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Debabrata Sardar

Debabrata Sardar: Tracing the Transition

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Presentation of Widowhood in the Stories of Shashi Deshpande

In Indian Hindu society widowhood is a precarious state of living. Religious orthodoxy, familial politics, and patriarchal control lead them to a strange limbo of perpetual suffering. Patriarchy, the principal power behind such social marginalisation, wields certain discursive principles to retain political and economic gain by depriving women of their heir-ship and denying them of their distinct individual status. Actually, widowhood is a complex concept, consciously constituted by patriarchy with definite motives and it works through image formation and construction of political discourse. In Indian Hindu society, widows are doubly marginalised – basically women and hence they are ‘the second sex’ in the social hierarchy. They only enjoy a semblance of existence. Their shadow-like presence can only be felt as the property of the superior sex. Therefore, if the husband dies, the wife ceases to exist. Willy-nilly, they receive a ‘social death’ through alienation and abnegation. Particularly in the 19th century, patriarchy would associate widowhood with some imagined ‘sin’ committed by the woman in the previous birth and she was made to accept the insidious violation of her individual status as a means of atonement of that ‘sin’ through dress code, behavioural and dietary restrictions.

But from the late 20th century, spread of education, enforcement of law and theoretical dissemination started to usher in a perceivable change in the fabric of society. Amendment of property laws, social awareness, widow remarriage, though not on a large scale, constitute a much liberal space for widow in the social structure. Shashi Deshpande in her writings has delineated the suffering of widows in a patriarchal society, but at the same time, she marks a gradual transition in the status of widow in our society. The presentation of the widow in Indian literature looks back to a long history of physical suffering and psychological claustrophobia on part of the widow due to denial of her identity as a distinct individual and subsequent subjugation to the position of marginalised other through ideological invasion and political subjugation.

Shashi Deshpande moves away considerably from that stereotypical approach and through her writing demonstrates a perceptible change. She shows how of the two generations of widows while the former conforms to the idealised gestures and behaviours of the widows, the latter resists those. Some of her widow characters even snap the ties of idealisation. Her story ‘My Beloved Charioteer’ narrates the poignant tale of two widows – a mother and her daughter. While the daughter is bereaved and neglects herself after the death of her husband, the narrator, her mother, is aggrieved for her daughter’s present mental state. In one section of the story Deshpande brings three generations of widows together and lets us notice the significant change in their appearance. The narrator remembers her mother as one with ‘her head shaven, wearing coarse saris and shorn of all ornaments.’

This new look of the woman after the death of her husband does not simply traumatise her but also politically motivates her to lead a life of social seclusion, away from the public glare. She is made to give up all her ornaments, wear white saris and, most pathetically, shave her head. Patriarchy imposes and executes all these rituals to uglify the widow with an intention of controlling her sexuality. Of all these rituals, tonsure is the most dehumanising way to culturally disown a widow, as the process brings a control over her body and mind. For Uma Chakravarty, a leading feminist historian, tonsure is a form of ‘symbolic castration’, because it creates terrible psychic impact on her along with a sense of physical loss. It reduces her social status and makes her a culturally invisible being. In this story while the narrator’s mother had undergone all these manifestations of symbolic rituals, her daughter ‘after neglecting herself for days, suddenly dresses up, makes up her face and does up her hair.’ Deshpande brings this glaring difference in the cultural code of two widows belonging to two different generations to mark the incipient change in the society. Shashi Deshpande also delves deep into the inner mind of her protagonist and scrutinises another unique experience of women. The bereavement of the narrator after the death of her husband gets subdued to a strange feeling of relief. In our society marriage is supposed to be the means of safety and security, an institution that provides women with material and emotional fulfilment and widowhood is regarded as a fall from that state of fulfilment leaving the woman to suffer ever after for no offence of her own.

