Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence and Small Remedies

The Emerging Voice: A Comparative Study of Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence and Small Remedies

Shashi Deshpande’s Small Remedies is a self-conscious novel which has internalized a sophisticated awareness of current literary theory; it presents many of the contemporary issues which a woman writer has to face in her life as well as work. Like many postmodern novels of today, it problematizes the relationship between fiction and reality, and delineates the role of language in our attempts to construct our own realities. She has realized that though the really important aspects of life defy verbalization, there seems to be a genuine relationship between the process of fictionalization through words and our own attempts to organize personal experiences through memory. So this novel is as much about novel writing as it is about the characters who inhabit the fictional world. This is the kind of novel which presents a problem, analyzes it, and posits a kind of solution so that the focus is on the psychological process of becoming a mature person. The desperate search for meaning, the effort to find a sense of one’s identity and one’s relationship to the world outside, culminates in the realization that loss is never total, and it is essential to realize it because, in any event, life has to be made possible. The task of re-integrating a fragmented person involves an inevitable sliding into chaos, into madness, and what emerges as an urgent need is a call for re-evaluating and re-assessing many of the accepted values behind the stereotyped roles we ascribe to ourselves. This paper proposes to show how this philosophical need to accept the inevitable is psychologically made viable through an analysis of the fictional mode of representation.

Madhu, the heroine of Small Remedies, has lost her only son Adit, and she is trying to get over the paralyzing sense of shock by writing the biography of the famous singer Savitribai, for which she has come to Bhavanipur where she is staying with a young couple, Hari and Lata. On the one hand, we have the actual story of Madhu and what happens to her at Bhavanipur, like her visits to Bai, her relationship with Lata and Hari, the paralytic stroke that attacks Bai, how Madhu is once attacked by a group of people, and so on, all these shown as happening in the present. On the other hand, there is the story of Savitribai, as told by Bai but re-interpreted by Madhu, which is interspersed with memories of Madhu’s own past, starting from the days when Bai was her neighbour to the day she lost her son. There is a lot that is common to both Madhu and Bai. Bai’s daughter Munni was Madhu’s childhood friend, and by a strange coincidence, she too was killed in the same bomb blast as her own son Adit. But Bai had renounced Munni long before her actual death; she acknowledged neither Munni as her daughter nor Madhu as Munni’s friend; and Madhu is probing through the external facade of indifference to arrive at her actual feelings. Both of them are artists: one a novelist, the other a singer; both are childless mothers; thus Madhu’s attempts to bring out the woman or the mother behind the successful artist in Bai is really an attempt to understand her own self. More importantly, besides being the story of Madhu and Bai, this novel reveals the way in which novels are written: how Madhu listens to the words of Bai but interprets them in her own way, often stressing the pauses and silences in Bai’s narrative, bringing into this operation her own knowledge of human nature in general and her knowledge of Bai in particular. Thus the autobiography of the subject merges with the biography of the object, revolving round the central principles of imaginative reconstruction, thereby tracing the evolution of the story from the totality of loss to the possibility of retrieval through memory.

Small Remedies employs the same philosophical principles of literary composition as That Long Silence so that it will not be an exaggeration to suggest that both novels are simply variations of the same theme. There is a sense in which it can be said that Jaya is potential Madhu. While Jaya resists her attraction towards Kamat, Madhu yields to the painter. Both are writers, both treat the process of fictionalization as the inevitable path to overcome their loneliness, despair and fragmentation. Both are dangerously possessive, both of them are strongly attached to their fathers, the transition is brought about for both by a catastrophe – the shattering of the stable routine for Jaya by the imminent dismissal of Mohan, and the death of her son for Madhu. Both slip into a temporary period of insanity from which they slowly emerge as integrated persons. While Madhu loses her son and feels guilty about it, Jaya has opted for an abortion and continues to feel guilt.

