At the Bangalore Literature Festival last year, I had the opportunity to sit before Shashi Deshpande during a dinner for the speakers and participants. I had seen her in person a few years earlier during the launch of her book Shadow Play in Chennai, but this was the first time I was literally face-to-face with her. As soon as I sat down, however, it was like I was a puppet whose ventriloquist had left for the day. All the chit-chat I had envisaged froze in my mouth. Shashi ma’am (as she will always be to me) is far from an intimidating presence. But it can be overwhelming to sit before a writer who has had such an extraordinary influence over Indian-English readers and writers alike.
There she was, sitting less than four feet away from me, billed as a “celebrated woman writer”. As her newest book, Listen to Me, hit the stands around the same time, numerous articles were published describing Shashi ma’am, once again, as a woman writer. This, in spite of her having cried herself hoarse, telling people repeatedly that she is just a writer. Then again, pioneers always have it the hardest, especially when they arrive with little fanfare and demand none even as they gain readers across the world.
I don’t remember exactly when I first began to read Shashi ma’am’s stories. It was in a magazine, most probably Femina, as that was the only Indian English magazine for women (and girls) during the early 1970s. Eve’s Weekly followed soon after, but my mother did not subscribe to it. I grew up in a cosmopolitan industrial town, at a time when people, especially women, read more for pleasure and less for instruction. For those of us who spoke, read and wrote in English as a first language, with the mother tongue as a one-period-during-the-school-day second language, British, American, and a few Australian writers dominated. I did read books by Indian authors, with RK Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala being the usual suspects. Anita Desai came a little later. VS Naipaul was a common name that scowled down from book shelves, as was Nirad C Chowdhury. But they all glowed with the blessings of the western world. Even the home-grown ones were first endorsed by British writers, such as Graham Greene in RK Narayanan’s case, and EM Forster for Mulk Raj Anand. They were Shashi ma’am’s predecessors, no doubt, but when she began publishing her stories, as far as I know, she was the first wholly indigenous writer writing originally in English of, and for India, with no foreign mentor to set her on her way.
The books I read, especially by Indian authors, were often prescribed reading, handed to me by teachers, parents, uncles and aunts, and my parents’ friends. Magazines on the other hand, provided unchaperoned reading. My sister and I, some of our school friends, and the odd visiting cousin would go through them when the grownups took their afternoon siestas. The “women’s magazines” were our favourites. We didn’t care much for the recipes and housekeeping tips, though some articles of a “medical” nature did claim our interest. We read them primarily for the short stories.
Magazines ruled in those days. In regional languages, they experimented with the style and narrative structures of the short story form. Literary stars were born from the magazines. In Bengali literature, it was Sunil Gangapadhyaya and Asha Purna Devi, among others. In Hindi, there was Shivani, and several more, but I remember her the most. We heard about the writers and their work during literary gatherings, both casual and those curated by local clubs and colleges.
The English magazine scene held no such excitement in the 70s. For our fathers and their friends, there was The Illustrated Weekly and Blitz. There was also JS magazine, for the younger, hipper crowd, where I read Bharati Mukherjee’s stories for the first time. Hers were “expat” stories, and I remember finding them exotic. And, of course there was our good old Readers’ Digest, loved by all, the young and the old, men and women alike. But there were only two national level magazines for women in English – Femina and Eve’s Weekly – that published short stories. Indian women were writing fiction in English no doubt, but their numbers were small. They were also not consistent, with some only publishing a few short stories before vanishing. But Shashi ma’am didn’t disappear. She was a short-story writer we could bank on, one who showed up again and again in the magazines that we so eagerly looked forward to. We certainly didn’t care that she was a writer published in “women’s magazines”. We were insulated from the world of literary snobbery. We related to her stories. That was all there was to it.
Her prose was, and is, spare – a style made famous by writers like Hemingway – but soaked in its distinctive Indianness.