But Deshpande with a more dispassionate approach uncovers the cruel truth that widowhood is not always agonising but it also provides freedom to a woman who had been a sufferer in the prison of marriage. Deshpande in the story uses the photograph of her dead husband as a symbol of male oppression. Her daughter, Arti was more inclined to her father than to her mother, and it was something painful to the narrator. This feature of the father and the immature daughter forming a world of their own abandoning the mother outside with all her alienation and abnegation is a recurrent theme in the fictions of Deshpande. The mother finally breaks through that alien world either by making the daughter realise the politics of patriarchy or through some shared pain of suffering. In this story the mother liberates the daughter from the colonising influence of the father and enables her to see the actual person behind the endearing sociological concept of father. The photograph eventually falls down and the glass cover breaks into splinters symbolically presenting the act of uncovering the oppressive nature of the father to the daughter. She tells her daughter how she would be treated in a humiliating manner by him, how their conjugal life would only force her to meet the bodily desire of the husband without providing space for her emotional need. She used to spend a life rather full of domestic chores under the whip of the husband. Even their physical intimacy was devoid of mental warmth, aimed only at the gratification of the physical need of the husband:

‘When he wanted me, he said “come here”. And I went. And when he finished, if I did not get out of his bed fast enough, he would said “You can go.” And I got out.’

Thus Deshpande challenges the unquestionable sanctity of marriage that legalises sex even when it is reduced to the level of institutionalised prostitution. The narrator in the story is found to be writhing mentally and physically in her married life. Therefore, her husband’s death liberates her from the constriction of marriage and she feels free as her granddaughter feels when her school is over.

In another story ‘The Cruelty Game’ Deshpande shows how widowhood jeopardises the social life of the widow and her kid. The widow, Pramila, in this story is an ‘unwanted insider’. After her husband’s death her place in the marital home becomes unstable and she finds herself in a strange predicament. Her little daughter, Sharu, grows vulnerable to the ridicule and contempt of other children, she is held responsible for the death of her husband, her dress code as a widow seems to threaten the patriarchal restrictions and hence questioned and finally as a mother she experiences a disgraceful fall in the eyes of her daughter. The story, primarily, focuses on the cruel game to which Sharu is subjected to by her cousins. The vicarious pleasure that they would draw from inflicting pain on her, basically stems from the death of her father. Actually, the little children are also the product of socialisation, and hence behave in this cruel manner with Sharu. They feel awe and veneration only for the father figure while the mother figure is only an idealised entity with several ideological restrictions in the name of motherhood. In a patriarchal society a woman is considered only in term of her relation with a man. Therefore, marriage designates a woman with certain degree of personhood. So the death of the husband is a pathetic fall for the woman from that sociological recognition of personhood. Now she belongs nowhere. This depersonalisation is executed politically. Woman’s sexuality seems to be a disruptive force and hence patriarchy tends to control it by imposing certain discursive principle on the widow. Kumkum or vermilion is the symbol of sexuality and fertility. Therefore, she is made to replace it with ‘vibhuti’ or ash which symbolises lifelessness, asexuality. In this story Sharu’s grandmother severely reprimands Pramila for wearing kumkum and holds her responsible for the death of her son. According to Deshpande, our daily life, to a great extent, is influenced by myths and we have great mythological characters like Savitri who brought back the life of her husband; therefore is revered and deified. The death of the husband thus means the failure of the wife in performing her basic duties. In an attempt to control the sexuality of the widow, remarriage would be denied to her. Historically, this restriction on widow remarriage was not there in ancient India. During the vedic period widow remarriage would be encouraged. Even in the Mahabharata we have the reference to widow remarriage. After the untimely death of Vichitraviryavhis two widows, Ambika and Ambalika were married to his brother, Vyasa, following the tradition of ‘Niyoga’. But this does not, in any way, reflect a liberal society where women would enjoy parallel status to men. Because behind such convention was definite political and economic motive. In an agrarian society female sexuality would be required to beget offspring for more and more production and economic gain. But later there came a ban on widow remarriage for the same reason of enjoying economic power, especially among the upper castes. Uma chakravarty in her essay Gender, Caste and Labour: The Ideological Marital Structure of Widowhood observes that upper caste restricted widow remarriage as they as they did not wish to bring unwanted strain on the accumulation of resources. Therefore, the issue of widow remarriage, - whether allowing the practice or bringing a ban on it, - has always considered the single agenda – securing the interests of patriarchy. The ban on widow remarriage has some ideological bearing on the concept of motherhood. In this story when Sharu learns that her mother is going to marry her dead father’s friend, Jagdish uncle, she grows hysteric, fails to accept it, because it goes against the image of a mother which is again a consciously constructed discourse of patriarchy. Selfless love along with self renunciation is required for rendering effective service to family. Which is why the widow is initially made to renounce her self-interest along with her sexuality and then her motherhood is eulogised as some metaphysical virtue where the mother is expected to extend a strange immunity to individual pleasure. Sharu being attacked by these twin invasions – jeering of her cousins: ‘your new father’ and the sudden discovery of the rupture in the ideology of motherhood - becomes almost frantic.

