial and postmodernist narrative modes have led to totalizing myths of Indian reality that valorize a certain version of the “outer” domain, I would like to argue that it is that mode of aesthetics conventionally associated with modernism that can provide an adequate means of reading the intricacies of the “inner” domain, of the nuances of the local and the regional, and also do justice to the marginalized and the subaltern within the nationalist and anti-colonialist projects.

My example here is the fiction of Shashi Deshpande (b. 1938). She started publishing — with a book of short stories from a small literary press in Calcutta, Writers’ Workshop - in the late ‘70’s, and her major works, including seven novels, four short story collections and a few children’s books have continued to come out through the eighties and nineties. All her books have been published in India, and Virago Press in London and the Feminist Press at the City University of New York have brought out editions of a few of her works.

For Deshpande, the privileged unit of the private sphere is the Indian extended family, usually middle and upper-middle class, in its huge, sprawling expanse of kinship networks that are nonetheless intricately woven, with each strand loaded with a significance that is mythical, time-honored and carefully distinguished. Unlike the multigenerational, mock-epic family sagas of the national allegories that come complete with family tree and a colorful cast of idiosyncratic characters only to metaphorically reflect the dominant narratives of national history, the shapes and structures of Deshpande’s families seem deeply moored in the verisimilitudes of a realist tradition that is also rooted in a very local soil, with regional values and cultural politics refracted through a larger network that belongs to a larger tradition of Indian — if Hindu — social culture. The family looms large as a powerful and a paradoxical structure, replete in equal amounts with love, care, pettiness, rivalry, patriarchal dominance, the play of materialism and idealism, ambition and its curtailment — rooted in specific cultural and geographical spaces that deeply shape their texture, usually locales in Karnataka and Maharashtra, the two states of peninsular India where Deshpande has spent most of her life. Within the discursive space of the narrative framework such family structures often seem near-complete by themselves, contained in their local, private lives, and the upheavals in the public sphere seem very far away. Apart from the larger social histories and legacies such apparently self-enclosed family structures encode within themselves, most direct and immediate intrusions of patterns and movements within the public spheres take place through the lives of the characters from the families that individually enter, or are influenced by these patterns and movements. The allegations of professional corruption that tint the life and career of Jaya’s husband in That Long Silence, therefore, can be seen as symptomatic of certain patterns within the bureaucratic structures of civil government in post-independence India, over and above his individual character and values that made him vulnerable to such acts; similarly, the rape of Kalpana, the teenage girl from the Bombay slums in whose life Urmi, the protagonist of The Binding Vine gets emotionally involved, and more significantly the politically motivated media hype that follows the incident indicates larger patterns of class and gender oppression and the political capital of such patterns as exploited by different groups in society, government and the mass-media. The point is, however, while the national allegories seem to proceed from the direction of certain privileged narratives of the pan-Indian public sphere into the lives of individuals who seem to solely exist as vehicles of the symbolic reflection of such narratives, in Deshpande’ fiction, on such rare occasions when the locally rooted, family-enclosed (or stifled, as it often is), well-rounded private lives spill into the larger patterns or upheavals of the public domain, epistemological and narrative primacy is still fixated on such private lives that might be swayed by such patterns or upheavals but are never rendered into flat narrative vehicles of the same.

It is perhaps not coincidental that almost all of these fully-rounded private lives that are foregrounded as the principal motifs in her novels belong to women, usually well-educated, sometimes professionally established, often torn between the visible and invisible networks of tradition that center on the overarching family-structures these women are part of on one hand, and a liberal bourgeois modernity on the other, neither of which is spared a persistent critique. The most crucial site of this dilemma is the web of patriarchy, both obviously constructed and intricately spun, that these female protagonists and the host of other women characters variously battle, aid, rebel against or are complicit with, with an endless range of responses — anger, despair, resentment, resignation, reflection, acceptance, even perpetuation. The lives of the protagonists often move back and forth between the turmoil-ridden spaces of home and family networks on one hand and larger public or professional spheres on the other, the latter however, never a direct presence but an indirect shadow of an elsewhere that is rarely given adequate discursive space within the narrative frameworks.