During the 70s and 80s, people did not speak as freely as they do now. Many subjects were taboo. But India was changing, and social norms were shifting, especially in the minds of cloistered women, who, unknown to the world at large, were questioning much of what their mothers had accepted before. As more and more women stepped out of their homes, juggled careers and families, recognised the benefits of economic independence, they began to challenge hitherto water tight gender boundaries. This was the changing world that Shashi ma’am’s stories dealt with. They still do. Her prose was, and is, spare – a style made famous by writers like Hemingway – but soaked in its distinctive Indianness. Her English was, and is, as impeccable in its grammar, syntax and flow as the British authors of her time, while retaining its own body and soul. In this aspect, one can compare her with RK Laxman and Nissim Ezekiel. But only to an extent. Her narratives are her own and her voice is unadulteratedly hers.
Shashi ma’am’s stories are straightforward and clear. There is nothing ambiguous or oblique about them. Her books have no agenda other than to narrate the lives of characters who are as real as the people around us. And yet, the ideas they throw up deal with the larger sphere of humanity rather than merely the travails of her female protagonists.
It is easy to ignore the role Shashi ma’am has played in English writing in India. She doesn’t draw attention to herself, her prose or her persona. Her stories, her style and the way she deals with her plots and subjects have had a considerable impact on readers and writers, but so quietly that few even realise who has influenced them. I have read young Indian writers, some in their thirties, and seen her influence in their work but I don’t know if the writers themselves are aware of it. Much of our learning, after all, comes from absorption as from observation.
As a girl, Shashi ma’am’s stories influenced the way I looked at and felt about women from my mother’s generation. As I grew older, I discovered characters from her stories in real people, or at least parts of them. As a young married woman, holding down a demanding job in an industry that attracted aggressive and empowered women, her book, That Long Silence, made me understand that it was human to feel “temporarily widowed” when your spouse went away on office tours. When I stepped down from my high-paying career to raise my children and began to take the very first steps towards my first love, writing, books like The Dark Holds No Terrors and Roots and Shadows gave me a sense of the world.
I clearly remember that sultry afternoon in Chennai when I saw her for the first time. Shashi ma’am was seated on the podium with the host, Ranvir Shah. A little way into the conversation, he asked her about the rudeness and arrogance with which the late VS Naipaul had once spoken of her experiences. She dismissed the issue, saying, “at the end of the day we are all writers, Nobel Prize or not.” Listening to her speak, I understood the frustration that comes with the sheer idiocy of being dubbed a “woman writer”. A man seated right in front of me who had been snoring softly through most of the on-stage conversation, woke up during the question and answer session to ask if she considered herself a “feminist writer”. She put him firmly in his place. Another, a woman, asked if she had any favourite beverage to keep her going when she wrote, and she replied, politely but brusquely that whatever it was she would have to get up and make it, so why waste the writing time. How true, I thought, as I bought her book and tried to move through the crowd to get her autograph.
Today, a woman who is writing is not immediately labelled a “woman writer”, though that attitude still remains. There are also hundreds of places where her stories can be published. But that doesn’t mean writers who are women don’t have to deal with misogyny. Not just in India. Everywhere. The idea is not to give in. Simply carry on, like Shashi ma’am.
I don’t know too many Indian writers writing in English whose works have survived such a fast changing country, and remained so consistently relevant and contemporary, without screaming for attention. When I sat opposite Shashi ma’am last year, I found a spry and cheerfully no-nonsense lady, whose alacrity gave the lie to her physical age. People buzzed around her, and wine magically appeared at our table when she joked about wishing for some. I drank in the atmosphere, but lost an opportunity to engage this doyen of Indian English literature in conversation, because I felt intimidated even when I had no reason to be. Shashi ma’am is clearly unimpressed by literary glamour, fame or controversy. She doesn’t care about literary hierarchies. Her interest lies in writing.
India is a very different place from the one she wrote about as a young writer. And, I am eager to read new stories by her on the odd new country that India has become. It’s something I look forward to even as I re-read her older works. Because at their core, Shashi ma’am’s stories are about the fragile yet persistent human condition, of people battling it out in the face of a hostile universe. A writer can’t get more enduring than that.
Shikhandin is the pen name of an Indian writer who writes for both children and adults.