Towards the end of That Long Silence, Jaya, wondering what she has achieved by this writing, concludes: “ I’m not afraid anymore. The panic has gone. I’m Mohan’s wife, I had thought, and cut off the bits off me that had refused to be Mohan’s wife. Now I know that kind of fragmentation is not possible” (TLS-191). For Jaya, as for Madhu, writing is a vital process whereby she is trying to order and organize her life so as to bring some sense to her existence. She has to let go the illusion of happiness as she discerns the gap between her mental picture of a happy family and the actuality of hostile relations in her own family. She realizes that she is like the sparrow in the story of the crow and the sparrow: they build their houses with dung and wax respectively. When the crow’s house is washed away in the rain, and as he comes knocking at the door of the sparrow, he is kept out for long under several pretexts. Finally the sparrow lets the crow in and invites him to warm himself on the pan on which she has just made the chapattis. The poor crow hops on to it and is burnt to death. Like the sparrow, Jaya had thought that the way to be safe is to stay at home, look after the babies and keep out the rest of the world. “ I know better now. I know that safety is always unattainable. You’re never safe” (TLS-17). Now she begins to see herself in a totally different perspective. She begins to see things in her own unique way. For example, when Mohan narrates how his father used to ill-treat his mother, and thinking of his mother’s stoic response to his cruelty, Mohan saw “strength in the woman sitting silently in front of the fire”, but Jaya saw only ‘despair’ (TLS-36). Look at the way she records her own method of reconstruction: “This is not Mohan’s story entirely. I’m writing it down, I have put together so many things – things he told me, things he left unsaid as he told me this story, things I have imagined myself, and the expression on his face as he spoke to me” (TLS-34-35). This is precisely the method Madhu uses in writing the story of Savitribai. The version Bai gives is different from the one Madhu is building up. While Munni sticks to her own version of ‘the truth’, Hasina gives her truths about her grandfather Ghulam Saab whom she knows better than anyone else does and so she alone can give the complete truth about him. “ It is important for her to correct the idea that I have of his role in Bai’s life” (SR-273). Madhu is fully aware of the subjectivity of her version and the relativity of truth: “I think of the seven blind men trying to describe the elephant, each one making a different discovery about the animal, each convinced that his knowledge about the elephant is the entire truth” (SR-278). So she has to discover her own truth from the different bits of information offered to her in order to “create an elephant out of these disparate bits”(SR-278).

It is this very same method Madhu and Jaya use in telling their stories. Further, it must be added that far from being a purely literary method, it is the very method, which enables Madhu to understand other people. She learns about Lata from the way she hands out ‘random slices of her life to the other person, wholly ignoring the spaces between them, explaining nothing’ (SR-40). Similarly, when Bai is telling her story, Madhu is aware of ‘the gaps in her story’, that ‘she is following the one straight line of her pursuit of her Guruji’s, bypassing everything else’ (SR-129); so her task involves filling these gaps. Madhu’s reflexive comments on the complex nature of writing are worth quoting:

I’ve realized that there are three books here. Firstly, there’s Bai’s book, the book Bai wants to be written, in which she is the heroine, the spotlight shining on her and her alone. . . . Then there’s Maya and Yogi’s book. A controversial one. Trendy. Politically correct, with a feminist slant. . . . And there’s my book, the one I’m still looking for. It’s evading me, not giving me a hold anywhere. (SR-125)

Thus we see that there are several narrators in this novel. Madhu is obviously the chief narrator. Then there is Savitribai, giving her own version of her life as a singer, Hasina modifying it by giving her version of Ghulam Saab’s story and his role in Bai’s life, Munni with her ‘stubborn adherence to her own truth’ (SR-77), and so on. What distinguishes Madhu from other narrators is her singular status as the one who not only reports the other stories but also performs the task of fitting the various pieces to solve the jigsaw puzzle. While filling the position of the author to her own story, she fulfills the creative role of the ‘reader’ to the other stories, and assimilates them into the main narrative. Hers is the only voice, which refuses to be monologic.