Saru, in Deshpande’s first published novel The Dark Holds No Terrors is a successful physician who has to suffer a sadistic relationship with a husband who cannot accept the fact that his wife is more professionally successful than him. But the greater problem in Saru’s life is her own inability to accept the fact that the husband whom she married out of much love and respect is in fact such a tormented individual who has let out his complexes through a sadistic sexual relationship with her. On the other end of her life is the dominating figure of her mother and a father who, eventually after his wife’s death, is world-weary, and has renounced the problems and entanglements of earthly life in spirit. It is a moment of crisis in the novel when Saru, having left her husband and returned to her father’s house, has to, almost against herself, talk to her father about the complications in her married life, who has to listen, almost against himself. Indu, the narrator-protagonist of Roots and Shadows, is a successful journalist (and a less successful fiction writer) who returns to visit her father’s family — a family she had alienated by her unconventional marriage to a man of another caste — following the death of her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, to find that the deceased has inexplicably left her very substantial properties entirely to her, and to immerse herself with the complex socio-psychological entanglement within the family that follow. Jaya, in one of Deshpande’s finest achievements, That Long Silence, is less successful and less empowered than Indu, and is a writer who in the face of patriarchal criticism against the passion and honesty she puts in the female characters of her fictions, ends up smothering her talent and instead churns out a gossipy women’s column in a popular daily where she caters to society’s expected image of a woman without the disturbing intensity and nakedness of emotions that the society feels threatened by. Such an act of intellectual dishonesty to her true writerly self propels the novel to become something of a long, lyrical, fractured interior monologue on Jaya’s part, on the meanings of womanhood in the given social and cultural context. The very internalized literary failure is coupled with her troubled relationship with her well-educated and established, surface-liberal husband Mohan — as indeed, many of the husbands tend to be in Deshpande’s fiction — and her neighbor, the widower Kamat, who encourages those very aspects of Jaya’s writing that are stifled by the patriarchal values of society and considers her popular column a betrayal of her true vocation. Her relationship with Kamat treads the thin ice between the platonic and the sexual, never however, breaking into the latter in spite of the very real sexual tensions between them. The crisis of the novel deepens when Mohan, a civil servant, is accused of professional malpractice and decides to go into a temporary exile in Bombay, and Jaya has to follow, almost against herself, through the customary expectations from a woman in marriage, an institution which she describes tiredly to herself, as “Two bullocks yoked together” (That Long Silence 5). It is just too much trouble going separate ways, especially when the yoke has been strengthened by the presence of children.

A Matter of Time also has a failed marriage as its narrative crux, this time a stranger one. Gopal, a university professor, walks out of his twenty year old marriage and three daughters, leaving his job, almost all his material possessions, and starts living a near monastic, spare life in a single room over the ramshackle printing press run by a former student of his, making something of a meager living from the occasional copy-editing he does for the latter. Though the novel is more significantly about his wife, the regal, beautiful and detached Sumi, and to a certain extent about their eldest daughter, the eighteen year old politically inclined, self-identified feminist (which Deshpande’s mature main protagonists, significantly, never are) Aru, Gopal is in fact the male character who gets the maximum sympathy, well-roundedness and discursive space in all of Deshpande’s fictions. Sumi and her family — both her paternal family and her three daughters, remain in touch with Gopal, a behavior rather inexplicable in the aftermath of incidents in the context of the society’s values, and their attitude, except for Aru’s occasionally harsh criticism, is strangely open and relatively uncritical, almost sympathetic of the spiritual and philosophical turmoil within Gopal which seems to draw a similar ambivalent sympathy from the authorial sensibility as well, in spite of its main focus on the emptiness in Sumi’s life till her (and her father’s) death in a roadside accident.