In her another story,Rain’, Deshpande delineates two parallel sociological structures. One reflects the picture of a young widow suffering in the cage of widowhood and other marks the incipient social change in the form of liberal male outlook. Radha, the central female figure in the story feels morally bound up to imprison herself in severe restriction, ideologically imposed by patriarchy after her husband’s death. Patriarchy invades female psyche in such a politically motivated manner that a widow feels impelled to go into total seclusion,  bereft of her individuality and sexuality, however painful it may be. Her belongingness to her husband remains intact even after the death of the husband. Radha in the story tells the narrator in response to his marriage proposal:
‘It never ends. One belongs for all time and eternity to the same man.’

Deshpande shows how a widow falls victim to widowhood which is nothing but a male discourse to gain political and economic power. But simultaneously Deshpande shows another aspect where we perceive an active attempt on part of the male protagonist to give recognition to the distinct individuality of the widow. He is a person with much liberal sense and free from male prejudice. For him, Radha is as normal a person as anyone else, whom he loves and wants to marry. He removes all social restrictions and emphatically tells her: “I want you to marry me.”

Another story of Deshpande ‘A Man and a Woman’ is radically different from her other stories dealing with widow and widowhood. Here the widow, aged about thirty years is strikingly different from her other widow characters; she not simply shrugs off the usual restrictions imposed on a widow but feels free to become physical with her brother-in-law who is much younger than her. Deshpande here shows that patriarchy cannot always retain its discursive principles to subjugate women. The ontology of widowhood in a male dominated society thus gets complicated under the trajectory of new consciousness that demands for equal mental and physical space for women. But Deshpande in this story seems to problematise the idea of radicalisation when her protagonist despite her initial attempt to question the laid down ethos through the subversion of the patriarchal social structure, fails to retain that level of psychic cognition. A fissure can be traced in the projection of the psychic development of the protagonist in the story. She finally suffers a guilt complex for what she has done and adheres to the customs and principles of the social fabric.

Thus Shashi Deshpande in her short stories has explored different facets of widowhood and what is remarkable in her writing about widow is her attempt to depoliticise the entire convention by dissociating widow from the concept of widowhood. In her view widowhood is the sum total of all the social restrictions on the widow into which the death of the husband does not necessarily lead her; but it is our society that forces her, both physically and ideologically, to take refuge into it.  The male characters in her stories are not always influenced by patriarchal stereotypes or are not essentially inimical to women. Rather, it is through them, that Deshpande shows the gradual changes in the fabric of the society. Thus Shashi Deshpande besides describing the sufferings of widows also shows that there is a slow but clear change in the status of women in our society.


  • Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York, Vintage Books, 1989.
  • Chakravarty, Uma. Gender, Caste and Labour: The Ideological Marital Structure of Widowhood. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 36 (Sep. 9, 1995), pp. 2248-2256.
  • Giri, V. Mohini. Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India, Gyan Publishing House (2012).
  • Deshpande, Shashi. Indian Woman – Myths, Stereotypes and Reality (Private Papers,    1997), An Adaptation published as the Afterword to The Stone Women, Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 2000.
  • Kaushik, Ava Shukla. Short Stories of Shashi Deshpande: A Feminist Interpretation. Jaipur: 2010
  • Reddy, P Adinarayana. Problems of Widows in India. New Delhi: 2010.



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