A book that examines the human body and mind with the help of an ensemble of powerful women characters
MUSIC, MEMORIES and medicine. Add plays and patients, and we get initiated into Shashi Deshpande’s fictional world, where the past meets the present with cataclysmic consequences. Strangers to Ourselves, Deshpande’s 10th novel, is about a young oncologist fleeing a messy marriage, as she starts a new life in Mumbai. Aparna Dandekar is just back from America, where her dream of a happily-ever-after married life is shattered after a spouse selection goes horribly wrong.
Ready for a fresh start, she meets two people who will change her life forever. One is a breast cancer patient she is treating and the other a promising classical singer she meets and falls in love with. With Jyoti Dave, she breaches the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship, while Shree Hari Pandit manages to break the walls she has erected around herself. However, hopes of a better future come entwined in a present unable to detach from the past—the confident doctor is helpless in shaking off the tag of being the daughter of a dead playwright whose work starts getting attention suddenly after his death. Dandekar’s steadfast plunge into the past is made worse by her tradition-hugging lover. As she begins to circle in the whirlpool of distant memories, Dandekar finds refuge in the arms of a few women who can help her break her chain of thoughts indistinguishable from the ‘Big C’ or ‘The Crab’ eating away her patients.
Strangers to Ourselves is a broad canvas for Deshpande’s imaginative installations of stories of the contemporary Indian woman, who shapes her future from the sacrifices and dreams of the one that came before her, decades and centuries earlier. “Women are the magic, the miracle and the reality of this world,” says one of Deshpande’s male characters, one of those rare Indian men, she describes, who see women without sentimentality. The author, who makes her readers listen to what her characters are thinking even when they are not talking, takes a huge leap with Strangers to Ourselves, which is a memory menagerie —protagonists shut themselves in cages they build around themselves. Death looms large in the pages not as fear or a liberator, but as yet another tool to understand life. “What we fear is not death itself, but the non-existence of those we love,” says Ahalya Kirtane, a village woman, who becomes an unsuspecting author nearly a century after her death. The manuscript of a book Kirtane wrote nearly 100 years ago in a village in Maharashtra was found later in the possession of Dandekar’s father. Dandekar hands it to Dave for translation from Marathi to English.
Amid the chaos of chemo sessions and metastasis, death assumes the shape of a carefully-choreographed character. But Deshpande’s women do not embrace their faith or belief to handle death. “I wanted to take me out of myself, out of my diseased body, and frightened and confused mind, out of self-pity and anger,” says Dave, the terminal breast cancer patient, who transforms into a close friend of the doctor. Instead, she sees her concerns become part of a bigger story of similar women. The novel gets its oxygen from the vulnerability of its leading women. “Some day women will be able to live without fear, the fear of not marrying, the fear of not having children, the fear of widowhood, the fear of men,” wrote Kirtane in the early part of the last century. Those words sound like a new vaccine for today.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer