Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Feminism in the Postcolonial Context: Shashi Deshpande's Fiction

Doreen D'Cruz

Shashi Deshpande places her writing, despite her deliberate disclaimers to the contrary, within an overtly feminist framework when she states: "In a way my own writing is an attempt to break that long silence of women in India."1 Deshpande thus lends her effort to a major aspect of the feminist project, which is to transform a predominantly androcentric symbolic order. This can only happen if women's discourse also has a place within the field of representation. Yet Deshpande's reluctance to name herself as a feminist should not be mistaken for sheer idiosyncracy. "Feminism" is a problematic word, and a number of women writers have been unable to warm towards it. One is reminded of Jean Rhys who, notwithstanding her goal of restoring to Antoinette Cosway, the West Indian Creole, her rights to language, demurred at the suggestion of being named a feminist.2 However, Rhys's vision in Wide Sargasso Sea does not exceed gender politics and to that extent her rejection of a feminist identity is hard to understand. Unlike Rhys, Deshpande's desire to cancel the silence of women and to redeem them from their linguistic exile is underwritten by a vision that is ultimately not political, but metaphysical. For Deshpande women must speak because they are autonomous beings, but their autonomy is not derived from the liberal humanism which believes that all have been created equal, which would surely be hard to sustain in caste-riddden India. Deshpande's conviction that each individual subjectivity is ultimately responsible only to itself comes from the realization that no one can occupy another's subjectivity, a fact which becomes glaringly obvious in the face of death, which each must encounter alone. Thus, paradoxically, it is death, not creation, that endows freedom on the individual in Deshpande's fiction.

However, the benefactions of mortality are too easily obscured by the socially constructed fiction which each gender is compelled to inhabit. Stripping the multiple fictions they occupy becomes the task of each of her protagonists in the two novels considered here - The Dark Holds No Terrors and That Long Silence. Their efforts bring each of the narrating subjects to an acknowledgement of death, a consequent awareness of their subjective discreteness, and with that the right to re-assess the vocalizations that come with their social roles in the interests of a more authentic speech. Silence in Deshpande's fiction becomes cumulatively metaphorical in meaning. The most naive rendition of silence surfaces in the secret despair of Mohan's mother in That Long Silence which culminates in death through a botched abortion. A more noisy silence emerges in the banging of pots and pans which accompany Vanitamami's cooking as well as on occasion Jaya's. The permissible noise is a code for the repression, self-imposed or otherwise, which cannot be breached. But the most insidious silence is of course that which is mistaken for speech, and uttered by those many personae created in aid of those socially engineered fictions. Consequently the self that is capable of apprehending death never surfaces, never speaks, and never lives. Unlike the poststructuralists, Deshpande does claim an essential self, and I assume she knows that it exists because that is a pre-requisite for its death. Clearly, liberation from the limitations of gender roles in Deshpande's fiction is indistinguishable from an awareness of one's ontological separateness.

Both The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980), Deshpande's first published novel, and That Long Silence (1988),3 her last novel to date, locate their protagonists at a critical juncture when the fictions and roles by which they have lived no longer suffice. In the first of these two novels, Sarita, the narrator, returns to her childhood home after her mother's death. Presumably, her mother's death liberates her from the self constructions she had embarked on to defy her mother, even while seeking, albeit vainly, maternal acknowledgement. But her mother dies without relenting on her repudiation of Sarita as daughter. Having lost the major rationale for the persona she has devised for herself, Sarita has to confront its underlying falsity. Her ostensible success as a doctor, her middle-class life, material acquisitions, and an outwardly stable marriage cover the sordid and degrading actuality of recurrent rape by her husband. In That Long Silence, Jaya, the narrator, finds that she has to re-evaluate her comfortable personae as wife and mother of a middle-class family when these are threatened as a result of her husband's involvement in fraudulent activities. Jaya and her husband move to a poorer section of Bombay in an attempt to lie low while the investigation is in process. Here, their lives pared to a bare simplicity, Jaya faces the deluding fictions on which she had based her life. In both novels, the change of physical locale is an augury of more fundamental changes. However, the peeling of the illusions that buffer each from her own authentic utterance takes a pattern unique to each novel as warranted by the specificities of each plot. These necessary differences notwithstanding, each novel enacts through its technique Deshpande's fundamental belief in the separateness of individual subjectivity, and the right of each to her story. Each narration is an introspection in the stream of consciousness mode which, relentlessly and by stages, uncovers the fictions by which each resists the knowledge of her aloneness and allows herself to be subsumed into the prevailing master narratives. The singularity of each introspection, like the fact of death, is the visible proof of a counter-resistance to colonizing fictions.