It is not an easy task. Bai is still suffering from the residual effects of a cardiac stroke, and Madhu has to grope her way ‘through the density of words to get at her meaning’ (SR-61). By excluding Munni and Ghulam Saab from the story, she is presenting ‘her own illusion of her life’ (SR-78). Once Madhu told her that she was discussing her with Hasina, and Bai became angry; she insisted on her exclusive right to tell her story – her portrait of the artist as a young woman. She asked Madhu not to write about the old woman that she is now. Bai is interested in projecting only that part of her young self in pursuit of her goal of becoming an artist as her true self. She seems to have severed the connection between the artist and the woman, and Madhu wonders whether Bai faces “the truth that confronts me every moment of my life – the futility of life without children”(SR-154). Madhu feels that Bai is ‘a nasty, tyrannical creature’ (SR-61); often she wonders: “ what kind of a woman are you, denying your own child?”(SR-78). At one moment Bai appears to be ‘the heroine of a passionate, beautiful story; at other times, she is just ‘a calculating, ambitious woman, using the man for her own ends, abandoning him finally when her need for him is over’ (SR-176). She formulates her task like this: “I have to negotiate my way between this woman and the cruel mother of my memory. Between this woman and the dazzlingly beautiful singer with her lover, whom she kept purposefully in the background”(SR-170). So if she introduces Munni into Bai’s story, it is like saying: this is how it was. But do we always know why we do things? “ Child though I was, I had the wisdom to know you don’t need to know everything about a person”(SR-175). As she is aware of the power of the writer-creator, she is wary of trapping and sealing her into an identity she creates for her. Instead of imposing her own vision over Bai’s story, she wants to capture her essence in all its contradictory aspects – as a rebel, a feminist, an artist, a woman who gave up everything for love, a mother who denies her own child, an ambitious woman who uses men to further her own ends, and so on. “Then where is the real Bai? The pampered child? The young girl who discovered what her life was going to be? The young woman who abandoned her child and eloped with her lover? The great musician, the successful Savitribai Indorekar?”(SR-283). And her answer is: “All of them, of course. It’s always a palimpsest, so many layers, one superimposed on another, none erased, all of them still there” (SR-283). It is not even necessary that she understand everything: “ Some mysteries have to remain unsolved, some answers will never come”(SR-322). The only way to arrive at the truth is through imaginative reconstruction the rules of which are exactly the same as those we use in our daily life. “ Fiction, then, it seems, is inevitable”(SR-169).

In writing the story of Bai, Madhu is really engaged in the act of self-discovery. Madhu explains it thus:

We see our lives through memory and memories are fractured, fragmented, almost always cutting across time. . . . Truly, dreams are the stuff of life, the hidden truth that lies beneath the hard reality. Invention, creation, is sometimes the greater, possibly the best part, of reality. Even to write our own stories, we need to invent. (SR165)

This is the kind of novel Jaya would have written. When Mohan was displeased with her first story, she opted for the unproblematic enterprise of writing humorous pieces like ‘Seeta’, thereby shutting out all the other women who were clamouring for attention. By the end of the novel, Jaya emerges as an integrated person, a woman who can speak for herself in her own language. Her creativity is liberated: the novel itself is testimony to it. Jaya has written the novel in which she herself is the main character. She has learnt to speak, to listen, and to erase the silence. She has learnt, as she says, “to retrace my way back through the disorderly, chaotic sequence of events and non-events that made up my life”(TLS-187). Small Remedies gives expression to all those women held silent within Jaya.

That Long Silence is obviously the story of Jaya from a single perspective – that of Jaya’s. But towards the end of the novel, she ponders over a few interesting questions: “But why am I making myself the heroine of this story? Why do I presume that the understanding is mine alone? Isn’t it possible that Mohan too means something more by ‘all well’ than going back to where we were? (TLS-193). As if in answer to these questions, Small Remedies displays the multiple versions of her palimpsest story. Madhu is Jaya awakened.

Despite the superficial similarities, Jaya and Madhu, it seems, are speaking about the same woman, the same things, same problems. Both novels end on a similar note: Mohan returns to Jaya, Madhu returns to her husband Som. Though they have become different persons now, though their lives are going to be qualitatively different, they are bent on starting a new life, both for themselves and their husbands.

Shashi Deshpande highlights the Indian tradition in suggesting the continuity of family life despite the threatening darkness which surrounds our lives. It is not accidental that the solutions come from our ancient sages. While Jaya draws strength from the words of Krishna to Arjuna in the Gita, Madhu understands the meaning of ‘Putra-Moha’, an expression she hears from Som’s father, which is not love, but ‘obsession’, which involves ‘confusion, ignorance, illusion and pain’ (SR-188). She learns from Akka’s ‘drishti’ ceremony –‘the ritual to ward off the evil eye’ (SR-189) – where the chant asks the child to be protected from neighbours, strangers, and so on, including fathers and mothers. Now she learns that it is ‘from those who love us that we need to be protected’ (SR-190), because it is with them that we become vulnerable and defenseless.

