“I am driven by the desire to tell women’s stories…”


Shashi Deshpande has had a long and rich career as a writer of novels, short stories and essays. She has not only known many Indias, past and present, but also contributed to debates on the understanding of India’s contemporary social, literary, and political issues. Subversions: Essays on Life and Literature (Context, 2021)selected and compiled by Nancy E Batty and Dieter Riemenschneider, invites its readers to enter that fascinating dialogue.

In part two of the conversation with writer Githa Hariharan, Deshpande talks about her complex relationship with languages, the use of myths to comment on societal norms and more.

Githa Hariharan (GH):  In your recent collection of essays, Subversions, you write of Bengaluru and Dharwad with layered memories, in loving detail. You also write of your complex relationship with languages – English, Kannada, Marathi. Where do you, as a writer, feel the greatest sense of belonging? Or is it a quest to belong that drives you?

Shashi Deshpande (SD): A K Ramanujan has this rather interesting take on the multiple languages spoken in his home in Mysore.  On the ground floor, which was the women’s domain, Tamil ruled. Upstairs, which was the realm of the men, there was English. And outside the house and on the streets, the language was Kannada. In our family too we had an arrangement in which all the languages had their place. I spoke to my father and brother in Kannada, to my mother and sister in Marathi (my mother was from Pune), and in school it was English. As we grew up, English became increasingly the language in which we siblings communicated. We did not see this as remarkable, but certainly I know that some of our schoolmates regarded it as unusual, especially the fact that we, sisters and brother, spoke in English among ourselves. Today this has become commonplace. But at a time when there was not much of movement of people, it was a rarity. I must say I did not have the feeling of belonging to any language. All the languages were mine; I would move from one to the other when necessary.

If I was driven by anything, it was by a great desire to tell women’s stories, to show women as they were, not as they had been painted through the centuries: frivolous, vain, irrational, hysterical, childish, and so on.

The question of where I belong came to me only after I began writing. Initially, I was not even conscious of the fact that I was writing in English. Since my reading was entirely in English, it became the only language in which I could frame my thoughts and ideas. But that there was a problem was brought home to me when I was questioned about my writing in English. My father was a Kannada writer, so why was I writing in English? I steadily deflected this question; for a writer it is not which language, but how you use it that matters. Yet within me a question grew: I did not belong to the writers in the various languages. We were separated by the different languages we wrote in. But it was not just that; after all, the Kannada poet Bendre grew up in a Marathi family, while Masti, another eminent Kannada writer, was a Tamilian, but wrote in Kannada. No, it was the fact that I wrote in a foreign language that made me an outsider. In fact, not only did I feel that I did not belong to the literatures in the various Indian languages, I also rejected the idea of belonging to the group of Indian writers who wrote in English. Theirs seemed a strange kind of writing to me. I was very confident that I would never write that way, where the discrepancy between the language and culture was bridged very consciously and the effort showed. Ultimately, I found my own way of bridging the gap between the culture which my writing came out of, and the language I was writing in. To get to this point, I had to carve my own path. And after writing The Dark Holds No Terrors and That Long Silence, I knew that if I had to belong anywhere, it was here, in the great complex of Indian literature in many languages, English being one of them.

As for belonging to a territory, though Bangalore is home, I also lay claim to the territory I inhabit in each of my novels. As long as I am writing, I am part of the territory I create in my writing. Belonging is no longer a problem. If I was driven by anything, it was by a great desire to tell women’s stories, to show women as they were, not as they had been painted through the centuries: frivolous, vain, irrational, hysterical, childish, and so on. Even as a reader I had been annoyed by stereotypes, wanting to cry out, “But that’s not how women are.” In fact, as Anne Elliott says in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.” As a writer, with a pen in my hands, I could write the truth and the reality of a woman as no man could. This was what drove me, made me persist despite condescension, or being ignored, or dismissed. 

GH: So many of us women have made use of myths to comment on societal norms but also, as your book is titled, on subversions – the dramatic and visible sort, as well as the quiet, private gestures of assertion. What has been your own take on myth as woman and as writer?

SD: I wonder how many countries there are in the world in which myths have had such a long and continuous existence among the people and which continue to have great power. In India our epics are still alive, they still mean much to us. Writers continue to be fascinated by them, and the language literatures have always brought myths into their writing. In recent times writers in English have also taken to a retelling of the myths. That myths mean something more to women came to me after I had begun writing. They gave women an idea of their roles, role models so to say. Sita, Draupadi and Savitri have, for centuries, been held up as role models for women. I started looking at these stories differently when I came across a story which served as a wake-up call for me. This is the story of a woman, a pativrata (a very unsatisfactory translation for this word is an ideal wife). The woman’s husband was sleeping with his head on her lap. Then she saw her child going close to the fire. She was faced with a dilemma. As a pativrata, she could not disturb her husband’s sleep. But what if the child fell into the fire? And so she prayed to God Agni to help her. Agni, knowing she was a pativrata and doing the right thing by not disturbing her husband’s sleep, moved the child away from the fire. The child was saved, the woman had triumphantly proved herself a pativrata, and the man slept undisturbed. An all-round success. But I thought it was an incredibly stupid story.  Any normal mother would have just shoved the man’s head off her lap and rushed to her child. And I realised that the story was addressed to women. It told them:  your duty to your husband is paramount, above even your duty towards your child.  Clearly, the story had been written or told by a man to give women this message. 

