Book Review: 'Listen to Me' by Shashi Deshpande

The weight of a book is most felt by its author.

No one else feels the completeness of the work. So when a writer speaks away from the framework of her stories, that’s the closest she comes to freeing herself to her true voice, beyond the demands of a story.

Shashi Deshpande begins with the apprehension of a “mental and emotional striptease”. She wonders if it is courageous or foolhardy; “will anyone be interested?”

Listen To Me is an appropriate title. It isn’t just her life in sequence, but also a view of her writing — and also IWE, as she calls it, and the English writers she fondly grew up on — from within and without. It is a monologue, the ebb and flow of a mindscape, chiding and questioning herself at times, giving herself this space to be heard, since, as she says, few periodicals allow her to speak her mind, and she often sounds hungry to be understood.

When she’s angry you feel it all the more because she’s pointing out the most obvious truths that a sophisticated society of readers, a world in the forefront of intelligent thought, still refuses to see or acknowledge.

India Today titles an interview with her “Grandmother writes old-fashioned way”, because she writes with a fountain pen and the journalist sees the writer’s grandson walk in and out of the room. “Would they have headed an interview with…(a senior writer) calling him a grandfather?” she asks.

This is such a relevant question it looks ridiculous when she has to lift it up and display it for you. Everything else climbs up there along with that question: why women’s literary events are beggared in comparison, why a separate women’s magazine/ page/ feature has to exist, why should women’s writing alone be gender-labelled, why should family/ home/ chores be dragged in to become part of a woman writer’s oeuvre? She begins at a cusp of change, and right when she’s considering whether she’s reached the last stages of her writerly life, there are more startling changes: the MeToo movement, but also the winds of intolerance that blow away open opinions, often irrevocably.

And that’s just about writers. What about forced marriage, ungainly widowhood, rape and easy possession of women, the patriarchal blanket which is the only device that can make them feel wanted, protected, useful and worthy of a dignified life? Those who protest are feminists. Those who write about them are radical.

Outrageous; but we understand all this with clarity and a sense of ridiculous participation in the context of a concerned writer telling her life, though she herself has experienced bias only professionally, not in her personal life. Her husband relinquishes his academic tenure and gets a paying job so she can keep writing. During their walks, what might seem like sweet nothings is actually forensic, “gory” doubts being cleared by him for her next novel.

Belittling the role of women is belittling humankind. Belittling the role of women writers is belittling literature. Why does she need anyone to allow her to write?

Her life in stages: the journey through Dharwad (“…the town you grew up in…is like the skin you inhabit..”); the rough and “confined” but interesting life in Bombay, first as a student and, later, after marriage; and the many houses, good and bad, big and small, she occupies in Bangalore, where she finally settles down; the people she meets, at home, in other states, and abroad, the attitudes to her writing, the slotting she has to put up with - the physical journey runs parallel to the inner one, awakening the knowledge that she can write, and should, and will.

Listen To Me begins with a disclaimer, and then surges as a river of memory and opinion, mopping up people and attitudes from her life, often humorously. She reopens her own work and explains it. She writes about the “fracas” with Rushdie and Naipaul, the uncomfortably brash new world of literary festivals, which is hardly the same as the open discussions between bhasha writers that she’d enjoyed.

After a fairly sequential start, locating and describing landmarks in her life (but “no dates”), we find opinions, reviews and the recreation of pleasure in literature, music and philosophy. People pass by as cameos, watched quietly by an interested observer, often with a twinkle in her eye.

But the boat soon overturns, and we’re in the river, swimming in a general direction. For a writer or serious reader, especially of Shashi Deshpande’s work, this is the time to go with the flow.

These are the musings of a writer who takes her work seriously. Her opinions are valuable in that context. It’s a long, progressive life, and there are several parallel events in history and the history of literature. Ours is but to watch and to listen.  

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Book Review: 'Listen to Me' by Shashi Deshpande

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