Dr. Anupama Chowdhury
Assistant Prof. of English
Dept. of English MUC Women’s College, Burdwan
WB, India. “Processing” is a popular word among psychologists. As the psychoanalysts suggest, most of our problems are caused by the fact that we do not always process our feelings and thoughts. Sometimes we just let them lie there, festering like an open sore. Psychologist Louise Sundararajan of the Rochester Psychiatric Center in New York confirms that scientists have known of the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing for decades. Her latest research shows that it is not just what one writes that matters, it partly depends on how one says it. “Writing is processing”, she says and suggests that by “spilling out their guts” people can be on the road to recovery. Writing is a successful therapy because it addresses both components of mental processing. “One component is when you write, you spell things out. You say how much you hate it, or love it, and you use all the feeling words you can think of. But there’s another kind of processing, and the two have to go hand in hand. You restructure the whole thing. You take a step back, you look at it, you reflect on the whole thing. That’s very important. That’s a psychological distance you have to keep. You need to do both”, adds Sundararajan in her blog (www.googleadservices.com).
Writing allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, thereby gaining valuable self-knowledge. It is also a good problem-solving tool; oftentimes, one can hash out a problem and come up with solutions more easily on paper. The psychologists suggest that a common way to relieve stress through writing is to keep a journal/diary. Writing can be a truly cathartic experience and also a healing process. One recent study published in Psychotherapy Research found that psychotherapy patients who were told to let out their emotions through expressive writing experienced greater reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms and better progress in psychotherapy when compared to a ‘control’ group. Another study, published in Behavior Modification, showed that expressive writing was associated with significant decreases in generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, including worry and depression. Writing allows us to sort out and clarify our thoughts and emotions and lets us reflect upon our life’s journey by looking back at our past. It gives us time to reflect about our feelings and emotions so that we can better understand them and provides an outlet for expressing difficult emotions, such as anger and frustration.
Literature is but a part of life. The ingredients used in literary creations are mostly the writer’s experiences, either direct or indirect. We may say, a la Lawrence, that the novel is the “book of life” and this reminds us of Margaret Atwood’s assertion that “although a novel is not a political tract, a how-to book, a sociology textbook or a pattern of correct morality, it is also not merely a piece of Art for Art’s sake, divorced from real life” (3). While depersonalizing many current theories, the Indian English novels, too, insistently place the human being at the center, though always in ways that are ‘worlded’. Shashi Deshpande, the much acclaimed Indian English Writer, has authored ten novels till date, addressing the social issues through them vis-à-vis historical and traditional contexts because she believes that “all good writing is socially committed” and “comes out of a concern for the human predicament” (“Of Concerns, Of Anxieties”, 106). Her major concern is to depict the anguish and conflict of the modern educated Indian women caught between patriarchy and tradition on the one
hand, and self-expression, individuality and independence on the other. Her fiction explores the search of the woman to fulfill herself as a human being, independent of her traditional role as daughter, wife and mother. Shashi Deshpande’s writings, rooted in culture in which she lives, remain sensitive to the common everyday events and experiences, and they give artistic expression to something that is simple and mundane. Deshpande’s heroines find a voice of their own and their initial will to move on is counteracted upon by their passivity to patriarchal construction of space for women. In embracing this space they adhere to the feminine aesthetics. Malashri Lal opines that-
This space is operative for the woman who has made the irretrievable choice in her one directional journey. She has accepted the challenge of gender determined environment designed for the promotion and prosperity of men and must contend with prejudices against her attempts to appropriate her own space in the name of personal dignity and social justice. (19)
The author’s search for the location of the self outside the contested territories of conservative discourses slowly subverts the binaries and transcends to a dimension where the woman is matured and free to understand herself and her shadows. She uses her art to express the subterranean life of silence lying under the skin, a life that is equally eloquent and vibrant like the life lived on surface. It can be noted that all her heroines, Indu, Jaya, Sumi, Madhu, Urmi, Saru, Manjari, and Devayani ,are initially very confused about their own selves- their desires, limitations, powers and self identity. But they gradually undergo a process of introspection and self-analysis to realize their place and role in the family. This healing and re-birth of consciousness often takes place through the process of writing. Once they put their feelings, emotions and darkest fears in pen and paper, they are purged of their hidden traumas and are able to face their lives in a better way. Through them, Deshpande depicts the fact that one must understand the meaning of life and learn how to face it. Thus she gives her women a new lease of life by empowering them in their novels.