After this, I discovered that if I were to ask some questions about mythical stories, they would yield quite a different meaning. For instance, was it really Draupadi who started the Mahabharata war? Would her Kshatriya husbands have refrained from war if she had not egged them on?  And Sita – was she so meek and docile that she took Rama’s sentence of sending her back into the forests without anger? Without questions? Punished a second time – and for what? Why did Rama not have the courage to tell the world that he believed in his wife’s innocence and chastity? And Karna, the child who was born to Kunti when she was only a girl. She was in the ashram then, where her father had placed her. Had she been impregnated by someone in the ashram? Or had she been pregnant earlier which is why he sent her there? 

Also read | “Democracy means dialogue, debate, discussion…”: Githa Hariharan in conversation with Shashi Deshpande – Part 1

The first story I wrote about a woman from our myths was about Sita. Then I wrote about Amba after reading Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. That book influenced me greatly. It gave me a new vision, so to say. In the Mahabharata, Amba’s story is important only because it leads to her becoming an instrument of Bhishma’s death. But what drove her to her death does not do great credit either to Bhishma, or to his brother who was to marry Amba. If this story left me angry, I found one of the more interesting, though less-known stories in P Lal’s retelling of the Mahabharata. In this story, Subhadra, Arjuna’s newly-wed wife, asks Draupadi, Arjuna’s senior wife, “How do you manage to keep all your husbands happy?” (Indeed a question to which many of us would like to know the answer.) And Draupadi says, “I don’t let them know what I think.” This is the subversion Ursula le Guin speaks of in connection with women’s writing. I think this is an amazing episode. I don’t know whether the story really exists in the Mahabharata, but it reconciles me to much that I objected to in stories about women.  

Recently I have written stories about Madhavi, Yayati’s daughter, and Ambika and Ambalika, Amba’s sisters and also mothers of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Madhavi’s is an ugly story, it hurts.  Her father, King Yayati, sends her to different Kings, one after another, to sleep with them and have a son. After the son is born, she is moved on by the father to the next King, each time leaving her baby behind. Finally, even the great rishi Vishwamitra wants to have her for a year. A father doing such a thing to his daughter? How could they even narrate this story without any comment as if it was a commonplace story?  The only unspoken comment comes when Madhavi walks away from everything.  A ghastly story. I wrote it, guided by the fact that Madhavi left everything behind and went away. 

One cannot rewrite myths. They are there, they have been there for centuries. One cannot ignore them either.  But they can be retold and given a twist that makes you look at them quite differently. 

I had great pleasure though in writing a story about Indra and Nahusha. It is a story about Indra being toppled from his throne and Nahusha being installed as the King of the Gods. The story has only one woman in it, Sachi Devi, Indra’s wife. And she, only as the subject of Nahusha’s desire and lust. I brought in Nahusha’s wife as well and made the two women active participants in the story. Why could it not have happened that way? 

An example of how a creative writer can tell a story differently comes from Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala. According to Iravati Karve, the original story which came from the Mahabharata is “concise, hard and unpolished”. In this story, both the King and Shakuntala are shrewd and cunning. The King trifles with her, remembers her, but says he has forgotten her. He finally accepts her because of her son; he has no heir. Love is nowhere in the picture. Kalidasa however converted it into a lyrical play, in which Shakuntala is an innocent girl (look at the setting – an ashram, set amid nature) and Dushyanta forgets her only because of a curse. 

One cannot rewrite myths. They are there, they have been there for centuries. One cannot ignore them either.  But they can be retold and given a twist that makes you look at them quite differently.

Also read | From Subversions: Essays on Life and Literature

GH: Let’s look to the future: what would you say to the youth in India today? What should they be reading? What should their priorities be?

SD: I don’t dare to advise the young. And the world being what it is today, I am afraid that the young will have to face hazards which we never could have imagined. The civil wars going on through the world, the savagery of fundamentalists, the cruelty that has resulted in mass migration through the world, the intolerance, the pathetic state of these people who are unwanted everywhere, who are looking for a home somewhere on earth, the power of money which allows the rich to live a kind of life humans had never dreamt of – all these have made the world a place where there is no compassion for others. And now there is the pandemic, which keeps the world in a state of fear. And there is the threat of an environmental disaster looming ahead. It is going to be a hard life for the next generation.  The word Doomsday comes to mind. The capitalist dream of enriching yourself (obviously at the cost of many) which has seen its peak in our times, will have to give way for a greater sharing. 

What can one say to the young, except the general advice: live wisely and live with compassion for others. And perhaps add – take more interest in the arts. Art and culture changes a person, makes her/him open to an understanding of human beings. Reading, above all, gives a kind of understanding that can make you into a different person.  And therefore read – and keep reading.