The Dark Holds No Terrors

The crisis that propels Sarita to her father's home has its source in the fundamental contradiction of an ostensibly liberated successful professional woman forced to endure secretly the degradation of marital rape from an apparently benign husband. At the root of Sarita's contradictory definitions of being socially liberated while being sexually subjected is the collision of two incompatible narratives, one containing the theme of female autonomy, the other of male mastery. That Sarita should be the locus of the encounter of these contradictory fictions is not entirely accidental. In attempting to use professional and scholarly success in place of the good looks she did not possess to escape the same life as her mother's, she introduces an alien, somewhat feminist plot alongside the romantic plot, dedicated to male rescue and female helplessness, which she also decides to inhabit in repudiation of her mother. When she eventually wins the "heart throb" of her peers, the good-looking, charismatic Manohar, Sarita is probably unaware of how she would test the romantic myth to which she had subscribed in defiance of a caste-compatible arranged marriage. Her self-initiated, self-motivated drive towards professional success makes the fiction of rescue and subordination to the romantic hero, the "conquering male," a withering superfluity in all but name. In Lacanian terms, while Sarita is willing to take on the physical sign that goes with becoming the phallus in the increasing attention she pays to her physical transformation into a fit object of desire, she is not willing to surrender the rights to having the phallus as well, that is, to being the desiring subject whether the desire be for affective, sexual, or professional gratification.4 The endangered male, unable to accommodate the loss of his mythic validation through the metaphors of rescue and dominance, finds it in the act of villainy. Each is thus locked uncomfortably within contradictory narratives.

How did Sarita come to insert herself in incompatible fictions neither of which she could inhabit completely? Her story suggests that she was not seeking a fitting fiction as escaping the fictions her mother occupied, and which could, unless resisted, be hers as well. Sarita sought desperately to be everything her mother was not, even while yearning for the maternal love and approval she never received. It may be argued that the mother-daughter relationship here suffers the same penalty as in every other male-dominated society where the phallic third term disrupts the original dyad and forever exiles the daughter from her origins. In Sarita's story, the third term taking the form of privileged masculinity is not represented by her father, who is constantly negated by her mother, but by her brother, Dhruva, who as a boy enjoyed maternal preferment that Sarita did not, and whose accidental death only confirms her superfluity. The penalty of being female is a lesson her mother conveys by underclassing her through withholding love. Thus she confers on her daughter the legacy of inferiority she had inherited with her body. Sarita responds by resolving to reject her femaleness which marks her as similar to her mother, a project she embraces despite the lack of co-operation from nature. The inevitable onset of her menstruation, an indubitable sign of her femaleness, carried beyond all the humiliating social restrictions, the greater ignominy of finally being like her mother, a notion which Sarita determinedly rejects:

. . . Let there be a miracle and let me be the one female to whom it doesn't happen. But there were no miracles. It was torture. Not just the three days when I couldn't enter the kitchen or the puja room. Not just the sleeping on a straw mat covered with a thin sheet. Not just the feeling of being a pariah, with my special cup and plate by my side in which I was served from a distance, for my touch was, it seemed, pollution. No, it was something quite different, much worse. A kind of shame that engulfed me, making me want to rage, to scream against the fact that put me in the same class as my mother. (55)

Notwithstanding the rejection of her mother by Sarita, Deshpande's fiction rewrites the Freudian myth to some degree. The girl child does not initiate the rupture from her mother out of hostility for the mother's castrated status.5 On the contrary, she is castrated by her mother's complicity with masculine ethos in ejecting her from her place of origin, and the daughter's subsequent activities may be read as compensations for an original exile.6 The compensation that Sarita seeks is not one of languishing in penis envy, but rather she seeks to appropriate the phallus for herself. Sarita's option represents only one possibility. There are others of course, where the quest for phallic appropriation does not take quite such a public form. For instance, Sarita's mother seeks compensation through the negation of her husband within the domestic context, so that to his daughter he emerges as a pusillanimous figure.

If through her mind Sarita sought the power attributed to maleness despite fantasies of submisssion to the conquering male, her body succumbs to being a text written to another's dictation to fit a pre-existent master fiction.7 Her mother, the first translator of the corporeal text she displays, finds it unworthy even for the subordinate destiny awaiting it of marriage, sex and reproduction. Sarita is too dark, according to her mother, and may not readily attract a husband:

Don't go out in the sun. You'll get even darker.

Who cares?

We have to care if you don't. We have to get you married.

I don't want to get married. (40)

She is also ugly, or so her mother says:

I was an ugly girl. At least, my mother told me so. I can remember her eyeing me dispassionately, saying . . . you will never be good looking. You are too dark for that. (54)

As her body becomes more womanly, her mother reads there a distasteful text:

"You're growing up," she would say. And there was something unpleasant in the way she looked at me, so that I longed to run away, to hide whatever part of me she was staring at. (54-5)

The degenerate text the mother reads in the daughter's body comes presumably from her own sense of having been debased and betrayed by her body. Thus their similitude in inhabiting the female body is precisely what divides mother and daughter as each sees in the other a legacy of shame and negation.

