February 14, 2020
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Shadowy Treatment

Where stitches come undone

Shadowy Treatment
A Matter Of Time
THAT women mostly write about women is an accusation routinely levelled at women writers. An unfair and baseless argument, seeing that all writers write about what they know best—be it mice, money, men or as in Shashi Deshpande's case—women. Life for many women in India is a ghetto. And it's only when ghettoes are written about that confining walls begin to break. Deshpande's novels perform that function.

A housewife with degrees in economics, law and journalism, Deshpande has a feel for the complex etchings of a woman's mind. Over a writing career of almost two decades, Deshpande's novels—Roots and Shadows, That Long Silence, The Dark Holds No Terrors, among others—have been a strident voice speaking of the Indian woman's struggle to carve out an identity of her own—autonomous of, yet never rejecting traditional social roles.

But Deshpande's latest title—A Matter of Time—is an aberration. Always competent if not an inspired writer, she has faltered in this book.

The plot revolves around an estranged couple, Gopal and Sumi, once a totem of conjugal bliss. The story begins with Gopal murmuring his decision to walk out of the marriage while his wife Sumi stares unblinkingly at a circus show on TV. After several weak pages attempting to build up a mystery over Gopal's defection, Desh-pande reveals him safely ensconced in a former student's barsati. He is 'in retreat' from the world and his householder self. Sumi and her three daughters—Aru, Charu and Seema—move in with Sumi's parents, Kalyani and Shripati's house, where another family drama has been playing for years. The elderly couple have not spoken to each other for 35 years. The rest of the book is a process of coming to terms with Gopal's action and its consequences.

The idea—sanyas in a modern world—is interesting but its potential is marred by Deshpande's unsure handling. She has ambitiously tried to merge an omniscient author's commentary with several narrative voices wherein Gopal, Sumi and Aru all speak in the subjective 'I'. What emerges is a pidgin din. The characters lack depth and authenticity and become unconvincing mouthpieces for Deshpande's self-conscious philosophising and her random references to Camus, Erica Jong, Toynbee and the like.

Characteristic of the book's incongruity is the bugle-blowing that attends the entry of one of Deshpande's cast towards the end of the novel—"Who is Surekha? (It seems wrong, unfair perhaps to introduce a character at so late a stage. But no rules, if indeed there are any, can keep Surekha out.)" Overlooking the clumsiness of this introduction, one looks forward to a denouement, a character who will make this non-happening book happen. Surekha is Deshpande's pale creation of a firebrand lawyer who Aru goes to in the hope that she will deliver due justice to her father, Gopal. But the climactic role Surekha is to play fizzles into some sentimental rhetoric from Deshpande via Aru.

Equally disappointing are the snippets of history and mythological allusions with which Deshpande brackets her domestic drama. Her linkage of the characters' family history with the Maratha wars and Peshwa Madhav Rao's march to the South stands out offensively like stitches come undone. Usually Deshpande's strength lies in her portraits of society and family as they impact directly on her protagonists. Delineating the hesitations and assertions of her heroines, Deshpande works outwards, organically, from a central point of view. A Matter of Time doesn't achieve even this much. There are moments of insight and a charged emotional atmosphere, but overall, Deshpande's prose is characteristically tentative, jerky, timorous. Her pages are littered with simplistic similes and a maddening use of sentences beginning with 'perhaps' or other qualifiers. What could have emerged as an interesting play of ideas and characterisation suffers finally due to poor execution, reading unevenly as notebook scrib-blings not yet integrated into a whole.

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