The clear narrative tension between the tradition of social realism and on one hand and the internal, fragment life of the mind and its fluid movements through uncharted territories on the other constitutes one of the most interesting elements of such fictions. Clearly, important things happen in these novels — more in some than others — most notably, death, ranging from that of the superannuated matriarch in Roots and Shadows to that of Urmi’s one-year-old daughter in The Binding Vine. But interestingly, most of such incidents are usually placed outside the narrative frameworks of the novels, though in an immediate vicinity, from where they trigger off a series of tremors that propel the fractured movements of the internal consciousness that actually constitute the narratives, along with the texture of quotidian everyday life where the narratives always return after the worst of losses, the most shocking of upheavals. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the concrete upheavals in the lives of the protagonists and their families, while providing significant occasions for the motions and explorations within the protagonists’ consciousness, are sacrificed in terms of narrative location and importance, to the streams of internal movements through minds and external passages through banal dailiness that make up the novels. The deaths of both Akka, Indu’s grandmother in Roots and Shadows and Urmi’s daughter in The Binding Vine have already happened place before the novels start, and the long-term import of these deaths seep through the smaller chain of incidents that are triggered off by them, but more importantly, the chain of upheavals within the protagonists’ minds and idiosyncrasies in their private behavior which are often deeply ambivalent, not always in keeping with the expected. The narrative ‘elsewhere’ outside the novelistic frameworks where the events take place are not only temporal but spatial as well. Of the two situations of rape that Urmi gets personally involved with, that of the working class teenager, Kalpana, is located spatially outside narrative frame even though it happens within the scope of the narrative present. The other incident, that of relentless marital rape that Urmi’s long-dead mother-in-law, Meera, Urmi’s husband Kishore’s mother, had to endure from her husband all through her life, is located much farther back in the past and comes to Urmi only through the diaries and the poetry Meera has left behind which Urmi stumbles upon:

This, what happened between Vanaa’s father and Mira, is much worse. I know Vanaa’s loyalty and so I can never speak to her of what I now know her father to be — a man who tried to possess another human being against her will. Was it her mother who told her ‘never to say no’?

Don’t tread paths barred to you
obey, never utter a ‘no’;
submit and your life will be
a paradise, she said and blessed me.

But her will rose up against him and the

no, growing painfully within
like a monster child was born.

He forced himself on her in spite of it; it was out of this that Kishore was born.

(The Binding Vine 83)

And yet, in the last poem she wrote, in a gesture Helene Cixous would have celebrated, Meera seemed to have written the very spasms of near-painful joy that kept shooting through her body at the feel of the clinging life within her, the binding vine within which female life is webbed throughout the novel:

Tiny fish swimming in the ocean of my womb
My body thrills to you;
Churning the ocean, shaking distant shores
You will emerge one day.

Lightning flashed through the front door
And I who was stone quivered.
Bridging the two worlds,
You awaken in me
A desire for life.

Desire, says the Buddha, is the cause of grief;
But how escape this cord
This binding vine of love? Fear lies coiled within
This womb-piercing joy.

(The Binding Vine 136-137)

Just like the fragments of Meera’s diaries, the stories of such already over incidents also come to us not through any ordered realist narration, but in fractured bits and pieces that idiosyncratically follow the fragmented subjectivities of the characters’ mind set in an unpredictably fluid movement not only by the impact of the incidents but also the larger ethical and philosophical questions, usually about the nature and meaning of womanhood that even such major incidents merely seem to provide the occasion for, questions which seem to possess a life powerful enough to transcend their immediate contexts. Just the way the novels are unselfconsciously ‘Indian’ in a cultural sense, providing no contextual annotations of relations, notions, customs and rituals that hardly translate beyond their immediate regional cultures, much less outside India, neither do the subjective movements of the protagonists’ minds organize any background information for the reader to grasp a coherent chronology of events in the middle of the lyrical, trancelike stream of consciousness, unapologetic introductions of personal dreams and nightmares, disjointed threads of family narratives. Haunting and mythical, the past always looms in a heavy shadow, and yet the present seems to perpetually fracture under the striking crisis that is the very stuff of such narratives, that justifies the placement of the narrative focus on the latter and not the former. It is the powerful tension between the two that defines Deshpande’s modernist aesthetics that remains enclosed, but not interrupted by, a framework of social realism.

