Let the Stories Flow
Shashi Deshpande is the well-known author of ten novels, two novellas and a large number of short stories, which have been put together in various collections as well as included in anthologies. She also has a book of non-fiction, Writing from the Margin and four books for children, and has translated from Kannada and Marathi into English.
Ananya Sarkar: When did you first begin to write?
Shashi Deshpande: It seems so long ago, but actually I began writing quite late. I wrote nothing as a child or a young girl, unlike most writers who begin in their early years. I read voraciously though, ever since I can remember. Yet, strangely, I never thought of writing though I constantly made up sentences in my mind. I wrote what I can call my first creative piece when I was nearing thirty. And have never stopped since.
AS: Apart from novels, you have written short stories and non-fiction. However, it is as a novelist that you are most well-known. What, according to you, are the advantages of writing in the genre of the novel?
SD: I don’t know about advantages. What matters is what you are most comfortable with, the genre in which you feel most at home. For me, at first it was the short story. I wrote a large number of short stories and with each story I learnt a little more about writing fiction. Then I got restless. I wanted more space to explore my characters, go into depths and follow a story at length. All of these led me to the novel. Now, I can’t think of anything that suits me better. I love the feeling of space and leisurely narration it allows, along with the control it demands. I also love the fact that you can move off the main road on to other small paths, follow minor characters and ideas, and let the story flow at the same time.
AS: The late American writer John Gardner once said, "Writing a novel is like heading out over the open sea in a small boat." Did you face any challenge(s) when penning your first novel?
SD: The challenges were many. Firstly, as I said, I moved from the short story to the novel and that made it difficult for me to continue without a jerk. I seemed to pause at the point when a short story would end and then resume. Ensuring a smooth flow, which the novel demands, required some work on my part.
There is also the problem of time. It is not just that the novel needs more time each day, but the total time required to complete a novel is so much, say three or four years, that one can never be sure that one can work on it without interruptions. Interruptions are many and each time, I have to make an effort to get back to the novel and submerge myself into it in order to write it.
The names of characters also give me lot of trouble, as they need to be just right in many ways. The same applies for the title of a novel and this ties me into knots. I’m always struggling with titles. And the most difficult of all is the tone. At the beginning, one does not know what he/she wants and hence, has to go on trying until the right tone is set. That makes it possible to begin in the true sense. But none of these things are impossible. In fact, it is always exciting to meet the challenges.
AS: Your latest work of fiction, Strangers to Ourselves is essentially a love story in the age of disillusionment. It is unlike any other book written in recent times. What inspired you to choose such a topic?
SD: I don’t begin a novel with a topic. I begin with people. In Strangers to Ourselves, Shree Hari was the first character to come to me followed by Aparna, and then her father and mother. By that time, I knew it would be a love story, but not just about the love between Aparna and Hari. It would be a love story of many kinds – the love between Aparna’s parents, between Madhuri (Aparna’s cousin) and her husband as well as between Hari’s grandparents. So the novel would examine many faces of love. With the passage of time, I increasingly find that love – our need to love and our need for love – is the biggest driving force in life. Yet love itself is fluctuating and variable.
AS: The protagonist in the novel, Dr Aparna Dandekar represents the accomplished modern Indian woman who is sceptical of marriage. Though this group is a minority, it has been steadily increasing. What are your views on this?
SD: Marriage is very strange. In one way, it is a good institution in which to rear children; we have not yet found anything better. But it is also the biggest gamble in life; one never knows a person until he/she starts living with her/him. It is also the greatest commitment as one commits oneself to living with that person for all his/her life, promising loyalty, faithfulness and companionship. All this seems to be an almost impossible task.
As long as one thinks of marriage as something which constitutes a part of human life, it is fine. After all, it does give people what they need once they enter adulthood – companionship, sex, security and children. Which is why we accept the institution without thinking. But if we start pondering on all that it entails – loss of independence, the possibility of being trapped in a sour relationship, the ability of living with someone for the rest of his/her life – it becomes difficult.
Aparna is sceptical of marriage because of her own failed marriage and the tragedy of her parents’ marriage; what seemed to be strong and permanent turned out to be fragile. These are specific and not vague reasons that make Aparna feel the way she does about marriage. That today there are many young Indian women like Aparna is because women are no longer content to see marriage as the only goal. Women too have choices at present (though not all of them). Again, both young men and women are witnessing how fragile marriages are, mainly because the old rules no longer seem to apply and couples, even women, are not willing to live in a bad marriage just to save face in the society.