This paper also analyzes the centrality of the female body in Shashi Deshpande’s fiction- both in the works of the novelist and in the writings of her female protagonists. These texts-within- texts manifest a marked emphasis on the female body both in terms of violence and sexuality. Given the distinct rejection of corporeality by Indian literature and the specific prohibitions on female desire, these meta-narratives constitute a decisive and deliberate break with past literary traditions. In their writings, the female protagonists constantly connect the body with the writing process. The relationship between “writing” and “body” is symbiotic: the body generates writing, writing gives the body a voice. The emphasis on the body strongly suggests that these texts can be analyzed through the theory of “writing the body,” which originates with French feminist theorists, specifically Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Cixous and Irigaray posit the body as the site of women’s lived experience and maintain that the way to subvert phallocentric discourses is for women to write their bodies into traditions that have previously denied them entry. Perhaps it will be worth recalling in this context Trinh T Minh-ha’s comment: “In trying to tell something, a woman is told, shredding herself into opaque words while her voice dissolves on the walls of silence. Writing is a commitment of language. The web of her gestures, like all nodes of writing, denotes a historical solidarity (on the understanding that her story remains inseparable from history)” (246).
The renowned feminist theorists, Cixous and Kristeva, contend that patriarchy is a specifically cultural and historical context with power relations. Since language is based on binaries (male/female, presence/absence, etc.), it produces a patriarchal order which places the feminine as subordinate to the masculine. Strangely enough, the dominative discourse
tells the story of half of humanity through the voice of the other half. Since writing is the place where subversive thought can germinate, it is specifically shameful that the phallocentric tradition succeeded in not giving woman her say. Woman therefore needed to invent another history which is outside the narratives of power, inequality and oppression-
If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man…it is time for her to dislocate this “within” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it, to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside. (Cixous, 257)
Woman’s writing as Showalter points out, necessarily takes place within, rather than outside, a dominant male discourse, through acts of revision, appropriation and subversion. Female perspective makes it easier to articulate many an emotion not acknowledged in the body of literature hitherto. Deshpande’s novels question the aesthetics of the traditional theoretical assumptions with a view to reassessing the relation between author, reader and language in order to subvert the phallogocentric discourse.
Gynofiction has evolved as aesthetics which is radically different from the aesthetics of male fiction and Deshpande’s fiction employs a distinct kind of language in order to impart a new vision of reality. She takes up an “other” mode of discourse, the “ecriture feminine”, to authentically depict the working of the psyche of the central protagonists in her novels. This reminds us of Helene Cixous’s view that writing is of the body and that a woman does not write like a man because she speaks with the body. She advocated that “woman must write her Self: must write about women and bring women to writing…” (320). Cixous celebrates woman as “excess” who speaks her body and threatens patriarchy. Throughout her writing, Kristeva too, theorized the connection between mind and body, culture and nature, psyche and soma, semiotic and symbolic. She is concerned with discourses that break identity. Shashi Deshpande, on the other hand, attempts to break the long silence of Indian woman in her writing by transforming a predominantly androcentric symbolic order into a feminine narration. While the textures of all her novels are suffused with feminine sensibility, the structures are also, by and large, feminine in the sense in which Irigaray uses the term. The linguistic features of the novels in regard to their phonological, morphological, syntactic structures reinforce their feminist qualities. Both the theories of Cixous and Kristeva can thus be contextualized in her works. Deshpande writes her body. That is why the feminine touch is unmistakable in her works. In all her novels she creates a space from where various voices find utterance breaking the long silence of ages. The narratives speak with the many tongues that defy patriarchy’s notion of there being a single unified woman, “sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread… which acts for man as a surrogate umbilical cord” (Cixous, Laugh of the Medusa, 543). Deshpande’s forceful and authentic use of technique and language gives a feminine touch to these novels and this makes them rare specimens of gynofiction.
The author as well as her female protagonists construct a new, unmasked and uninhibited language and experience. It is a woman’s version of her sense of the world, it tries to accommodate other view points, but they are oriented towards an overall design of a woman-narrative, as a ‘multiple patchwork quilt’ is basically a woman’s art. Multiple narrative voices are heard; there is an awareness of a possible multiplicity of narrators. The language is characterized by its drives and rhythm, its suppleness and fluidity. Feminine desire is reflected in its rhythms and pulsations. It is non-linear, characterized by repetition, incompletion, disruption, and resistance to speech. The novelist and her heroines take up, to use Toril Moi’s phrase,“a new, feminine language which ceaselessly subverts these patriarchal binary schemes where logocentrism colludes which phallocentrism in an effort to oppress and silence woman” (84). A few examples will suffice.