But the past is one whose borders are porous, shape-shifting, always unstable. No event in these novels are self-contained, none so enormous that it can guarantee attention on itself without the metonymic slippage of such attention to other pasts, more shadowy, apparently unrelated. The Binding Vine starts two days after Urmi has lost her infant daughter Anu, and yet Anu seems to have receded in the background of Urmi’s memories of odd idiosyncratic moments from their childhood life in Ranidurg, metaphors and associations that seem to overwhelm the reality in whose association they emerge:

When a child dies, there’s so little left. After you’ve tidied and put away the clothes and the toys, there’s nothing. Only emptiness. I feel I’ve emerged the final victor in the that game we used to play round the disused well in Ranidurg. All of us squatting round it, peering into the murky depths, trying to describe the horrors we said we could see in there. The point was to say the most horror-rousing thing:

“I can see long white soft wriggly worms…”

“I can see green frothing bubbling scum — something is coming out of it — I can see one eye…”

The truth was that we could see nothing. There was just darkness. And a smell, a smell that was the worse thing about it, the smell we never spoke of because we could never find words for it. Now I know what it was. It was the smell of hopelessness.

(The Binding Vine 21)

The seamlessness with which such intense spillage of private emotions merge into the texture of everyday life, in the stoic calm where the narratives always keep returning is an intriguing feature of the novels, though this proportion between the ordinariness of reality and its rupture by emotional or concrete upheavals varies from novel to novel. Several of her protagonists, especially Urmi and Sumi share something of a detached composure that make such returns to the banal and reassuring texture of everyday life both a natural and a necessary process. Such banalities of everyday life, therefore, lie at this amorphous convergence of the composed social realism and the more experimental, fragmented lyricism of internal consciousness that are, in the end, indistinguishable in Deshpande’s fiction. In A Matter of Time, After Gopal has left his family and Sumi and her three daughters leave their home and come and start living with Sumi’s parents, the enormity of the sudden change in their lives is refracted through the minute nuances of everyday physical, domestic life, probably because such verisimilitude is the easiest to admit in the middle of such loss and shock.

‘We’re staying the night,’ Sumi had said, but it is obviously going to a much longer stay. The girls who have brought nothing with them but a nightdress and a toothbrush apiece have to keep moving up and down between the two houses, getting the things they need for each day, living, not out of suitcases, but out of plastic bags. Aru, with her innate sense of order, has to work hard at not becoming part of the house, putting things in a kind of temporary order, so that the mattresses, rolled up each morning, are left on the floor and the clothes, folded as soon as they are dried, are not put away but piled on the table. The room is like a guest’s, who, having to catch a train in the evening, is almost packed and ready to leave. Kalyani enters the game, too; the extra cups, plates and glasses go back into the storage after every meal, from where they have to be retrieved each time they are needed. (A Matter of Time 12)

Objecting to Aru doing housework, Sumi’s mother Kalyani says that she should rather be spending time studying and having fun; she shouldn’t get involved in “this mustard seed of domestic life” (A Matter of Time 36). But neither Aru nor the other two daughters really end up staying away from the mustard seed of domestic life; as days go by and it becomes clearer and clearer that their grandparents’ house is going to be their home for an indefinite period, perhaps permanently, they give up the charade of playing guests and become insiders, immersing in the dailiness and the minute banalities of their lives there. The loss of their home and family remains a permanent displacement — both physical and psychological — but as in all Deshpande’s novels, life always falls into a pattern where the humblest detail of one’s daily routine has its own, unique place and they return to the very site of loss and displacement no matter how intense they are. The desire to keep one away from the mustard seed of domestic life is therefore, a larger metaphor for the drift between the life-changing upheavals and the predictable, routine rhythms of the everyday whose very texture is identifiable by its banality as much as its indispensability. This is a drift, I’d also argue, back and forth between a ‘happening’ social realist mode on one hand, and a stasis of humdrum dailiness that I see as constituting a significant element in this modernist tradition of the private sphere on the other.