The study of physiology and anatomy eventually displaces the negative texts her mother had gleaned from her body, erecting in their place an alternative discourse of pure functionality. The female sexed body is in this context relieved of its socially inscribed meanings. But this respite from an appropriative discourse does not last, and before long the requirements of romantic love demand that her body display in code its amenability to being the object of male desire:

My breasts which had caused me agonies of self-consciousness earlier, making me feel everyone was staring at them, so that I longed to wear some kind of armour that would hide them from the world . . . now . . . became something to be proud of. I learnt how to dress, to accept the curve of my hips, the slimnesss of my waist. To take in male stares and admiration with outward equanimity and secret pride. (56)

Thus her body, rejected and devalued by her mother, becomes the place of another text containing the language of desire which displaces the maternally-derived text. The body of shame has become the object of desire. And the rescue is effected by her lover-husband, Manohar, who saves her from the underclassing to which the female body is condemned by a heterosexuality that is not mediated by romantic love. So the susceptibility of her body, her symbolic Achilles' heel, to multiple inscriptions betrays her into the passive occupation of another's story, even while in other contexts she is seeking to write her own autonomous narrative.

As noted earlier, the duplicity arising from the occupation of contrary fictions is not exclusive to Sarita. The price of inauthenticity is that each person carries a dark twin, the self which is in excess of the permitted fictions. The strongest metaphor for the encrypted other harboured by the self emerges in the smiling placid woman who, having committed the accidental transgression of dropping her brass tray while applying kumkum to the Devi in the temple, turns into an inhuman gyrating spectacle. Her strangeness is explained to be a consequence of the Devi having entered her. Ironically she has become divine because the ritual of worship in which she placed herself had no place for her human fallibility. Likewise Manohar, Sarita's husband, required by social convention to be the dominant partner, finds no legitimate context for that role. He is not his wife's professional equal; he does not earn as much as she does; their lifestyle is made possible by her income; and finally she had written his career for him when she encouraged college lecturing over a precarious future in journalism. Then to top it all, she rubs his nose in his ignominy by playing Galatea to some other Pygmalion. Thus ejected from his socially sanctioned role, he can only dominate her through rape, or through her feigned weariness and helplessness.

And Sarita, why does she not step out of the story now that romance has become rape, and the rescuer has become the villain? Why does she not speak the word that would dispel the illusion of normality and let the benign husband meet his known or unknown twin, the rapist? The moment for such utterance often surfaces, but always Sarita lets the opportunity pass her by. Why will she not redraw the boundaries of their mutual fiction? The simple answer is that she lacks the courage to be the lone voice dismantling the masks and myths of convention and mistaken convenience. Sarita's sojourn with her father is in effect a journey into a particular darkness of her childhood to recover a lost self before it had fallen prey to a compromised discourse. The dark holds no terrors is what she would have liked to have told her frightened little brother who had habitually sought refuge in her bed. But he had gone alone into his darkness when he drowned, while she, ostensibly unafraid of the dark, cannot face the gloom cast by his death and the culpability assigned to her for it, nor the blackness of the recurrent rapes she endures. To walk her particular darkness and exorcise its terrors, she must return to the singular journey begun early and abandoned when her brother died.

Her brother's death subsumed her into a fiction of guilt and culpability woven by her mother, desperately denied in private by her, but the terms of the very denial constituted a susceptibility to the guilt assigned to her:

You killed your brother

I didn't. Truly I didn't. It was an accident. I loved

him, my little brother. I tried to save him. Truly I

tried. But I couldn't. And I ran away. Yes, I ran away ,

I admit that. But I didn't kill him. How do you know

you didn't kill him? How do you know? (132)

Denied public utterance, the guilt retreats into nightmare, and eventually achieves complete repression only to surprise her at the most unexpected times, either through chance reminders, as during a viewing of Satyajit Ray's film Pather Panchali, or in an unexpected nightmare in the early days of her marriage. For her husband, who witnesses the sobs attending her nightmare, she transforms the text of her exile through guilt into the more flattering fiction of her fear of exile from love through his rejection. The comfort he offers drives away the nightmare by erecting a spurious discourse of heterosexual completeness upon the hidden and repressed narrative of lonely culpability. Thus her brother's drowning, an event so decisive in its effect upon the family that everything thereafter was dubbed by her as A.D. (after Dhruva), is allowed to recede under the pressure of Sarita's susceptibility to externally constructed fictions.

The discursive colonization that forces the erasure of the drowning is a repetition of the conflicts between private and public self-construction that marked Sarita's relationship with her brother up to his drowning. The refrain that repeats itself when she recalls her brother is her request, ". . . don't call me Sarutai." The honorific "-tai" defined her as older sister with the responsibilities attached to that role, a definition she attempts to shrug off in her presumable quest for autonomy. So she sends back into the darkness her frightened brother, who seeks refuge in her bed and disrupts her dreams, the symbol of her inalienable subjectivity. In her nightmares the darkness to which she had repeatedly consigned her brother coalesces with the water in which he had drowned, in probable indication of the fact that she holds herself responsible for his vulnerability to the loneliness represented equally by darkness and water:


Go away. Don't trouble me. And don't call me Sarutai.