Mira is the mother of Kishore, Urmila’s husband in The Binding Vine. While still in college she was married to a man for whom she was just a commodity. Mira’s marriage resulted in reducing her to a mere body. Her aspirations of becoming a poet remained unfulfilled. The traumatic aspect of physical union has been depicted through the portrayal of rape within marriage in this novel. Marital rape not only mutilates her body but her soul as well. Body has always been an important site for feminist discourse. Female body is most often rendered ‘docile’ under the domination of patriarchy. It becomes primarily a source of social control in an androcentric social order. Cowering under patriarchal dominion and subjugation, it is never free. The body thus becomes the “practical, direct locus of social control” (The Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, 2362). Silence becomes the ultimate reality when the bodies are subjugated and self-dignity is wounded. One of her poems bears testimony to this:
But tell me, friend, did Laxmi too, twist brocade tassels round her fingers and tremble, fearing the coming
of the dark-clouded, engulfing night? (56)
Mira’s poems did not reach the public eye. They were testimonials to her tortured existence as a wife of a man whom she despised. Not only is she forced to suffer quietly, but even the act of writing, through which she gives an outlet to her suffering, has also to be carried out stealthily. Our society never encourages the creative spirit in women. This view was also voiced by the poet, Venu whom Mira had so much admired-“Why do you need to write poetry? It is enough for a young woman like you to give birth to children”(127). In her marital home she has to get up at odd times in the night to write her poems and dairies. One remarkable thing about her writing is that her dairies are in English and the poems in Kannada. The poems can be considered as figments of imagination but the dairies, on the other hand, are records of facts; if they were read by anyone, she should have been in trouble, which is why she chooses English – a little known foreign language in her surroundings. While trying to search her mother-in-law’s garden Urmi says- “Perhaps it was her writing that kept her going, that kept her alive. When and where did she write? Certainly she could never have had, in that house, a room of her own. Except at night” (127). Mira’s writing itself becomes a resistance towards patriarchal operations. Her articulation through her diaries and poems once again raises the vital question posed by Spivak- ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ The novel thus focuses on Mira’s muted struggle. After Mira’s death her husband had married Akka, Urmila’s mother-in-law and Vanaa’s mother. She got married at the age of twenty- seven when there was almost no hope left of her getting married. Her husband had married her because he wanted a mother for his dead wife’s son, Kishore. Akka had therefore entered this relationship not as a wife, but as a mother of some other woman’s child. Urmi is shocked to find this apparently stoic woman breaking into sobs after reading Mira’s poems- “What memories of her own life did this poem bring back of Akka? Did they say it of her and her husband too?”(66) Was it because of her unfulfilled marital life or something more fearful than that? Were her experiences akin to that of Mira’s? While Mira had rebelled- “no growing painfully within/ like a monster child was born” (83), Akka had accepted her fate uncomplainingly. Why has Mira been granted this higher position of being a victim whereas Akka’s normal marital life is never even doubted? Why there is no talk about ‘rape in marriage’ in the case of Akka? Perhaps Mira has been selected because of her ability to articulate: to write poetry, to write confidential dairies. It is this act of writing which makes the reader of those dairies her confidante. It is through this act of writing that the story of
Mira gets preference over the story of Akka, who must have had a worse marriage. Mira’s story is perhaps also the silenced story of Akka.
In the novel, A Matter of Time, the central protagonist Sumi’s creativity blooms forth after her husband Gopal leaves her. She writes a play entitled “The Gardener’s Son” which wins instant recognition. As she tells her daughter, Aru, “It feels so good, you can’t imagine! I’ve been so lazy all my life. And now suddenly I want to do so many things” (231). Sumi tries to subvert traditional Hindu accounts of passive female sexuality, showing its overwhelming, uninhibited, and mysterious powers. She thus evolves her own identity through her creative writing. Her desire to change and rewrite the “Surpanakha” myth from an original point of view shows her ability to challenge age old patriarchal domination:
Female sexuality. We’re ashamed of owning it, we can’t speak of it, not even to our own selves. But Surpanakha was not, she spoke of her desires, she flaunted them. And, therefore, were the men, unused to such women, frightened? Did they feel threatened by her? I think so. Surpanakha, neither ugly nor hideous, but a woman charged with sexuality, not frightened of displaying it- it is this Surpanakha I’m going to write about. (191)
From time immemorial patriarchy has imposed on women the idea of what they should be and how they must behave. Even myths have been created as well as interpreted from the male point of view. The women writers today are exploring these myths to interrogate them and to provide articulation to the marginalized and repressed. In this process, popular patriarchal texts are rewritten and challenged from all possible perspectives. This includes recasting of an entire range of male-conceived women characters and their reframing from a woman’s point of view. In a thought provoking article, “Telling Our Own Stories”, Shashi Deshpande makes an appreciable comment:
Our epics and Puranas are still with us and among us; … Over the years they have been reinvented, reshaped and regionalized. Myths continue to be a reference point for people in their daily lives and we have so internalized them that they are part of our psyche, part of our personal, religious and Indian identity. (Writing from the Margin 86)
By questioning the Surpanakha myth, Sumi, thus, deconstructs “history” to reconstruct a new “herstory. This reminds us of Adrienne Rich’s contention that writing for a woman is the act of re-visiting.