One of the distinctive features of both these novels is its subtle manipulation of female psychology. In terms of Freudian psychology, Jaya and Madhu manifest clear signs of Electra complex. Both are strongly attached to their fathers. Jaya harbours a grudge against her mother for making her homeless by selling their house after her father’s death. Her grouse against her father is simply that he died. His death shatters her completely. Again, she cannot relate herself to her daughter Rati but she is very sensitive to the needs of her son Rahul. There is a constant bickering between Mohan and Rahul, but Mohan can never perceive that quarrels between fathers and sons is the most natural thing in the Freudian world. This becomes more prominent in Small Remedies. Even though Som and Adit get along very well, and though Madhu remarks that it upsets Freud’s theory, her own attachment to her father, and her clinging to her son are essentially Freudian. For example, when Munni tells her that her father has a mistress, she cuts off all connection with Munni immediately. Such strong reaction is more that of a wife than that of a daughter. It is interesting to note that her first sexual affair was at the time of her father’s death, with a man who was her father’s special friend, a kind of father figure to her. The fact that he had once painted her picture as a child is a metaphorical way of indicating him as her father-creator. Perhaps the imminence of her father’s death had liberated the suppressed desire in her to possess him. The act of sex with the painter is her way of claiming her father back. As it is a forbidden one, she soon forgets the incident. Som finds it difficult to believe that she could so easily have forgotten her first sexual experience. Even the readers may find it a little unnatural. The whole thing can make sense only when viewed as a forbidden fact suppressed and relegated to the backstage by her subconscious mind. The memory returns to her after several years in a dream, where the corpse inside the gunnysack is obviously the memory buried deep inside her. Her clinging attachment to her son is also typically Oedipal; Hari is a son-figure to Madhu, and the figure is reinforced when he mutters ‘Adityaya namaha’ which revives in her memories of her dead son Adit, and that must be why she recoils at the comforting touch of Hari.

Discovering one’s identity and establishing meaningful communication with others are two clear signs of a healthy personality. Writing is self-expression, but it is fraught with problems. In writing the story of Bai, Madhu is extremely conscious of the difficulty in turning Bai’s Marathi into English, ‘ the language I’m going to write the book in’ (SR-28). But her attitude to English itself is significant: “The language suits me. It avoids intimacy and familiarity and confers a formal politeness on our relationship” (SR-39). Madhu does not believe in the efficacy of words to communicate. Apart from language, there is the additional difficulty of having to ‘filter out what’s irrelevant’ (SR28).

The problem of identity is sometimes expressed through the names of characters, and their own consciousness about it. Madhu, like Shashi, is a man’s name, and people often point it out. For Tony, to be called Anthony Gonsalves, was a real torture. Munni denies her name of Meenakshi and later turns it into Shailaja. Madhu wonders: “ if she’s Munni, why does she call herself Meenakshi? And if she is Meenakshi, why does everyone call her Munni?”(SR-31). The novelist seems to be inviting our special attention to the strangeness of names, again as in the case of Madhu’s mother and her sisters, who all have the names of rivers, such as Sindhu, Yamuna, Narmada, Kaveri, and so on.

In spite of Shashi Deshpande’s apparently random handling of events and incidents, Small Remedies manifests a very clear structural organization. The problem Madhu faces is stated in the ‘Prologue’ itself. After the death of Adit, she recalls this line from Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: ‘ In the life of one man, never the same time returns’. And she adds: “ The line tells me the totality of loss, the irrevocability of it”(SR-5). Then she tries to write the biography of Savitribai, and her main concern is to discover how Bai has managed to live without her child. Finally the solution appears in the last lines of the novel: “ Memory, capricious and unreliable though it is, ultimately carries its own truth within it. As long as there is memory, there’s always the possibility of retrieval, as long as there is memory, loss is never total” (SR-324).

Thus we see that both these novels delineate the eternal predicament of human existence through the various encounters of the heroines with life. As Madhu says: “ It’s always a losing battle. Such small remedies, these, to counter the terrible disease of being human, of being mortal and vulnerable” (SR-181). She believes that “we are responsible for our actions, that there are no excuses we can shelter behind” (SR-122). Similarly Jaya also believes that an ‘act’ and ‘retribution’ always ‘followed each other naturally and inevitably’ (TLS-128). But they know that one cannot escape through amnesia. Madhu recalls the words of Joe, the words which helped her once to accept her father’s death; the same words enable her now to accept her son’s death: “ It hasn’t gone anywhere, your life with your father is still there, it’ll never go away” (SR-324). Jaya has also learnt that though there is only one life, “ in that life itself there are so many cross-roads, so many choices” (TLS-192). She recalls the words of Krishna to Arjuna – ‘ Do as you desire’ – the words with which “Krishna confers humanness on Arjuna” (TLS-192). Acknowledging our human situation in its entirety, it seems, is the only victory possible to us.


Abbreviations used: TLS for That Long Silence

SR for Small Remedies

Works cited:

Deshhpande, Shashi. That Long Silence. Delhi: Penguin, 1989.

-----------------------. Small Remedies. Delhi: Viking,2000.


1 comment:

Abi! said...

Very well written.:) Although I don't agree with the your oedipal complex theory.