But Sarutai, I'm scared. It's so dark. Can I stay here

No, you can't. Go away.

All right, then.

And turning large reproachful eyes on me, he turned away.

No he swam away from me, for we were, for some reason, in the water. (132)

Sarita surrenders her autonomy to the fiction of responsibility just as she had once fatefully surrendered her quest for a period of lonely splendour beside the forbidden pond to the importunities of her little brother who wanted to accompany her. And he, having found that symbolic locale where one can be alone, refuses to be the little brother to the cautionary older sister, who signals that their time is up, and they must return home before their absence is discovered. Dhruva pays the price for his autonomy through falling vulnerable to the death that has underwritten his discreteness. Ironically, the very event that frees Dhruva from the fictions of responsibility locks Sarita into ever more constricting fictions that will negate her singularity.

Returning to the bare simplicity of her father's house therefore functions as an attempt at the symbolic divestiture of the spurious and superfluous fictions she had lived by. However, Deshpande makes clear that while the stripping to authenticity must necessarily be undertaken alone, its implications are communal. One needs the listeners who would endorse one's quest to speak truthfully, granting of course that truth is a matter of increasing complexity,8 where each arrival may be a new beginning. For Sarita, the listener who makes her speech possible is her father who recognizes her inalienable separateness in her right to speak just as he did when he supported her decision to study medicine. Furthermore, the father refuses to play the part of the disruptive phallus in the mother-daughter dyad assigned to him in the male-dominant fictions, which reach their most potent crystallization in Freud.9 Rather he returns her symbolically to her origins, not as the beloved daughter of her mother, which she was not, a fact he cannot undo, but as the legatee of her mother's discovery of the loneliness of individual subjectivity. The mother finds her lonely apprehension of death fictively echoed in the Mahabharatha, in the episode of Duryodhana, who, at the end of battle, awaits alone his death at the hands of the Pandavas. Duryodhana's story was the only one of all that her husband read to her on her death bed that carried any validity for Sarita's mother. In communicating this to his daughter, the father rewrites the significance of his wife's refusal to acknowledge their daughter even when threatened by death. If death is the litmus test of authenticity, then clearly the point is that the narratives of relationship dissolve against the lonely journey it requires each to make. Sarita is moved to ask, "To be alone? Never a stretching hand? Never a comforting touch? Is it all a fraud then, the eternal cry of . . . my husband, my wife, my children, my parents? Are all human relationships doomed to be a failure?" (176). The rhetorical questions underscore not only the ultimate futility of relationships, but also the implicit superfluity of guilt for not fitting within the necessarily inadequate narratives written by others. So father, daughter, and mother, as much as brother and sister, are released, at least theoretically, from the master narratives which dispose them to play roles derived from the social constructions imposed upon their sexed bodies, their birth order, or by progeniture.

For the daughter, this means that she is permitted to write and speak lines of her devising, instead of being the page on which the texts of desire or violence may be written. The father confirms the daughter's right to speak when he consents to listen to the story of her degradation through rape. The erstwhile silent corporeal text thus speaks, dissolving the gendered opposition between writer and text. She also deconstructs the empire of exclusively male narrations written on the bodies of women, by writing her husband into her narrative. Likewise the father steps out of his gendered definition when he waits on his daughter and his surrogate son, Madhav. Significantly, he brings milk to the travel weary Madhav, taking on the symbol of nurturance invariably assigned to the female. Most of all, in resigning the disruptive role prescribed by patriarchal narrratives for the father against the dyad of mother and daughter, and in affirming his daughter's right to self-determination and linguistic autonomy, the father accepts his wife's belated legacy of existential individualism and the concomitant dissolution of gender. Finally, Madhav, who is both Sarita's double, in his role of older brother to the rather wild Satish, and Dhruva's double, in his role of surrogate younger brother to Sarita, cancels through self-privilege any extraordinary responsibility invested in primogeniture.

However, Deshpande seems to acknowledge that knowledge is one thing, but the active revision of narratives to which one has been long habituated is another. Notwithstanding his concessions to the existential individualism of the other, Sarita's father still needs Madhav as a buffer from the loneliness he is not yet ready to encounter. Sarita succumbs to the fiction of metaphorical restitution when she allows Madhav to address her as "Sarutai", and when she watches over him in the dark during his delirious fever. But she realizes: "It's not Dhruva. It was never Dhruva, I can never bring him back" (193). This recognition is succeeded by self blame, the fiction of culpability and responsibility: "Her cruelty to Dhruva, to her mother, to Manu . . . she would never be rid of it . . . Atonement? It was never possible" (193). The journey to our separateness, to becoming the Duryodhanas of our separate fictions, is a difficult undertaking. It is precipitated for Sarita when she is cornered by the sudden and unexpected announcement of her husband's arrival at her father's house. With all escape, whether fictive or actual, barred to her, she envisions herself as Duryodhana awaiting his death. Only her death is her husband's arrival because the encounter will imply the death of those previous fictive selves and the entry into her loneliness, which is both a bereavement and a consolation:

