The book also has some insightful episodes about the life of women writers and the subtle discriminations they face at various levels.
Reflecting on her journey as a writer in her memoir Listen To Me, veteran novelist Shashi Deshpande expresses her unease over the doubts raised about the authenticity of fiction written by Indian English writers. Many senior writers of various Indian languages have often questioned the ability of the English language to capture Indian life. Deshpande, who writes in English, rightly responds that writers have little choice in choosing the language of their creative world; rather the language comes to them.
However, the question returns soon after. Just a few paragraphs later, as she assesses her predecessors and contemporaries, Deshpande notes that she “found Indian books in English wanting in some, or in many, respects”. She goes on to add: “I could respond with greater enthusiasm to stories and novels translated from Indian languages”, and then she almost seals the argument by stating that “as a writer I felt that my writing was much closer to them (writers of Indian languages) than to the works of known writers in English; it seemed that this, perhaps, was where I belonged”. The visible irony in the above observations underlines the candidness of a memoir that wishes to be “seen in the context” of “Indian Writing in English (IWE)”. A writer asserts her right to write in a language of her choice, yet cannot avoid admitting to the deficiencies of fiction written in the language in India.
With a similar candidness, she comments on the diaspora writers, whose writings, after an initial surge, begin ‘faltering’. “For them to continue to write about India was to write from a distance, giving a sense of getting the material second hand,” she says about the Indian writers based in the US.
These observations touch a sensitive nerve of IWE, particularly fiction. Not many IWE writers of some repute have been able to question their community as convincingly as Deshpande does.
Quite often, in an attempt to make some revelations or startling claims, people resort to controversial statements in their memoirs. Not with Desphande; her tone remains reasoned and sensible.
The book also has some insightful episodes about the life of women writers and the subtle discriminations they face at various levels. A review, she recalls, of her novel That Long Silence (it later got the Sahitya Akademi award) was clubbed with reviews of two novels by other women writers. It was published under the headline — “An exclusive ladies club”. “It made the writers of these novels seem ladies of leisure,” she writes, “people who lived a life of ease and comfort and wrote in their free time”. “Because we were women, women who wrote in English, a certain presumption was made about us.” The headline reflected the gender disparity that pervades the high seat of literature.
Many years later, Deshpande was the chair of the jury for the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Among the shortlisted novels were JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which she had read earlier, and “hadn’t thought very highly of”.
The award went to Coetzee, and Deshpande recalls Rushdie’s reaction on the award night: “What I felt most uncomfortable with was the sense of entitlement; that, because Rushdie had come home, he deserved a reward”. Later, Rushdie wrote an article in The New York Times and spoke of her “disparagingly”, called her “a stony-faced judge”.
Deshpande’s memoir is remarkable in its calling out the bluff of the male superiority in literature. As she takes on writers from VS Naipaul, Rushdie to Atish Taseer, her account becomes a powerful defence, and mirror, of women writing in India. Significantly, while expressing her opinion, she doesn’t turn vitriolic or vindictive. It’s the voice of a writer for whom the dignity of words remains paramount.
Amid this, the book describes her journey as a writer, her upbringing in the artistic town of Dharwad, where her father made her learn Sanskrit. It’s also peppered with her comments on the works of fellow writers, for instance Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, many details of which “seem to have been culled from media reports”.
The question that remains is this: Has the scene changed for the next generation of women writers, or women in general in India? In the 1950s, 50% of the girl students in Deshpande’s class in a school in a small town of Karnataka went on to make prominent careers. Seven became doctors, one an eminent writer, one a mathematician, another was the director of a prominent management institute before she became the director of a bank, and so on. Sixty years on, can one make a similar statement about girls in a small town school?
(A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)