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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '20 & Jan '21



Selected Fiction of Shashi Deshpande:
A Feminist Perspective

Dr. Gurpreet Kour, Lecturer in English, Govt. Degree College, Baramulla, Srinagar



Shashi Deshpande is a brilliant novelist who occupies a highly prominent place among the writers of Indian writing in English of the twentieth century. In almost all of her major works she has dealt with the problems and troubles faced by women in various sectors of life. In her delineation of female characters, Shashi Deshpande has projected the middle-class women who are the victims of patriarchal society and that is why, her portrayal of women needs to be studied from a feminist angle. Deshpande attempts to be realistic in her portrayal of the plight of the contemporary middle class, educated, urban Indian women in the twentieth century. Despite her vehement denial of being a feminist, Shashi Deshpande has made sufficient efforts at giving a voice to the disappointments and frustrations of women.

Key-Words: Feminism, Patriarchy, Hegemony.



Shashi Deshpande was born in Dharwad, India in 1938. She graduated in Economics from Mumbai and then shifted to Bangalore to earn a degree in law. She also took a course in journalism after her marriage and worked for a magazine. Her  career as a writer began earnestly in 1970 when she started writing short stories with her first collection of short stories The Legacy, published in 1972. Deshpande attempts to be realistic in her portrayal of the plight of the contemporary middle class, educated, urban Indian women in the twentieth century. Despite her vehement denial of being a feminist, Shashi Deshpande has made sufficient efforts at giving a voice to the disappointments and frustrations of women. She does not define herself as a feminist writer, and declares of having no intention of becoming the spokeswoman of the predicament of the middle class Indian women. Her novels and short stories appositely portray social reality the way it is with everyday common situations a Hindu woman has to deal with in Indian society except a few stories that have a mythical background with characters taken from the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.


Feminist Perspectives in Deshpande’s Fiction

The feminist inscriptions have commonly been believed to be different from male expressions; words and allusions often appear to carry varied connotations for men and women. Sita, for e.g, is the female archetype of ideal womanhood for Indian men; but for women, she may be the model of an oppressed and exploited female. Moreover, it has always been claimed that the main problem for women has been their ‘invisibility’ in any serious study of history and society. The circumambient realities can be seen as an important factor operating behind the problem of women’s invisibility, for it has been mainly the prerogative of men to portray those realities in literature. The political scope of feminism has been broadened by the impact of Marxist ideology that has made feminists challenge sexism along with capitalism, for both encouraged the patriarchal set-up.

This paper attempts to study the women characters in Deshpande’s major novels against the backdrop of various phases of feminism. It therefore, becomes necessary to discuss feminism and feminist literature. As far as the origin of the term feminism is concerned, it was derived from the Latin word, Femina meaning woman, and it was coined for the advocacy of woman’s right in all spheres of life. In other words, it refers to the social, economic and political rights. This term gained more momentum in the twentieth century for women’s suffrages or voting rights in the western countries. But, later on, this movement gained socio-political form for the emanicipation from patriarchal oppression.

Many of the writers like Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft pledged for the equality of opportunity for the woman based upon the equality of value. But, it was left for Simone De Beauvoir to come out with a bold manifesto for a frontal attack on the patriarchal hegemony in our society. In her famous treatise, The Second Sex, she has, like a raging rebel, hit hard at the andocentric customs and conventions, art and culture, philosophy and religion which have always assigned women the secondary or rather slavish position to men.    

Shashi Deshpande’s portrayal of position of women in a male oriented Society is that of someone without a clear sense of purpose and without a firm sense of her own identity. Her women characters do not place themselves in the centre of a universe of their own making, but constantly struggle to get hold of their own places of existence. They are always painfully aware of the demands and needs of the others, and have to fight really hard to quench their thirst for their extensive search of identity in an overtly male-dominated society.

In her novel, That Long Silence, the protagonist  of the novel is ensconsed in the structures and prescriptions of security, accultured firmly into socially-determined roles and attitudes. Jaya, the narrator protagonist, is confronted with the basic problem of fixing her identity, of recovering the ‘self’ from the roles of dutiful daughter, submissive wife and caring mother. Jaya strongly rejects the very idea of a unitary self, as if there is no such thing as one self, intact and whole, waiting to be discovered. On the contrary, there are so many, each self attached like a Siamese twin to a self of another person, neither able to exist without the other.

In That Long Silence, the protagonist raises her voice against the stereotypical role models of wife and mother, and revolts against the suppression in the age-old patriarchal set up. Thus, the novel can be seen as a feminist critique of patriarchal practices. Similarly, it is quite apparent that in Roots and Shadows, the protagonist, Indu, struggles to assert her individuality to achieve freedom which leads her to confrontation with her family and the male dominated society.