All right, so I'm alone. But so's everyone else. Human beings . . . they're going to fail you. But because there's just us, because there's no one else, we have to go on trying. If we can't believe in ourselves, we're sunk. (200)

In the inadvertent metaphor of sinking, she perhaps unconsciously releases herself from guilt over her brother, returning to him both his wilfulness as well as his probable lack of faith in himself which sank him. In deciding to speak of the rape to her husband, she refuses culpability for the texts he has erected on her. So she enters her life finally through the paradoxical encounter with death. The novel concludes poised at the brink of a new discourse between husband and wife. The existential equality, derived from death, on which Deshpande's novel is predicated seems to suggest that in the new narrative waiting in the wings the genders will be placed at a point beyond gender. The feminist quest for autonomy becomes subsumed within the greater brief of existential individualism.

That Long Silence

The narrator of this novel is a writer for whom the stripping of accummulated layers of self-deceptive constructions yield the present fiction. Jaya, the narrator-writer, commences the novel with an acknowledgement of the ruthless process entailed in the self revelations of the autobiographical mode she employs. The attempt to wrest her story from the repressive manoeuvres she engages in and to give it public utterance requires in the process a review of the meaning of silence. There is the literal silence of the many women of Jaya's circle whose stories are never told or, if they are, have too limited a currency to make any impact on the symbolic field. But the more insidious silence is found in those narratives which unresistingly concur with the prevailing fictions by acting as compliant mirrors. Yet, as Jaya recognizes, the mirror cannot be derided and totally dismissed for individual self constructions depend on a negotiation between internal definitions and the public reflections of self yielded by others. Jaya wonders: "Perhaps it is wrong to write from the inside. Perhaps what I have to do is see myself, us, from a distance" (2). The fluctuations in narrative distance, which Jaya sees as necessary to her story, and the suggestion of a self located in the interstices of exterior and interior constructions raise the possibility that the masquerades of identity have altered since The Dark Holds No Terrors. In the earlier novel, the dissimulations arose from the contradiction of Sarita being simultaneously both the writer of her destiny and the text written by others. In making her narrator a writer in That Long Silence, Deshpande cancels the textual status of her narrator. She is a writer with a choice of texts. She can either succumb to the effortless, facile narrative, whose very compliance with the prevailing order amounts to an effective silence, or she can be ruthless in unveiling her dissimulations. Since she has written the script for her masquerades in a literal as well as a figurative sense, besides retrieving through her dispassionate probing the underlying narratives, Jaya, unlike Sarita, is both her mask as well as the person it hides, since she is the author of both. Thus, if, as I suggested, Deshpande subscribes to an essential self, in That Long Silence its privileged place does not amount to a total dismissal of the social personae one may assume.

The event upon which the novel opens, the move to the Dadar flat, destabilizes the fictions upon which Jaya had based her life till then. These mostly consisted of synthetic versions of middle-class life as disseminated by the commercials into which Jaya wrote herself in the roles of mother and wife. But with Mohan's job in jeopardy, which precipitates the move to Dadar, the middle-class dream is endangered. The visions of Army wives ejected from their comfortable definitions by the ill-considered activities of their husbands, and the memory of the disgraced Nair, whose entire family consent to a suicide pact, make their involuntary intrusions upon Jaya's thoughts. Still, the mellow light against which she visualizes the Nairs' suicide is suggestive of colourful ameliorative touches that cushion her from the unpalatable aspects of reality.

The Dadar flat becomes the inspiration for further intrusions upon Jaya, which mock her precarious self constructions. It is the repository of all those ghosts which Jaya would deny. Their ghostliness testifies to their ineradicable alterity. They constitute the displaced texts, which achieve increasing centrality as the middle-class fictions recede. They tell the stories which Jaya's public constructions as wife and mother deny. One of the ghosts is her cousin Kusum, who had once inhabited the Dadar flat, and who abandoned herself to madness and eventually suicide. Another is its first owner, Jaya's uncle, Makarand, whose determination to become an actor turns role playing into a pursuit serious enough not to entail any compromises. And upstairs there is Kamat, whom Jaya tries most of all to repress, who also combines an insistence on his integrity as an individual with a surrender to acting in radio commercials. The male ghosts assert their irreducible authenticity through a career in masquerade, seeing the two as compatible. Whereas for Jaya, the apparent roles and the hidden identities give rise to alternative texts. The lesson the Dadar flat offers to Jaya is the possibility of inscribing an authentically worded text through the roles one must necessarily assume with reference to others. Learning it is a pre-requisite for the double authorship of Jaya as the writer of the fictions of masquerades as well as the narrative of the irreducible self.

