Listen to me may sound like a command but for those who are familiar with author Shashi Deshpande, it may well appear, like a polite request. Unlike many new age writers who bask in their celebrity image and often embellish their books with pompous words, Shashi, in complete contrast, revels in her simplicity. A trait that extends to her writing as well!
She is clearly not a megalomanic — far from it — which is also why Shashi feels the need to stress (in the preface to the book) that this is not an autobiographical account. “I prefer to call this book my memoirs since it comes out of memories. As for why I felt the need to explain, I guess I was surprised myself that I was writing such a book. Not only have I lived a very uneventful life, I don’t like to talk about myself. But this was to be about my life as a writer and my life as a woman who believed in a woman’s right to be regarded as an equal human being. In fact this became clearer to me only through the course of writing this book. So, perhaps, apart from being an entry point into the book, the first chapter was where I was trying to answer my own doubts and questions,” she reasons.
Shashi, like we mentioned, specialises in an unadorned form of novel writing and quotes Ernest Gowers, who wrote in his book The Complete Plain Words, “Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer’s job is to make the reader apprehend the meaning readily and precisely.”
This is exactly what Shashi endorses through her narrative when she says, “ I think that people who use big words and show off their large vocabulary are not very sure of what they want to say. The lack of a clarity of thought is masked by flamboyant language. I don’t think that such writing is a trend. It’s a kind of style adopted by some authors. These are all personal choices and I doubt whether it’s a marketing gimmick, either. What leaves me flabbergasted is when a reader says, admiringly, I had to sit with the dictionary when reading such and such an author. Really, I want to ask? But did you finally get what the book was about?”
For old Bengalureans, her memoirs will evoke a nostalgic feel as she recreates images of Bangalore (as it was called then) in the late 60s and 70s — essentially a small town replete with beautiful parks and gentle weather. “Yes, Bangalore was a lovely place. A big town more than a city. It had character. Malleswaram, Basavangudi, Chamarajpet, the Cantonment — each had its own personality. I certainly mourn the loss of the Bangalore of parks and gardens, of a mild climate and beautiful days. A Bangalore in which people who lived on a street knew each other well, where people leisurely greeted one another with a “coffee tindi aayta?’ (In other words, have you had your breakfast?). Where little girls went from house to house on festival days, wearing long zari-bordered skirts, carrying plates with flowers, fruits, and other things to be offered to neighbours. Where little boys rushed in with a “Ganesha ittidira?’ (have you kept a Ganesha?) during the Ganesha Festival. There was a homeliness about the place. No
w, it is all about affluence, about consumerism. And people lead terrible lives. Each time I travel back from the airport and hear about the cab driver’s life, I think — this is no way for anyone to live. But more and more, those who have less money are being pushed to the periphery of the city,” she confesses.
The book gradually takes the reader on a voyage through Shashi’s small town life that began in Dharwad and moves to Mumbai, London and finally Bengaluru. There is an earnest attempt to talk about her life as honestly as possible especially when reminiscing about her growing up years. “I’ve never been a very materialistic person. Yes, I like to be comfortable and live with dignity, for which one needs money. But in those days no one had money. And whatever I wanted was for my children. Somehow we sent them to good schools, good colleges and that was what mattered. The way my parents lived must have influenced me to some extent. Their austere and simple lives, combined with the aura of an intellectual life that my father created in our home, is what I remember, not the lack of things,” Shashi reveals.
One can sense that as she gets over her initial inhibitions, Shashi opens her heart and willingly shares memories, milestones and moments of heart break too. “Personal disclosures are always difficult. In fact, it was one of the things that made me hesitate to write this book. I kept out most personal revelations in my first draft. But like it is when writing a novel, whatever is relevant has to be part of the narrative. And therefore I had to do it all over again. My brother’s illness left its mark on our family, a scar that never healed. My mother’s relationship affected me deeply, I could not write a lie and pretend it was a wonderful relationship, nor could I leave her out. As for my son’s death, the wound is still open and bleeding. I found it hard even to write the single-line dedication.”
But despite her revelations, there is also a need to guard her private life fiercely. Not much is mentioned about her relationship with her husband. “What is there to write about a happy marriage? As Tolstoy said about happy families, all happy marriages are alike. But the fact that my husband has been a great support to me comes through in the book. As for intimate moments, well, I don’t think they need to be made public. There is a certain dignity that a relationship like marriage deserves,” she asserts adding, “Ours was an arranged marriage.”
But if there is one topic, she is more than happy to discuss, it is obviously her novels. You wonder if she has a favourite amongst her repertoire of prominent works that include The Dark Holds No Terror, Roots and Shadows, The Long Silence and many others, Shashi unhesitatingly reveals her personal favourite. “For me, Small Remedies remains the book I am most happy with. No, happy is not the right word, it’s the closest to my writer’s heart. It was ambitious — writing about a classical musician through a woman who was writing her biography, bringing in this narrator’s own life, her grief over her son’s death, her gradual moving back into life and so on. There were so many levels in the book, so many characters, so much richness in the tapestry — it was hard. And writing about classical music, specially in English, was daunting. But I was able to manage it, finally. And what feels most good to a writer — all the characters became part of my life, they are still with me.,” she says.
Now that her memoir is out, it is inevitable to ask what her personal state of mind is. “I am glad the book is out, I am happy I have got some very good reactions and I am relieved that I got so many things I wanted to say out of my system. I am a little embarrassed when someone talks of little revelations, when I’d really like them to respond to the bigger things — like my ideas about women, about women who write, about writing in English, etc. But there it is, when readers read, they read a different book from the one the writer has written. So it always is,” she concludes.