In Small Remedies, a painting exhibition at Rekha’s Art Gallery brings all the past memory back to the protagonist Madhu, especially the incident of her sexual encounter with her father’s friend. The truth that he committed suicide suddenly fills her with guilt and in that state of shock, she tells her husband Som about the incident. The concept of physical chastity is important to Som who gets shocked at the revelation.Madhu recalls it-“But it’s the single act of sex that Som holds into, it’s the fact that he can’t let go off, as if it’s been welded into his palm. Purity, chastity, an intact hymen-these are the things Som is thinking of these are the truths that matter” (262). Since that day Madhu’s doll’s house crumbles down. Som is haunted by her past and becomes even more suspicious and quarrelsome. They spend their life only in fight, which exhibit hateful insinuations for each other. Aditya, their only son, is quite troubled by his parents’ fights and one day he tries to interfere in their fight. One of them shouts at him to go away and Aditya in a state of shock walks out never to return. His
death in a bomb blast engulfs them in grief and emptiness. Madhu’s world is shattered. For long seventeen years her life was centered on him but there is suddenly a void. She waits for him to return, she walks the streets of Bombay searching for him, sits by the telephone waiting for his call. In spite of Som’s explanation about the riots and Bomb blasts in the city, Madhu doesn’t stop her search of Adit. She moves through the streets of Bombay and feels thrilled when she imagines that she had a glimpse of him.
Madhu’s attention is successfully diverted from her grief, when Chandru forces her into taking the job of writing the biography of Savitri Bai Indorekar, the doyen of Hindustani music, belonging to the Gwalior Gharana. Madhu agrees to write the biography of Savitra Bai and goes to Bhavanipur, where she stays with a young and loving couple Lata and Hari. In spite of her utter desire to remain isolated, Hari interrogates her on the life of her aunt Leela, and Madhu slowly gets involved in the lives of the people around her. She understands that the more one desires to manage life according to some preconceived pattern, the more irritated, frustrated and fearful one becomes. Unknowingly Madhu writes the life of three persons- Bai, Leela and Madhu herself, all in one. Writing, therefore, heals her up. In her essay, “‘To Be or Not To Be’: The Question of Professional Women in Shashi Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terror, The Binding Vine, Small Remedies ” Shubha Dwivedi rightly observes:
Small Remedies is a saga of women emancipation. The novel is about the ‘making’ of a writer, singer and a social worker….Deshpande recognizes the importance of interaction among different generation of women. She emphasizes that women’s strength lies in their acknowledgement of their desire – not only sexual but creative as well. Deshpande’s work exemplifies that women need to be assertive in order to regain their mental equipoise and individuality. (281)
Madhu, too, recovers her lost self through re-visiting and re-telling. She regains her mental equipoise and the quest for her identity comes full circle.