The double authorship introduces a new consideration in this novel, not evident in The Dark Holds No Terrors: it confronts the question of how to conduct oneself in relation to the other, given the presumption of equality. How can one be true to oneself and yet still be the mirror of the other, which all inter-human contacts necessitate? The answer may be to write truthful lines for oneself. To know the truth, however, one must probe for the hidden texts. Where contradictory narratives impinged on the self representation of characters in The Dark Holds No Terrors, in That Long Silence it is radical alterity, making one text exist at the expense of the other, that reduces the degree of representation available to each character. The solution in each case is to redraw the boundaries of the story. In That Long Silence, the effect may be to allow the texts that stand in a substitutive relationship to be released into co-existence. For instance this may make it possible for Jaya to acknowledge her mad cousin as well as be Mohan's wife and her children's mother. Jaya, as narrator, engages in precisely such a redrawing so that the self and its masks are containable within the narrative. The feminist agenda in That Long Silence is devoted to retrieving for female authorship those texts silenced by a general conspiracy. The issue of female authorship is not in question here as it had been in The Dark Holds No Terrors.

Although Kusum's madness and the despairing silence of Mohan's mother testify to their linguistic exile, Jaya's right to language is inscribed within her marriage to Mohan. It was her facility with English which identified her as the woman of Mohan's dreams. She recalled to him his impoverished fascination at the women he had seen from a distance at a wedding to which he had been taken out of charity. Their effortless English, along with their perfume and their gossamer saris, proclaimed them as fantastic beings. They reflected access to a culture that Brahminism alone was insufficient to unlock. Mohan's arrival at that point of cultural privilege was to be mirrored by his possession of the right wife. Since in this instance her rightness as wife included knowledge of English, her reflective function applied to speech as well as looks. However, it also contained the seeds of its own instability as words have the potential to slide from mimicry into originality. So like Sarita, Jaya is located at the indecisive intersection of two opposed constructions of femininity - that of commodity and speaking subject.

Unlike Sylvia Plath in her poem, "Purdah," whose persona sees the women of the harem as mirrors for their narcissistic Lord, Deshpande in That Long Silence does not invest an excessively gendered significance upon the metaphor of mirroring. There are certain narcissistic initiatives available to the male, as exemplified by Mohan's renaming of Jaya as Suhasini, but his desires are themselves the mirrors of the social and cultural imperatives within which he has inserted himself. So when he suggests to Jaya that she cut her hair to look like Mehra's wife, she observes that after it was cut, her hair looked not only like that of Mehra's wife, but also like that of "Gupta's wife, and Yadav's wife, and Raman's wife" (96). For Deshpande the supposed Lord of the mirrors is scarcely a lord, as he in his turn is a reflective surface, and not simply of the impersonal forces around him. Mohan accuses Jaya of seeing him only as the reply to her needs and expectations:

". . . I've always put you and the children first, I've been patient with all your whims, I've grudged you nothing. But the truth is that you despise me because I've failed. As long as I had my job and position, it was all right; as long as I could give you all the comforts, it was all right. But now, because I'm likely to lose it all. . ." (121)

Thus their marriage resolves into a double act of masquerade, where the impostor self of each is totally divorced from its scarcely known twin, the self defined by its knowledge of death. Mohan's possible loss of his job begins to blur the image he projects which is founded on that job. Likewise Jaya's role as the appendage to his success and his position becomes shaky as Mohan suggests that she find a job against the possibility of his unemployment. So the release of each from being a reflection of the other is presaged. This takes effect when Mohan leaves Jaya after making clear that her careful self constructions as his wife have no relevance to his loneliness. Jaya, freed from being a mirror for Mohan, has to re-enter those self-censored narratives which she had vacated.

The most immediate of these narratives is the story of herself as writer. Her masquerade as Mohan's wife amounted to erasing her real self and its inventions from her writing, because of their evident incompatibility with the public image she was required to sustain. In the one published instance when she stepped out of line, Mohan was reproachful because he read her story as self-revelatory, and therefore an indictment of their marriage. For him she had no autonomous self in excess of her identity as wife and mother, and her writing was required to confirm that. Thus the linguistic rights inscribed in her marriage to Mohan were clearly to be employed at his discretion. Like Joan Foster in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, who produces Gothic romances according to a derived formula, Jaya writes within prescribed boundaries. Her compliant writing is announced in her assumption, under her husband's encouragement, of the persona of Seeta, who writes humorous pieces. Thus, in this novel, the gender conflict is not waged on the issue of whether women may write, but on what they will write. Jaya discovers that in writing as Seeta, she has in effect contracted to observe silence of a certain kind:

But Mohan had loved her (Seeta). So had the editors. And the readers. And for me, she had been the means through which I had shut the door, firmly, on all those other women who had invaded my being, screaming for attention; women I had known I could not write about, because they might - it was just possible - resemble Mohan's mother, or aunt, or my mother or aunt. Seeta was safer. I didn't have to come out of the safe hole I'd crawled into to write about Seeta. I could stay there, warm and snug. (149)

The silence merely adumbrates the long silence of women which has not protested their excision from kinship systems, or their required acquiescence to their husband's will, or their relegation to the baby lisp of Prakrit in Sanskrit drama. Thus Deshpande places the burden of gender inequality, not on role-playing in itself, which may be an inevitable function of social intercourse, but on the inequality of speaking rights attached to these roles.