The routinely patterned everyday is the site where most of the narrative present of her novels is constituted, outside whose immediate framework the upsetting tremors of private lives are located, as I argued before. Just the way Urmi’s daughter and Indu’s grandmother has died before the beginning of the respective novels, Saru has already left her husband and has given up her professional life before returning to her father’s house, at which point the novel The Dark Holds No Terrors begins. Displaced by her losses, like Sumi and her daughters in A Matter of Time, she nonetheless settles into a pattern of daily life with her father and the young man, Madhav who also lives there. At first she is an observer, like the pretending-to-be-guests game Sumi and her daughters keep up at Kalyani’s house, but soon Saru becomes a participant in that pattern of life which moves on a predictable, humdrum pace, where the smallest banal habit, object or detail upsets the whole pattern by their absence or displacement. Her father’s habit of brushing his teeth and putting coal in the boiler at a precise hour every morning, playing carom with Madhav every Saturday evening, washing his clothes on the old slab of stone in the bathroom — all these minute details are fixed in an unchangeable pattern that constitute the very texture of life in the given cultural, historical and personal contexts, a texture which Saru finds herself watching hypnotically at first and then being drawn into, almost unawares. After a life of painful conflicts over a troubled marriage and even the strains of a demanding profession, the return to this pattern of ordinariness, mildly redolent of her childhood life, is refreshing to her. The stone slab in the bathroom where her father washes his clothes everyday is such a banal object that is nonetheless an integral, if invisible part of their daily life, going back to Saru’s past when her mother used to wash their clothes on the slab, and when little Saru herself started doing it as well.

Evening, when water ran in the taps again, was washing time. Both Baba [father] and Madhav washed their clothes in the morning. She waited till evening to wash hers. The raised slab of stone on which they beat and scrubbed clothes was clean dry. But the sides and the floor below were slimy. When she had finished washing, she got out the large scrubbing brush and scrubbed at the stone noticing with pleasure the hard, clean surface reappearing. (The Dark Holds No Terrors 164)

Her father sees her while she is cleaning the stone and for a fraction of a moment, to him the figure seems to be that of his dead wife, who used to do the very same thing, in almost the very same posture. The plethora of minute banalities is thus also revelatory of a life that is shaped by its very locality, its rootedness in the very personal and regional culture that nevertheless share significant relations with the larger cultural spaces that enclose it. “The mustard seed of domestic life” is therefore the perfect metaphor for such banalities of everyday life, not only in terms of the minuteness and the ordinariness of their nature and the integral location in such lives they enjoy, but also with respect to their very Indianness, indeed, their deep local color, as the mustard seed immediately identifies itself in the metaphor as a common ingredient in much Indian cooking, a ritual that constitutes a central part of such domestic lives. A professionally qualified woman physician experiencing an epiphanic return to the staid, reassuring pattern of an old lifestyle through the sight, feel and smell of a slab of stone for washing clothes on, is therefore, the paradoxical confluence of tradition and modernity that constitutes the milieus of Deshpande’s novels, a paradox that also locates itself significantly on the texture of daily life such milieus are refracted through.

Banality and locality are therefore mutually contingent in Deshpande’s novels, in that, like much modernist fictions, they define and constitute each other. The very constitution of banality is at least partially a cultural phenomenon, as an object or a practice is established as banal, ordinary, insignificant or a negligible part of the everyday only within the parameters of specific cultures. The ‘banal’ and the ‘colorful’ or ‘exotic’ can therefore occupy the same sites, depending on the perspective and the cultural position of the viewer. Mustard seeds may be the quotidian ingredient of several everyday dishes in certain localities in India, but to someone outside such cultures it might be an strange, rich and exotic spice. To people used to state of the art washing machines and Laundromats, a slab of stone on which to wash, clean and scrub clothes might seem primitive and therefore located out of the everyday within the historical space they inhabit, but for people who use it daily for that purpose it is nothing but a commonplace utilitarian object whose sides need to be cleaned of slime from time to time. The foregrounding of the banal, the only mooring of assurance that remains after life-upsetting events, therefore, in Deshpande’s fiction, is firmly established as the integral texture of specific cultures, specific regions, specific lifestyles and even systems of values. The production of locality, in her fictions, is therefore, not just a matter of situation in physical sites of locality, but also the configuration of local subjectivities and knowledges, as for instance has been theorized by as Arjun Appadurai:

Local knowledge is substantially about producing reliably local subjects as well about producing reliably local neighborhoods within which such subjects can be recognized and organized. In this sense, local knowledge is what it is, not principally in contrast with other knowledges — which (from some non-local point of view) the observer might regard as less localized — but by virtue of its local teleology and ethos. We might say, adapting Marx, that local knowledge is not only local in itself, but even more importantly, for itself. (Fardon 206)

More than most Indian English writers — more than the other two writers discussed here, indeed — Deshpande creates such local subjectivities in her fictions, not only in the characters that people them, but also in the authorial perspectives. In a cultural space suspended between a colonial past and a future of globalized, diasporic individual and collective locations, in a situation most Indian English writers have been educated or have spent large parts of their lives abroad — usually in the metropolitan centers of Europe and North America, this has evidently got much to do with the fact that she has neither been educated nor has lived abroad on a long-term basis. This accounts for her self-confessed alienation from most traditions of Anglophone writing in India:

I’m different from other Indian writers who write in English. My background is very firmly here. I was never educated abroad, my novels don’t have any westerners, for example. They are just about Indian people and the complexities of our lives…My English is as we use it. I don’t make it easier for anyone, really. (Quoted in Afterword to A Matter of Time, by Ritu Menon, 248)

Whether in the description of slabs of stones for washing or in a woman’s decision to return and live with her widower father, or, for that matter, the power-politics of the Indian extended family system, Deshpande not only produces locality both in terms of physical spaces and knowledges and subjectivities — as Appadurai theorizes — but also refrains from any cultural translation within the narratives, which many writers variously enact, ranging from direct narratorial annotation to dissemination of meaning and information through dialogue between characters. [1]

Within the local subjectivities that she firmly establishes in her fictions, the banal and the everyday are thus clearly recognizable as such — or perhaps one should say, unrecognizable in the peripheralization of humdrum triviality even as they constitute the very substance of her characters’ lives and much of the narrative space and time of the novels. Unlike the two other writers we shall see below, she rarely brings the banal under humorous or wistful observation, viewing its nuances with an awareness of its essential alienness — not merely in a cultural sense as they address a larger audience outside India, but also in the wonder and the intricacy such banalities possess that are so easily overlooked in the daily business of living, probably anywhere. As such, it would be fair to say that the banal and the everyday are rarely epiphanized in Deshpande’s fictions - as they are often done in much canonical modernism such as in Joyce - unless one considers the manner in which the staid routine of everyday anchors the heaving, crisis-ridden socio-psychological lives, something magical in its very concreteness and solidity. On rare occasions when the quotidian mustard seed of domestic life is loaded with a resonance beyond its immediate location or materiality, it is epistemologically driven by a signification that is essentially shaped by human subjectivities, either personal or social, never asserting the resistant opacity say, the Joycean banal sometimes poses, acquiring a disruptive, marginal potential through such refusal and resistance. As such, the carefully rolled up mattresses in Kalyani’s house in A Matter of Time are poignant not only for the nuance of observation that foregrounds them, but more importantly for the sense of uprooted, displaced lives they signify, lives that are hesitant to grow roots again in a new locale. The slab of stone in the bathroom on which Saru’s family washes and scrubs their clothes is significant because of the human practice and behavior it is linked with — in a personal sense, with Saru’s and her father’s private memories of a past — and in a sociological sense, of the disruptive time-knot between tradition and modernity it represents. And occasionally that which are banal specifically in the context of local social customs and behavior patterns is, in such fictions, charged with a meaning that can become clear only outside such contexts — that of the webs of social relations within which their significances always disappear — and with protest and outrage when refracted through a perspective that is both a member of and a rebel against such webs:

I went into the house avoiding the hall, ugly now with all the aftermath of an eaten meal. It disgusted me to see the strewn plates, the scattered remnants. And yet, for a whole lifetime, women patiently cleared up the mess with their bare hands after each meal. And women like Kaki even ate off the same dirty plate their husbands had eaten in earlier. Martyrs, heroines, or just stupid fools. (Roots and Shadows 73) [2]

The anger and the outrage such as Indu’s is indicative of a tortured, fragmented perspective that has its roots in these age-old networks of social relationships but has, to a large extent, rebelled against them — or rather, against their blatant and latent inequities even while other aspects of such traditional structures and values continue to be cherished. Many of Deshpande’s women, and almost all the protagonists are caught in such interstitial, conflict-ridden spaces between indigenous traditions and a liberal bourgeois modernity, simultaneously appreciating and critiquing both. Indu is probably the most forceful, articulate and the most rebellious of the protagonists, and she is also the youngest and the most professionally successful of them (with the possible exception of Saru, who however abandons her career as a doctor), and as such, her protests are the clearest and the most powerful.

The recognition of the ordinary and the everyday therefore is configured in material objects and in gestures, behavior patterns and lifestyles, even in larger decisions and responses to losses and gains, in decisions taken. Their banality and virtual invisibility is contingent on their rootedness in their cultural contexts, and inasmuch as such rootedness is disturbed - as by the resistance of the protagonists against such roots and the resultant liminality of their positions — they are pushed on the verge of transformation into something significant, a privileged site of cultural knowledge-production, as in the slab of stone and the strewn, used plates with scattered remnants of the meal. They are significant, therefore, inasmuch they inscribe a cultural tension or conflict within themselves. As Urmi, the protagonist of The Binding Vine sits in the hospital speaking to the poor, illiterate working class Shakutai, the mother of the raped teenager Kalpana, a simple and spontaneous gesture becomes more loaded in such a conflictual a local significance:

‘That’s why I don’t want anyone to come here. I don’t want their pity. What’s the time, tai?’ With an oddly intimate gesture, she takes my hand, turns the wrist over to see my watch. Her hand is rough, the palm deeply grooved, the nails raggedly uneven. (The Binding Vine 91)

It is the smallest and the most ephemeral of gestures, and yet it tells a lot about Shakutai, the developing relation between her and Urmi, and the impact of their respective backgrounds and that of the recent trauma that has brought them together. The spontaneous gesture of taking one’s hand, not out of affection but to see the time on the watch on it, is symptomatic both of the illiterate woman’s lack of finesse and the growing sense of intimacy between two people who are vastly separated by class, education and affluence. The gesture is natural in the context of a culture where casual physical touching between individuals is much more common than say, north American culture with its carefully guarded individual spaces; it is at the same time also rather unnatural in the context of the same culture where differences in class, caste, education and economic status creates unbridgeable differences, differences which are braved by Urmi in this novel. Both the strangeness and the personal nature of the unexpected gesture registers in Urmi’s mind to whom the gesture becomes “oddly intimate.” The production of banality is thus clearly rooted not only in given cultural contexts, in locally formed subjectivities, but also in the reality thereof, and by extension, in the realist anchoring that contains the narratives.

As we have seen, the discourse of modernism locates itself in Deshpande’s fictions in various ways - in its formal capacities of experimentally fractured narration, lyrical interior monologues and sensual evocation of local spaces, probably most notably in That Long Silence, arguably the most modernist of her novels in a formalistic sense alone, not to speak of a solemn, life-staking commitment to the act of writing itself, a concern with creativity and the role of the artist that reveals itself as modernist in its ideology:

To achieve anything, to become anything, you’ve got to be hard and ruthless. Yes, even if you want to be a saint, if you want to love the whole world, you’ve got to stop loving individual human beings first. And if they love you, and they bleed when you show them you don’t love them, not specially, well, so much the worse for them! There’s just no other way of being a saint. Or a painter. A writer. (That Long Silence 1)

The narrator-protagonist, the writer Jaya establishes this unrelentingly sacrificial ideology of literary creation that she alternatively tries to achieve and distance herself from throughout the novel, finally able to make a decisive breach with her stifled past and break that long silence which, as a woman in an Indian family, it has been her call to endure for much of her life:

