Shashi Deshpande weaves a memorable story about human relationships, the ties that bind people, sometimes stifling or tearing them apart, and occasionally uniting kindred souls. The novel revolves around the ongoing jugalbandi between Aparna and Shree Hari Pandit; two people, quite different, yet having more in common than they could have ever imagined. Through their relationship they explore themselves and the eternal enigma; what really is love?
That Shree Hari Pandit “is a singer, is the main thing about him. That’s his life. He was born with music in his genes, he grew up with music in his ears.” Aparna is captivated by his music, and by him, after witnessing a performance. That mutual instant attraction grows into a deeper relationship, as Shree Hari pursues Aparna with boyish spontaneity. Aparna soon learns that he idolises his grandparents. His grandfather was his first guru, he learnt Tukaram’s bhajans and the Geet Ramayan from him.
She is charmed by his old-fashioned ways, of addressing her with the quaintly courteous tumhi. “I could listen to him all day,” Aparna confides to her cousin Madhu. “Both the language and the voice are so wonderful. And he speaks English with a Marathi accent.” She realises that she’s smitten, because far from judging him from the standpoint of her superior education and command of English, she admits she loves even the way he speaks.
US-trained cancer surgeon Dr Aparna Dandekar comes from a world far from Shree Hari Pandit’s. The only child of a once-renowned Marathi playwright, she has carved a place for herself in a demanding profession. Yet she finds herself seeking common ground with Shree Hari. “Hari’s singing reminds her of a surgeon at work, a precise meticulous search for the place he has to get to, finally getting there with marvellous skill and finesse.” Aparna is also haunted by the tragedy of her late parents, of “their togetherness which had so abruptly ceased. Ended without dignity...”
How can she believe in love, when even her own marriage to a colleague ended because she had mistaken the counterfeit for the true thing? Yet Aparna feels an emptiness in her life, living as she does “in homes that belong to others, among the possessions of strangers.” It’s “so easy to say yes... so easy to submit, to stop thinking,” and go along with the man she loves. Yet she can’t wholeheartedly. Perhaps “it is not marriage, but love itself that Aparna distrusts.” Aparna’s inner struggles are portrayed with delicate nuances, endearing her to the reader and lending dramatic tension to the story. Will she? Won’t she? And will he continue to wait for her?
Shree Hari has also suffered, coming up the hard way, and refusing help from his father. Yet his passionate love for Aparna is almost boundless. “I was singing Tuka’s words, I was addressing Vithala, but I could only think of you. Bhakti, Ajoba said, is another face of love... I’ve sung these songs all my life, but I understand what they mean only now... You are my light, my world, my music.” He would be in his late 30s or older, yet he follows Aparna like a lost puppy, and won’t take her rebuffs for an answer until that last straw cools his ardour. He cooks for her, and is solicitous about dropping her home. He seems to have all the time in the world for her, and he’s exquisitely delicate and hesitant about getting into a physical relationship with her.
Adorable as Shree Hari is, one wonders. More than a flesh-and-blood man, he seems a projection of what a woman like Aparna would want her man to be. This is, after all, a woman-centric story. Shree Hari’s role is clearly secondary to Aparna’s. Other men do make brief appearances. Aparna’s father and her first husband, or rather her memories and impressions of them, surface occasionally. But the women dominate, and their relationships with Aparna throw light on the many aspects of affection and emotional connections.
Jyoti plays a major role in the story. Her relationship with Aparna evolves from patient and doctor, to friendly neighbours, into soul sisters. Ahalya appears as a mystery woman from the past, whose memoirs are found among Aparna’s father’s manuscripts. Jyoti begins translating it to distract herself from her own terminal illness. Soon, Jyoti is drawn into Ahalya’s account of her unusual life, struggles and loves. Jyoti comes across as a positive woman who supports Aparna with her fading strength. Ahalya’s story throws fascinating light on the trials women faced in days gone by, and how they too dared to love, despite all social constraints. She also unveils fresh truths before Aparna. “Jyoti, in getting back Ahalya, has reclaimed the Baba of my childhood... I no longer see him as the suffering, bitter man he became in his last years.” Ahalya’s memoirs in the archaic style of her times, slows down the narrative though. And the revelation that she is a common ancestor to both Aparna and Jyoti seems like a convenient plot device.
Overall, this is beautifully crafted story, a slow and melodious symphony with memorable characters, who stay with you long after the last page is turned.
Strangers to Ourselves
2016, pp 322, Rs 450