So Jaya's impersonation of Seeta has pushed women's authentic texts into a ghostly alterity, signified by the fact that the Dadar flat is the repository of Jaya's unpublished failures. Their hybridised form, a mixture of restraint and daring, announce the teeterings in Jaya's writerly constructions that preceded "Seeta." Kamat, her upstairs neighbour in Dadar, to whom she had shown her stories, had encouraged her to throw off the cautious restraints invited by her public career as wife and mother. Instead she re-doubled the self-censorship, and "Seeta" was the consequence. The displaced texts, as well as the figure of Kamat who speaks on their behalf, stand for an irreducible authenticity which, it is suggested, ought to be the place from which one ought to speak, if one desires to speak truthfully. Through Kamat's death an anticipated event, which had presumably cast its clarity upon his life, death underwrites the authenticity of texts. Jaya's turning away from her capacity for authentic narration is symbolised by her turning away from Kamat. He threatens her wifely masks, as do her rejected texts, when, through a momentary gesture of sexual desire, he steps out of the paternal role she had assigned him. The chance sight of him dead is another challenge to her spurious fictions. But she repudiates the knowledge of Kamat's death, as she had tried to deny her father's death. Jaya gives up her false constructions only when Mohan, its necessary prop, absents himself, making her reflective function virtually redundant, and ensuring the death of her mask, Suhasini. The double masquerade is thus over, at least temporarily, and the novel prepares itself for a fictive re-arrangement, and is itself the product of that re-arrangement.

As the culminating point of a fictional revision undertaken by its narrator of both the stories she inhabits as well as those she writes, That Long Silence resolves the rivalry of competing texts through the attempt at compromise. For instance, marriage, which had been totally implicated in masquerade, is allowed to acknowledge its affinity with death. Jaya recalls a poignant realization during one episode of love-making that nothing, not even the act of love, can bridge the existential separation of herself from Mohan. Hence, presumably, even sex, so fundamental to life, is a pretense by its attempted negation of one's essential loneliness. Consequently the terms of existence involve the recognition of the swing of the pendulum between loneliness and its negation. To privilege one of these states of being over the other is to falsify the dialectics between life and death. Marriage becomes an acceptable locus for the continuance of Jaya's fiction because the alterity assigned to her displaced texts, she realizes, is not demanded by marriage, but by her complicity with notions of male authority:

Mohan will be back. 'All well' his telegram says. Does he mean by this that we will go back to being 'as we were'? Does it mean that, now that Mohan has sorted out his problem, and no longer fears prosecution, joblessness and disgrace, we can go back to our original positions? Does it mean that he will come back and give me a carefully edited version of what has happened - as he has done so often till now - and then ask me, 'What do you say, Jaya?'?

Until today, this has been a rhetorical question. I have looked at his face for clues and then given him the answer I know he wants. I have only to do this now and authority will seep into Mohan once more. (192)

Indeed Deshpande goes further than defending marriage; she sees it as a necessary institution, which safeguards women from rampant commodification. Vanitamami, who is perceived to be as unlikely a source of wisdom as Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, advises, "Remember, Jaya, a husband is like a sheltering tree" (32). Jaya, however, ponders on the soundness of counsel from such a dubious source. The image of the sheltering tree becomes associated in her mind with a creeper at her childhood home in Saptagiri, casting doubt on the protective role of the husband. But with Mohan gone, it is brought home to Jaya, through her conversation with Dr. Vyas, that he made it possible for her to speak to other men without it being misconstrued as a sign of sexual availability:

'With your husband, of course' - what did he mean by that? Was it impossible for me to relate to the world without Mohan? A husband is like a sheltering tree . . . Vanitamami, did you without knowing it, speak the most profound truth I'm destined to hear in my life? What would he have done if I'd told him Mohan has left me? How would he have looked at me then? With pity? Contempt? Or, most frightening thought, without that barrier Mohan had raised between me and other men? (167)

Thus marriage becomes the locus of yet another compromise. Jaya's perceived ownership by her husband - her commodification - paradoxically under-writes her status as speaking subject in the world at large. This is because the prevailing cultural imperatives are formidably anti-feminist, predicated on the view that the female is commodity. One may vacate that fiction, as Jaya does, only through the shelter of a marriage which inscribes one as speaking subject. Therefore, for Jaya, the only possibility for the recovery of her displaced texts is from within marriage. Although in socio-cultural terms, the right to speak may be a privilege awarded by marriage to women, the existential vision of Deshpande seems to suggest that a wife's free speech is mandatory. Without the free discourse of the wife, the husband could be undermined by the deceit of programmed utterances, as the sheltering tree could be by the white ants hiding in manure.

