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Distinctive voice

With much ease Shashi Deshpande debunked myths that overwhelm the Indian intelligentsia.


SAHITYA AKADEMI Award winner Shashi Deshpande needs no introduction to the people of Madurai. Particularly, the students and teachers of English literature for whom she is sort of a cerebral stimuli. Her works - both in unedited manuscript and published form - are a continuing source of inspiration as much as she herself is in person.

All within her fragile frame, she is a profusion of creativity. Amorphous thoughts and thought-provoking issues, a defying captivity of simple but powerful words with which she strings an effortless prose while writing or speaking is a lesson in learning for all those who come in contact with her.

And so indeed it was this last week at a "meet the author" programme organized by the Study Centre for Indian Literature in English &Translation (SCILET) at the American College where she came for the launch of her latest collection of essays titled "Writing from the Margin".

Much as the passionately written essays carry to provoke an exciting debate, her talk too was firmly entrenched in the social realities of daily lives triggering off a barrage of questions from the audience at the end of it. With an unflinching enthusiasm she regaled the audience - majority of whom were her ardent readers too - sharing her troubles and confidentialities, fears and hope, experience and prerogatives.

"I am a feminist in personal life but not a feminist writer." "I write as a writer but am identified as a woman writer." "I am nothing more than a novelist and a short-story writer but people seek more glorified titles to elevate you to stardom." "If critics and reviewers insist on calling me a woman writer, then `man' should be prefixed to male writers as well." "Women writers are expected to write for women's magazines and be read by women readers only. Males generally do not want to read women writers."

Such statements flowed in abundance, perhaps personifying her womanhood. It made a lot of sense particularly in the run-up to the International Women's Day celebrations.

With much ease Shashi Deshpande debunked myths that overwhelm the Indian intelligentsia. The prickly issues of language and writing, the widening divide between the Non Resident Indian authors writing in English and the writers writing in English in India or the English and the regional literature, the importance of readers and a writer's obligation to self-censorship, globalisation of literature and the impact of feminism on marginalized women - the rich repertoire of debatable points that have always "troubled her and continue to do so."

What she penned down as points, ideas, corrections on the big margin over the decades, she herself never realized would some day get converted into a book with much pushing and prodding by her pathologist husband and a good friend, who teaches English literature in a Delhi college.

"These two people are responsible both for the shortcomings and the highs of the compilation," she said nonchalantly, there again unveiling her ability to speak out her mind. "That is what real empowerment is all about - lack of fear and equality in any relationship," she said, when asked why the protagonist in each of her eight novels so far were the middle class urban working women caught between personal crisis and compulsions, responsibilities and obligations. And how they all internalized a distorted self-image and finally returned with a new attitude.

"Women are reluctant to talk about themselves. I am not bold either but I am privileged because I do what I want to do, writing fiction and exploring human relationships is my lifeline", she asserted, further underlining her refusal to play by the global rules.

Writing as a politically aware woman makes her uncomfortable but never stops her from articulating on contentious matters like gender, caste, feminism or marginalisation. But she admitted that she was tired of the hostility against Indian English.

"Imagine India in English" - she suddenly stirs you to make one understand that "the language you write in does not bear upon the quality of writing." In fact, language resonates with one's own regional flavour and cultural experience. Though some critics like to call Indian literature a great "linguistic mess", Shashi Deshpande described it as a celebration of mother tongues but at the same time the language of creativity need not necessarily be one's mother tongue. True that the West looks for Indian literary works that are "exotic" but Indian writers writing in English need not alienate themselves.

She laments the divide between writers as a group on the basis of caste, gender and language and this, she says, prevents writers from playing a meaningful role in society and their inability to take on and write on public issues. But the free-spirited Shashi Deshpande is only making her voice more distinctive with every new publication. "Writing from the margin is also written with felicity to evoke emotions.

SOMA BASU

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