By Madhusree Chatterjee
The life of the average Indian in a transforming India is literary sustenance for leading novelist Shashi Deshpande, who believes that “Indian writing in English” has liberated itself from the “straight-jackets” of 1950s-1960s — when the Indian English novelist had to adhere to few invisible commandments of English writing from India.
The stories then had to be woven in context of immediate concerns — like freedom from the shackles of the elite European literary ethos to reflect the spirit of feisty nationalism and old world lyricism of the early post-Independence era when the arts were reconnecting to their Indian roots. Over the subsequent decades, contemporary novel writing has changed in India with the opening up of the economy and the rise of the middle class with their archetypal socio-political engagements. The literary drifts in India are now virtually controlled by the middle-class segments with disposable incomes who can access education in English and afford to buy books.
“It is a strange liberation that Indian writing in English is facing now. Integral to it is that initially, there were few writers and not many publishers in the early decades of the last century. The number of readers was few,” Deshpande told this writer in an interview at the IHC Indian Languages Festival – Samanvay in the national capital. But in the last three decades since late 1970s, the landscape of Indian literary writing in English has come of age with more than three million users of the English language, more than 10,000 big and small publishers and new groups of readers.
“When I wrote short stories in the 1970s, only magazines like the Femina and Women’s Era published them. The arrival of Penguin in the late 1980s made a huge difference. Suddenly there was a publisher — a foreign one — which was accepting manuscripts by Indian writers. Authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Rohington Mistry were making a name. There was the big Booker Prize boost for novelist Arundhati Roy…,” Deshpande said.
The genres in literature exploded. “You had the girl likes boy fiction. Indian novelists began to hold on their own in the world— and the global publishing industry realized that India was not a small playing field any more. The change set in with globalization,” Deshpande pointed out. Post-globalisation, English became one of the primary mediums of instruction and more people began to access education in English. “There was a sudden opening up of English writing with a lot of variety – and that gave creative wings to new writers,” she said.
Deshpande does not like to comment about content that crowd the bookshelves in stores. “But the new bodies of books written by the young for the young (like the IIT and IIM campus novels) are about money,” she said.
The writer, who has authored 11 novels and was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi in 1990 for her novel “The Long Silence”, says the “tendency among the young readers to look to instantaneous gratification in contemporary literature” alarms her. “Readers look for immediate delight in reading. It has led to mindless imitations of western writers by new generation of authors (in search of a winning formula). Someone is writing like Dan Brown and others like Chetan Bhagat. Very few young writers are their own self,” Deshpande explains, adding that “finding one’s own voice is the cornerstone of good literature”.
“Most of the books are market driven. I don’t blame the writers for that. A writer has the right to write a bad book. But I blame the people who sell the books for not doing their job. If there is a good book — they push it together with the bad book… Whichever sells,” Deshpande said. One of the reasons why publishers are taking chances is because “they are looking for certainties in a fluctuating financial market,” the writer mused.
Deshpande has “stuck to her story-telling” because “it gives her assurance”. “What I wrote 10 years ago, I am still writing now. I just tell different stories,” she said.
Deshpande is compelled by the need to tell a good story in a different way. Her short stories narrate strong stories about characters while the “novels links to the world”, Deshpande observes about her dialectics of story-telling.
The man and woman relationship is important to her stories that often revolve around powerful women oriented themes. “The relationship between a man and a woman is fraught with difficulties. The new trends in gender equations have mirrored in Indian contemporary literature for decades (for nearly a century). Earlier, women were expected to take whatever was given to them. It worked as long as the women took it- it is not happening any more. It is getting difficult because the men are not changing,” Deshpande says.
Her new novel, “Shadow Play”, published by Aleph Book Company, builds itself on the strength of a powerful woman protagonist Aru, a modern working woman in a contemporary society who has to cope with a wedding, family tragedy, socio-political upheavals and career concerns. Aru is propped by a caucus of three powerful sisters — Kasturi, a victim of cruelty, Kalyani, who kills herself and Gracy, who is torn by terrorist violence.
“I get my stories from people. People’s minds are immensely fascinating- and their relationships are hard to fathom,” Deshpande said.
Deshpande connects to the women in her stories in tune with her own life. She says there are “three things in her life that shaped her as a woman — her writer father, the fact that she was educated in English and she was a woman”. It allows her to understand the woman’s mind and the society’s reaction to the “second sex” in the perspective of changing politics, cultures and economies.
“Being a woman was difficult in our time. In our times, we had to struggle to become confident but now it comes easy. People often ask me how I feel being a woman writer — I write and I am a woman. It does not mean anything special. The woman in my story is today’s educated thinking woman. They are no longer homebound and hemmed in. She exudes confidence I see in a young woman today,” Deshpande said as she plots her next story about “a new aspect of Indian femininity- about women”.