I believe that marriage is the best institution we have so far for making a family, but every man and woman should have the choice of whether he/she wants to marry and should be able to choose his/her partner.
AS: Do you think women who refuse to marry face differential treatment from the society compared to men who refuse to marry in India?
SD: Well, conventionally, expectations from men and women were different. Unmarried women carried the burden of being considered unwanted, unattractive and other such things. They were made to feel ashamed. However, a man could be unmarried and still not be looked down upon. One has to only note the difference between the words "bachelor" and "spinster"! The latter carries so many negative connotations. But today, I think unmarried men are also viewed askance. The point is that as long as marriage is held to be the norm, being unwed will always be considered to be an aberration.
AS: Do you consider marriage to be overrated in India?
SD: Absolutely. We give it far too much importance. It is expected to happen at a particular time in the individual's life, that is, before a certain age. The couple is then presumed to have children, start a family and so on. The societal demands are many and exert considerable pressure on younger people. The idea that one can live a full life even when he/she is not married has not yet sunk in us. Of course, as an unmarried person grows older, he/she can at times feel the lack of companionship but does marriage always guarantee companionship? I have seen marriages in which the spouses are scarcely companions; they simply live together because any kind of change is a hassle.
Also, the huge fuss over a wedding, amount of money spent on the occasion and the idea of romance invested in marriage give young people an unreal idea of marriage. As a result, often there is disappointment.
AS: Was there any particular hurdle that you faced in making this novel see the light of day?
SD: None. Ever since I wrote my first novel Roots and Shadows, I have had no problems getting a publisher in India.
AS: The past few years have witnessed a sporadic growth of campus fiction, chick lit and bestsellers in Indian English literature. Though this has drawn more people into the ambit of reading, do you think "quality literature" has suffered as a result?
SD: This is a complicated matter and I am afraid too much has been said about it. When I am told that "at least people are reading", it seems to me that all we want is for people to read, irrespective of what they read. This is fine for me but not something that I am happy about. I think that unless a desire to read exists, there is no point in expecting anyone to read simply because it is held to be a good habit. Again, what is considered good or serious literature was never at any time popular literature (except perhaps in Victorian times.) There were rarely many readers for serious literature and I think it is still the same. So, I don’t think that the reading of serious literature has suffered. It still remains a minority interest.
Popular literature, on the other hand, has increased its readership. This was bound to happen anyway because of increased literacy. Somehow, I never see these two genres as competitors. In literature, there are many genres and each has its followers. To me, literature is healthy when there are many genres and readers have choices. The problem now is that the media is projecting popular literature as good, giving that kind of writing more weight than it deserves. I always hope for a time when readers will make their choices uninfluenced by the media, impelled only by their own likes and needs.
AS:As an experienced writer, you have seen paradigm changes (growing preference for the television and video games, a disinterest for reading in general due to shortage of time, advent of e-books and e-readers for the tech-savvy individual etc.) related to the spheres of reading and writing over the years. In this context, how easy or difficult do you think it is for a young Indian writer to make his/her own place in the field of critically acclaimed literature?
SD: It is, as you say, a very competitive world and writers are competing for attention in a world teeming with choices. In that sense, it is difficult. But none of the creative arts have ever had an easy path. It is always a struggle – to be able to do one's work, find one's place in the world and command attention. The worst thing, however, is that young writers are becoming imitative. When a certain book succeeds, more writers want to write something similar, which is no answer to the problem. For a true writer, the important thing is to find one's voice and speak out in it. If one is good, he/she will find a publisher and ultimately readers. But I have to say it’s not easy.
AS: The pen or the keyboard – which do you prefer when it comes to writing?
SD: Always the pen. I go to the computer only after I am fairly satisfied with the draft. Then, it is the keyboard that takes over.
AS: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money,” said Jules Renard, the famous French author. Do you think this still holds true in today's age?
SD: Looking at the way royalties and advance payments are discussed, I don’t think so. I always say that we Indians like our writers to be noble, not rich. But today, I think it is the other way round! Actually, despite all the noise, very few writers are earning substantial sums of money. And fortunately, most writers have another profession. They don’t depend for their living on writing.
AS: Any new projects in the pipeline?
SD: I’m working, yes.
AS: What would you like to say to all the aspiring writers out there?
SD: Read, keep reading, keep writing and be a good and stern critic of your own writing. Neither self-indulgence nor complacence has any place in any of the creative arts.
AS: Wish you all the very best and thank you so much for your time.
SD: Thank you.