Given the widespread cultural degradation of women, Deshpande seems to think that any marriage is better than none. So Rajaram, the violent husband of Tara, is worth saving from death, because he stands between her and her general commodification. The girl whom Jaya sees in the Churchgate bus station, reduced in public to a sexual toy of two men in return for a puff of their cigarettes, epitomizes the cultural construction of women. They are blank pages, which men may own, and on which they may write indiscriminately.

The uncompromising existential integrity of the individual in The Dark Holds No Terrors, communicated through Duryodhana's story from the Mahabharatha, is moderated in That Long Silence by a recognition of the social and cultural contexts in which the individual is placed. The parallel classical text in That Long Silence is the Bhagwad-Gita and specifically the words of Krishna to Arjuna: "I have given you knowledge. Now you make the choice. The choice is yours. Do as you desire" (192). The pursuit of individualism has a pre-requisite here - knowledge. The difference in philosophical stance between the two novels may be attributable to the very different initiatives required by the woman as text and the woman as writer.


The marginal to silent position of women in Deshpande's fiction denies them a valid presence in colonial and postcolonial discourse. The historical subtext in her fiction clearly indicates a multiply mediated connection for women, if that at all, with British colonialism. The women of the generation immediately preceding Jaya and Sarita have been so totally defined by their domestic roles as to be written out of the colonial construction of the indigene. For Sarita and Jaya, colonization, paradoxically, has given them access to speaking rights through the value placed on English and the possibilities for female education. Consequently, the claim of the writers of The Empire Writes Back that feminism and postcoloniality are parallel or coincident discourses is not borne out by Deshpande's novels, which suggest that they are conflicting discourses.10 Colonialism has at least inscribed women as marginal speaking subjects, as opposed to a native culture in which negation and silence have been their lot. Not surprisingly, therefore, Deshpande's women bear the marks of the historical transformation wrought by empire without any radical discomfort. They easily occupy a cultural landscape in which they are heirs to a dual legacy, in which Jane Austen and Viginia Woolf have as much currency as the Bhagwad Gita and the Mahabharatha. Indeed Woolf's A Room of One's Own is alluded to in The Dark Holds No Terrors and functions as an inspirational sub-text for both novels.

Quite apart from the women, the immediate postcolonial generation that Deshpande depicts seems to have altered its orientation. It is no longer pre-occupied by Whitehall and its machinations or the legitimations derived from empire. Rather it inhabits a different geo-politics, which is multilateral, not bilateral. The historical event that filters into That Long Silence, and helps to place her characters temporally, is the Sino-Indian War of the early sixties. In personal terms, the postcolonial alignment of global power is reflected in the fact that America has become for the Indian middle-class the promised land. Dinkar, Jaya's brother, has emigrated to America, and his friend, Dr Vyas, observes that fact with some envy. Meanwhile, within India, an Indian middle-class has succeeded to the vacuum left by the British Raj. Accordingly, as Dieter Riemenschneider has observed with reference to contemporary writing by Indian women, including Deshpande, different considerations predominate:

The younger generation of Indian women writers almost without exception belongs to the middle class, a social group whose coherence rests in a Western type of education, anglicized views, job security and occupations in the administrative, professional, educational or managerial branches of either the public or the private sector. This generation, born in the late 1930s and 1940s, has not had any direct experience of the struggle for independence, but has grown up in a country where the great literary themes of colonialisn and nationalism, of the cultural clash between East and West or the confrontation of tradition and modernity have lost their relevance.11

Clearly, not only has the Empire dissolved, but its erstwhile colony is not writing back.

Massey University, NZ


1 Both this statement and the disclaimers are quoted by Shyamala A. Narayan, "Shashi Deshpande," in Contemporary Novelists, ed. Lesley Henderson and Noelle Watson, 5th ed. (Chicago and London: St James Press, 1991) 241.

2 Carole Angier, Jean Rhys (Penguin Books, 1985) 121.

3 The publication details of these texts are as follows: The Dark Holds No Terrors, (New Delhi: Vikas, 1980); That Long Silence (London: Virago Press, 1988).

4 See Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990) 131-2 for a discussion of having and becoming the phallus.

5 Sigmund Freud, "Femininity," in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (Penguin Books, 1973) 158.

6 This meaning of castration conforms with Luce Irigary's reading in Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985) 33.

7 This metaphor has a long tradition as Susan Gubar observes in " 'The Blank Page' and Issues of Female Creativity," in Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 77.

8 I am indebted to Adrienne Rich for this idea. See her On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966 - 1978 (New York: Norton, 1979) 187.

9 Freud, 145 - 169.

10 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989) 177.

11 Dieter Riemenschneider, "Indian Women in Writing in English: The Short Story," World Literature Written in English, 25.2 (1985): 312-318.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 19 April, 2015