In Moving On, the diaries act as a supplement and the contents unfold surprises after surprises for Manjari concerning the image of her father Badri Narayan (Dr. Bones). This memory, though it remains as an external influence, it magnetizes the internal, that is Manjari’s own story. Manjari’s and Badri Narayan’s diaries, become one, internal to the narrative mode and, to a great extent controls and contributes a lot to the smooth flow of the narration. Deshpande herself says, “Memories and pictures of the past, dreams, hopes and plans or the future-these are as real to us as the present” [literary Review, The Hindu,
5th Sept, 2003]. Among, all other things, the novel Moving On is about writing. The novel opens with a man sitting and writing and wondering as to what to write next. In the next chapter, we see his daughter Manjari, the protagonist, sitting to write her own story. Here, in
this novel, writing is definitely giving a shape, a voice, a meaning, to one’s ideas and feelings. Manjari’s mother, Vasu, is the real writer of romantic stories, of ideal marriages, published in popular Marathi magazines. She wrote stories that she did not believe in. Along with her married life, her lived experience, writing was her only other substitute- a world of make-belief world was romanticized in her stories. “Living among women who had to be aggressive and strong to survive the endless drudgery and continuous lechery, she wrote of silent, sacrificing women…an independent woman who hated being questioned, she wrote of woman who found happiness in submission, not only to their husbands, but to their families as well” (125). When looked carefully, we see Vasu’s stories are a direct contrast to the diary entries/ writing of Badri Narayan, her doctor husband. She experienced popularity and earned fame and had a number of reader fans, because one of her novels, “Manasi”, was turned into
a film. Vasu, never expressed any kind of emotions, feelings, she had an enigmatic silence around her. Whatever Vasu failed to get in real life, she achieved through her writing, always giving the ideal family image. The writing of husband and wife, though opposite in these writing modes, because both Badri Narayan, the doctor of bones, and his wife Vasu, inhabit two different worlds the former’s being the physical world and the latter’s, the emotional, and the huge gap between the two could never be patched. Manjari tells her own story and also narrates about the ‘writings’ written by her parents. Thus, she is a character, as well as the narrator. She has the double function of participating and narrating, she has the insider’s knowledge of events and also tells the story from her own perspective. There are two stories that travel parallel to each other and intersect each other-one is a man’s story and the other is of a woman’s. The significance in the novel, is the narrative voice and its location and identity as an individual, a daughter and a woman. Manjari is not an affectionate reader of her father’s diary, but a critical reader; she knows very well, that, any act of violation is a means of gaining access to alternative knowledge. ‘Baba’ was a man of passion, a man who had all along believed in the urgency of the body’s need, its fire, whose passion for his profession equally matched with his passion for his wife. Mai did not live up to Baba physical passion; she however escaped that passion by creating a world of passion in her writing. Baba accepted the fact that his wife was not as passionate as he was, “Vasu, was always a little remote even when she was in the midst of her own family, sought freedom; freedom to be by herself, to be on her own, freedom from…. constant demands”(125). Rereading her father’s diary, Jiji remembers one of her mother’s short stories, Blackout. Set during the times of the Indo-Bangladesh war, this story is told in just a couple of sentences but speaks volumes about its creator. A muslim woman switches on the lights in her house during a curfew. Soon there is a group of self-appointed protectors of law in front of her house demanding why the lights are on. Meek as she appears to be, she stands behind the door, and says, ‘I don’t know’, and gives the standard answer of all illiterate and ignorant women, ‘Ask my husband’. The group goes inside, and drags the struggling, protesting man out. The woman hears blows, footsteps, cries, and finally everything is silent, again. She closes the door, goes into her bedroom, undresses in the dark. When all her clothes are off, she touches the multicoloured bruises, her fingers lingering over them. And then, with a sigh, she gets into bed, thinking, ‘I can sleep tonight.’ Manjari’s ma registers her resistance by writing herself and challenging social definitions by openly retaliating against the hegemonic tools that have kept women oppressed. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar rightly points out in The Mad Woman in the Attic : “A woman writer is engaged at another level with assaulting and revising, deconstructing and reconstructing those images of women inherited from male literature, especially the paradigmatic polarities of angels and monsters” (6).
The evils of patriarchy appear as poetic materials for Sumi, Mira, Madhu and Vasu. Their narratives remind us of the metaphoric serpents moving freely from the medusa’s head that correspond to Cixous’ theory of feminine writing as a discursive activity which rejects stabilized language and structuralism. Rather than phallocentric language that proposes lack as a perpetual human state, feminine writing offers woman a means to articulate the inner, silent she. As Cixous exhorts women to write the body, she argues that woman’s writing will redraw the politics of pleasure, allowing woman to release her many selves. Essentially, it germinates a feminine account and a feminist discourse that communicates by disrupting the earlier phallogocentric discourse in a new historical content, the emphasis now shifting on what has been marginalized earlier. As Cixous argues, the link between language, sexuality and the social construction of gender becomes effective only when, as a new discourse, it serves as a springboard for subversive thought and efforts a social and cultural change. Thus, Deshpande creates all her heroines anew by making them conscious of this possibility of power. Recovering the “self” from the roles of a dutiful wife, submissive wife and caring
mother, the protagonist in each of the novels gets a new lease of life that empowers her and helps her to reconstruct her identity once again. Writing, indeed, becomes an act of subversion, re-telling, re-visiting, re-making and ‘processing’. Therein lies its strength.
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