The Dark Holds No Terrors presents a graphic picture of male ego wherein the male refuses to play a second fiddle role in marriage. A mature Saru shuns extremes and takes a practical view of circumstances. She is neither the typical western liberated woman nor an orthodox Indian one. Shashi Deshpande does not let herself get overwhelmed by the western feminism or its militant concept of emancipation. In quest for the wholeness of identity, she does not advocate separation from the spouse but a tactful assertion of one’s identity within marriage. Shashi Deshpande has expressed the concept of search for identity through the protagonist, Urmila, of The Binding Vine as a chaste wife whose sympathy for the less fortunate women is sparked off by her daughter’s death. Despite her longings and frustrations, Urmila is not a radical feminist but one who feels like having entered a chakarvyuha from which there is no escape. She can make the best of her life by hardening herself to face the harsh realities of life. In A Matter of Time, Sumi accepts her husband’s desertion without any protest. In portraying struggles of these women for identity, Shashi Deshpande waves no feminist banners, launches into no rabid diatribes. She drives her point home with great subtlety and delicacy. Besides, Deshpande has taken a bold step forward by exploring the working women’s needs of the head, heart and the anatomy. Deshpande has ventured out of the cordon she had confined herself to and articulates the agony, pain, doubts and fears of her protagonists – male and female alike. She does not fight for justice of women at men’s cost, but presents their respective limitations as spouse. The heroines of Shashi Deshpande fight the prevalent gender stereotypes and assert their individuality.

Marital relationships have almost inevitably been the focal point of novels written by Shashi Deshpande. But, there is a quantitative difference in tone and perception in novels which adopt an explicit or implicit feminist stance. The emphasis is not on the development or mechanics of the relationship but on the forces which work together to make the relationship a farcical exhibition of togetherness. Functioning long fixed parameters, marriages become an arid formality, devoid of contact. In Roots and Shadows, Indu undergoes great mental trauma in her marriage due to her husband’s double standards who, though educated and liberal, does not tolerate any deviation on Indu’s part from the traditional role of a wife. In The Dark Holds No Terrors, the marriage is on the rocks because Manu feels embarrassed and insecure with the rising status of his doctor wife and is intolerant about playing a second-fiddle role in their marriage. In That Long Silence, Jaya has been told that her husband is like a sheltering tree. She has to keep the tree alive and flourishing, even if she has to water it with deceit and lies. Hence with her new self-awareness, Jaya ironically views herself and Mohan as “a pair of bullocks yoked together”, moving together merely because it was more comfortable. In The Binding Vine, Urmi has a long distance marriage since her husband Kishore is in the navy. She craves for some physical gratification during his long absence but she never oversteps the boundaries chalked out in marriage and remains virtuous. In A Matter of Time, the marriage breaks because Sumi’s husband walks out on her. In the end he returns to a new Sumi, who has coped with the tragedy with remarkable stoicism.

A sense of non-fulfillment, of incompleteness, lays dominant in Shashi Deshpande’s characters, suppressed out of fear of denting the facade of a happy marriage. The woman learns to adopt certain strategies in order to survive within marriage. These strategies conceal her true self much like a purdah hides the line of the body. Silence is, perhaps, the most common strategy of survival. Shashi Deshpande’s protagonists withdraw from their families for a while; analyze their circumstances objectively without any external aid or advice. Then they return to the home and family knowing full well as to what is to be expected of themselves and their respective spouses.

Shashi Deshpande has presented a woman’s world from a woman’s point of view. None of the novels discussed have well developed male characters, and are seen only in relation to the protagonists as husbands or fathers or brothers. In Deshpande’s novels husbands have been indirectly made responsible for their wives troubles. Shashi Deshpande’s protagonists are quite strong. They refuse to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of upholding the traditional role models laid down by society for women. But they attempt to resolve their problems by a process of temporary withdrawal. In The Dark Holds No Terrors, Sarita returns to her paternal home to escape from her husband Manohar’s sadism. This temporary withdrawal helps her view her situation objectively. In Roots and Shadows, Indu frees herself of the constricting traditional role of a wife and mother, and dons the mantle of the family matriarch at Akka’s bidding. She realizes that her husband Jayant need not determine the role she should play in her own and other people’s lives. After having rejected traditional role models, Deshpande’s protagonists display great strength and courage in evolving their own role models as per the requirement of their social milieu.

The lead characters in Deshpande’s novels display a tangible development during the course of the story. They undergo a process of self-examination before they reach self-actualization. Thus, Shashi Deshpande has been successful in creating strong women protagonists who refuse to get crushed under the weight of their personal tragedies, and face life with great courage and strength. Comparatively, they appear to be more life-like and more akin to the educated, middle-class, urban Indian woman of today.

Shashi Deshpande is not a militant strident feminist. She believes that we are all part of society, and we need a family and some ties. More than being a feminist, she is a humanist. Her views are more akin to the modern feminist thought which is no longer regarded as radical. She expresses her desire to be a humanist. She effectively portrays the lot of Indian women and the convoluted state of things. Her writing is known for courageous and sensitive handling of significant and intractable themes affecting the lives of women. Her works, therefore, constitute an outstanding contribution to Indian literature in English.



Notes and References

Bhatnagar, M.K., Feminist English Literature. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2002.

Cunningham, John. “Indian Writer’s Block”, The Indian Post. March 6, 1988.

De Beauvoir, Simone. Second Sex. Trans. And Edit. H. M. Parshley, New York: Vintage Book, 1974.

Singh, Sushila. Feminism & Recent Fiction in English. New Delhi: Prestige, 1991.

Swain, S. P., A Feminist Study: Feminist English Lit. (Ed.) Atlantic Publishers, 2002.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought. London: Routledge, 1993.