Marital woes

Marital woes

Shashi Deshpande’s ‘Ships That Pass’ beautifully alternates between a crime novel and a piece of literature, writes usha k r.Shashi Deshpande’s contributions to Indian writing in English — nine novels, six collections of short stories and four children’s books — have ensured her a place in its canons. Her work is well known and well loved; she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990 and the Padma Shri more recently, in 2009.

Given the expectation that new work from her is bound to arouse, her latest novel, Ships that Pass, might give pause to her readers, considering that it was first serialised in the 1980s in a popular magazine.

(Though writers of the stature of Dickens and Dostoyevsky too had their novels resurrected from serials, reviving old work is questionable wisdom as the recent (2009) publication of Nabokov’s final novel, The Origin of Laura, has proved.) But Deshpande’s readers may rest assured; she does not disappoint. On the contrary, she gives us a little gem, a perfectly realised novel which adroitly straddles the structure of a crime novel with the concerns of a literary one.

And this, Deshpande accomplishes with a light, even insouciant touch, in a novel of 136 pages.

Deshpande unpacks her crime novelist’s kit efficiently and effectively. She gives us a feisty heroine in young Radhika, who decides with some asperity that since “marriage is one of the certainties of life,” it is best got out of the way before getting on with the business of life. Out of a list of worthies shortlisted by her mother, she decides on Ghanshyam (GS) more for the sound of his name.

But, before tying the knot with GS, she decides to visit her sister Tara and brother-in-law Shaan. Tara is the prefect foil to Radhika — beautiful, wise, who married young after a fairy-tale romance; it is a union of true love.

However, all is not well in her sister’s household. Radhika has actually come there in response to Shaan’s urgent (secret) summons to her. Deshpande paces the plot briskly to build up the tension. Tara, a shadow of her former self, is plagued by a mysterious, painful illness. Shaan tells Radhika that Tara has tried to commit suicide twice by overdosing with sleeping pills.

The death of their daughter some years ago, of leukemia, hangs like a shadow over the couple. Tara tells her sister that she is frightened of Shaan and blames him for their daughter’s death. Radhika learns of Shaan’s infidelity and realises that her sister is aware of it — and yet, the couple seems to be in harmony and are at peace with each other.

While the main plot builds up to the crime, there is a neat sub-plot — a romance between Radhika and the much older Dr Ram Mohan, a family friend and frequent visitor to the household. There are spirited exchanges between Radhika and the good doctor — the hapless GS is soon a back number. The doctor is candid about Tara and Shaan and yet, he cannot shed light on the goings on in the household.

The denouement is set on a dark night when Tara is alone at home and the power fails. An inexplicable gas leak in the kitchen is detected and remedied in the nick of time — but by the morning Tara is dead of the long delayed overdose of pills and Shaan is arrested. Has Tara been murdered by her husband? Or, has she taken her own life?

In the introductory note to the novel, Deshpande clarifies that rather than the “logistics of murder and detecting” she was more interested “in people and the great mystery of the human mind.” But each genre has its own conventions and demands which must be fulfilled; despite a statement of intent, there is the sceptical reader to convince.

It is at this critical juncture that the veteran novelist seems to change course with the merest of inflexions. The reader finds herself not as much concerned with the summary bundling up of the crime as with the conundrum of Tara and Shaan’s marriage.

Deshpande uses the tool kit of the crime novel to take us into literary heartland — the complexity, the impossibility even, of human communication. Despite starting from a position of perfect openness and trust, relationships become clouded and we come full circle to the cliché of love being akin to hate.

At best, we are to each other (with a nod to H W Longfellow), “Ships that pass in the night” and our deepest communication is “only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness.”

But this is a novel which houses two swords in the same scabbard. Side by side with the impossibility of perfect love, Deshpande suggests that it is only the hope of it that gives life wings.

To Radhika, she gives the joy of setting off on the adventure of life with the person she loves, the conviction that you can go through anything with the right person. We stand side by side with Radhika as she wonders, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that marriage could be like this?”

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