If I have to plug that ‘hole in the heart,’ I will have to speak, to listen, I will have to erase the silence between us. While studying Sanskrit drama, I’d learnt with a sense of courage that its rigid rules did not permit women characters to speak Sanskrit. They had to use Prakrit — a language that had sounded to my own ears like a baby’s lisp. The anger I’d felt then comes back to me when I realise what I’ve been doing all these years. I have been speaking Prakrit myself. (That Long Silence 192-193) [3]

 Clearly, the formalistic elements of modernism are not the only ones at play in such fictions. They are also characterized by what turns out to be the ethical significances of modernism in the given cultural context, in the fragmentation of internal subjectivities between a rich celebration of selfhood on one hand and an awareness of its ‘othered’ location in its social matrix, that which forces it to speak in a weaker tongue. Just as important are the ideological markers of modernism, in the tension between tradition, myth and memory on one hand and socio-politico-economic modernities on the other that foregrounds time-knots like the slab of washing stone as much as it celebrates a woman’s love-hate relationship with the values and rites of her own society. And yet Deshpande’s novels remind us that the relation between traditions of committed social realism and the epistemological adventurousness of modernism can be a seamless one, where the latter does not so much as rupture or overthrow the former, as the postmodernist national allegory does, but rather pushes it to its very limit, stretching the traditional elements of representation so as to perturb its mimetic nature. The fragmented interior monologues on part of her protagonists minds are one evidence of this modernist strain on the process of representation, where the very subject of representation has come apart at its seams. But what I’d like to argue is the more striking innovation of mimetic realism is the emphatic focus on the banalities, the mustard seed of everyday domestic life as a valuable signifier of cultural, ethical and political knowledge-production. Indeed, as if in a gesture of acknowledgement of the staid, reassuring presence of a culturally rooted everyday reality around it, much of the structural formulation of these fictions is realistic, and in the end the two are mutually complementary, even indistinguishable, a point I’d like to return later in this chapter. Unlike magic-realism, which deliberately and abruptly punctures the realist plane with ontological reversals and eruptions, like men turning into monkeys and narrating stories to stave off gods of death, in Deshpande’s fiction, therefore, the discourses of social realism and modernism are convergent, not only in their formal but also their political and ethical formulations.




Deshpande sometimes avoids literal translations as well, using commonly, among other words, the vernacular appellations denoting family relationships, like Ajji (grandmother), Ai (mother), Appa/Baba (father). Usually she addresses this by appending a glossary of non-English words, proper nouns, local rites and customs at the end of the books, something that has been considered passé by most Indian English writers at least since the eighties, who instead usually include the cultural translations within the narratives that on the other hand is rejected by Deshpande. By placing what little translation she offers - only literal ones, of course - outside the framework of the narratives, she, as it were, keeps such narratives translation-free and, one might say, even more embedded in local subjectivities the way Appadurai defines it.


Kaki: Paternal aunt


Prakrit was a form of the vernacular contemporaneous with the use of Sanskrit as a means of written and spoken communication in ancient India. Contrasted with Sanskrit, which was supposed to be used by the society's elites, especially the Brahmins, Prakrit was considered demotic, easy and common, and was left to the rest of the populace.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “The Production of Locality.” Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. Ed. Richard Fardon. London; New York, 1995

Attridge, Derek. Literature in the Event: Reading J.M. Coetzee. (forthcoming)

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993

Deshpande, Shashi. The Dark Holds No Terrors. New Delhi: Penguin, 1990

Roots and Shadows. Hyderabad: Sangam Books, 1983

That Long Silence. London: Virago Press, 1988

The Binding Vine. New Delhi: Penguin, 1993

A Matter of Time. New York: The Feminist Press, 1999

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977

Jameson, Fredric. “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital.” Social Text, Fall 1986, pp 65-88

Lal, P. The Alien Insiders. Calcutta: Writers’ Workshop, 1996

Rao, Raja. Kanthapura. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977, c.1963