July 31, 2020
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Mirror Has Two Faces

Proof of a maturing oeuvre

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Mirror Has Two Faces
Small Remedies
By Shashi Deshpande
Viking Rs 395, Pages: 324
Over the years, Shashi Deshpande has built up a sizeable, many would say significant, corpus. But with one book following rather uninnovatively on the other, and particularly with her last book A Matter of Time published four years ago, Deshpande seemed in danger of making a literary ghetto of marital estrangements and women's inner lives.

Wonderfully, her new novel, Small Remedies has released her from that limiting stockade. Much more emotionally complex and structurally sophisticated than her earlier work, Small Remedies raises Deshpande's corpus to a new, more mature creative notch. The prose, sadly, still smacks of the pedestrian but the narrative surge is urgent, almost compelling. Her habitual, unidimensional men of straw have been replaced by more full-bodied and complex male characters. Her women are less emotionally mingy. And though the idea of loss and estrangement, particularly marital estrangement, continues to occupy emotional centrespace, it's now convincingly counterpointed by a range of more robust and intimate relationships.

Structured as a biography-in-progress, Deshpande's built Small Remedies intriguingly like a psychological jigsaw. At its ostensible centre is Savitribai -- an ageing doyen of the Gwalior gharana who bucked all the rules of a severe, Brahmanical patriarchy to be able to sing; a maverick whose iconoclastic life is the stuff of legend. But the crucial pieces, the emotional details that'll flesh out her life, make the picture fit, are held, not by her, but by her biographer Madhu.

A grieving mother, estranged from her husband Som over a jealous misunderstanding and the loss of their son, Madhu comes to Bhavanipur, commissioned to write Bai's biography. She once knew the singer as a child. But the crafty, recalcitrant old woman she meets, determinedly orchestrating a hagiography of her public self, is not the Bai Madhu knew. Where was the woman -- desperate? enchanting? feisty? -- who'd left her husband and eloped with a Muslim tabla accompanist to be able to sing? Was she propelled by love, by passion? Or did she use her lover as a tool of her ambition? Where was the mother --wilfully negligent or unseeing? -- who sailed in and out of performances oblivious of her illicit daughter's fierce confusions? What sort of a woman was she who could pretend her daughter had never existed, never died? And if she, Madhu suffered her child's loss so much, could Savitribai really be so unmoved by her own?

In confronting Bai's life story, Madhu is forced to confront her own ambivalences. And by filling the silent interstices in Bai's tale with the clamour of her own questions, the portrait of Bai Madhu leaves us with is inextricably, a portrait of them both. Is that portrait apocryphal? Can it but be otherwise? Deshpande raises interesting questions about authorship.

Rich as her two protagonists are, Deshpande's real triumph lies in her cameo characters --all of them warm, pulsing with life, generous even when flawed. Madhu's father, an ironic, humorous man; Munni, Bai's bright, brittle, simmering daughter; Hari and Lata, her hosts in Bhavanipur, picture of charming domesticity; Tony, Madhu's steadfast half-brother... No matter how slight a presence, they all have a distinctive character, an imaginative life of their own.

Small Remedies then is not what you might call a tour de force. But it's a good book. It's about rebellion, creative dilemmas, sexual awakening, obsessive love, loss and healing. If only Deshpande would shed the primness of her prose, she might yet trawl the raw depths of her own fictive scape and come -- more forcefully -- into her own.

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