The protest, that raises objection on all those

The urge to
write for women, most often, comes from an inner need to come to terms with and
understand the situations in which they are placed. For most of the early women
writers be it Abburi Chaya Devi, Vaidehi, Shashi Deshpande and many other women
writers, writing was not initially taken up intending to achieve fame or
recognition. Rather it was an act to overcome loneliness and alienation that
they suffered owing to the traditional restrictions inhibiting their free
socialization and lack of like-minded people to share their feelings and
emotions with. A need to ventilate their emotional turmoil and mental
confusion, achieve clarity of thought of how to fight these restrictions and channelize
the rebellious thoughts that churned in their minds made many women wield the
pen as an instrument, a weapon of survival. Therefore, women’s writing that
emerges out of such desperation to express themselves, to question the
patriarchal constraints that stifle their desires is nothing but literature of
protest, that raises objection on all those institutionalized structures
constructed to keep them under subjugation. The voice of dissent, of rebellion
underlies all their writing aimed at throwing light on the women-centric issues
that often lie willfully unseen and unheard. It is in this background that the
paper attempts to highlight the voices of protest and analyse the recurring
pains and typical troubles that lie submerged in a women’s life as revealed in
Shashi Deshpande’s latest novel Strangers
to Ourselves. The nature of the protest, the reasons that trigger them,
their urgency and intensity and the outcome of the rebellious voices, if only
covert are also examined so as to expand the scope and parameters of protest literature.

Key Words: Patriarchy, protest, restrictions,
survival.

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Introduction

            Any
discussion on Protest literature would underlie a definition of this genre and
its features. Generally speaking, any literature that criticizes society and
its institutions showing its ills and evils with an intention to bring
awareness and effect change can be called protest literature. However, no
strict parameters can be fixed to state all its features, rather following challenging
and extending definitions of protest literature would enhance its scope. The
protest theme in the text may be explicit or implicit and may or may not offer
a solution to society’s ills. In fact, McCarthy characterized protest
literature as “one of those things where you know it when you see it, but you
can’t necessarily define it” but adds that it is a “mode and style of social
analysis,” which can change depending on its time period and political climate.
But protest literature by engaging social issues immediate to the moment tries
to reshape the audience’s consciousness and not necessarily have to stipulate a
solution to the problems it criticizes, or even inspire people to action. For
instance Rachel Carson’s book Silent
Spring had the main function of informing people of a situation that they
otherwise would have known nothing about, regardless of any controversy it
created. So, going by these loose parameters, all literature that is serious in
reflecting the unequal, partisan, exploitative equations between human
relationships or otherwise, in societal structures interrogating their
justification and existence can be called protest literature. It is in this
broader perception of understanding protest literature that women’s literature
can also be considered a part of it, because most often women writers do not
openly challenge the oppressive structures of society, but subversively suggest
their presence in their writings highlighting their disastrous effects on women’s
lives.

 

            Shashi
Deshpande is one such writer who in all her fictional works takes up the modern
middle-class women’s dilemmas and complexities in today’s Indian society, which
is still vastly patriarchal. She herself comments that –”My novels are about women trying to understand themselves, their
history, their roles and their place in this society, and above all their
relationships with others. To me, my novels are always explorations; each time
in the process of writing, I find myself confronted by discoveries which make
me rethink the ideas I started off with.”

            At
the outset, this admission of Shashi Deshpande may seem that her writing may
not focus on any kind of protest, but all her women protagonists, be it Saru of
The Dark Holds No Terrors, Jaya of That Long Silence, Indu of Roots and Shadows and many others caught
in a crisis, reflect on what causes their setbacks and how much of the societal
structures curtail their full fledged growth. Her latest novel Strangers to Ourselves (2015) falls in
line with her preceding novels where it is Aparna’s conflicts that reveal a
hoard of problems that engulf women’s lives. Aparna who is an epitome of a
modern independent woman, a practicing oncologist, who is living her life on
her own terms, after having divorced the marriage that did not work, still
experiences the tethers of feminine roles that are expected of women in India.
The novel opens with her chance meeting with Shree Hari pandit, a budding
vocalist, whose music mesmerizes her. His presentation of raga ‘Yaman’ touches
her soul and she realizes her attraction to him immediately. Shree Hari too
very soon declares his uncontrollable pull towards her and starts courting her
with a lover’s passion and sweet exhortations. Aparna confronts herself: “I
never thought I would get this kind of love, I never imagined I would feel this
way for a man. So why am I hesitating? What am I afraid of?” As Aparna has
“lost confidence in herself and the very idea of love” having being “singed and
burnt” in a marriage and has witnessed unbelievably her parent’s  most ideal marriage fall apart towards the
end of their lives, she rather wishes to have a live-in relationship with Shree
Hari, but not tie the nuptial knot with him. It is this strong decision of hers
against getting married, inspite of her irresistible love for Shree Hari that
interrogates the very institution of marriage and what it entails for women.
Her hesitation at the very thought of getting married is because of having to
succumb to the gender roles expected of her and herein lies the voice of
resistance, of protest though subtle, against the very institution of marriage.
The following lines clearly interrogate the unwritten laws of marriage.

            Deshpande
puts her views in Gaja, Aparna’s father’s words “Marriage asks for the
impossible, it demands the ungivable”, which resonate throughout the novel. Be
it the failed marriage of Aparna’s parents, the not so happy one of Jyoti with
Akash, of Abbas with Nilofer, of Shree Hari’s parents, of Jyoti’s parents, of
broken marriage between Deepak and Mela, that of Aparna with her ex husband all
of them question the necessity of marriage at all .Of course, there are
examples of idyllic marriages too, but they are of couples in which the wife
has almost unquestioningly been a rule abider, the nurturer and dutiful shadow
of the husband. The marriages of Shree Hari’s grandparents, Abbas and Madhuri,
Ahalya and Mr. Kirtane, and later Ahalya and the Painter are successful due to
the compliant and undemanding position of the woman in the marital relationship.
It’s Aparna’s self analysis that actually brings out the cost of marriage for a
woman. She introspects about the failure of her parent’s marriage and
concludes-

“Does
marriage mean tying two people in so tight a knot that to live together is difficult,
and to separate is death?” (p. 148)

            After
deliberating her own passion for Shree Hari, and her strong feelings of revulsion
to enter into wedlock with him, she concludes-

“To
me, marriage is…..marriage is….Finally she gets the words: Marriage is a site
of possible betrayal.”(p. 148)

            Again
it’s during her interaction with her cousin Madhuri that Aparna confesses that
she is very different from Shree Hari, and marriage would mean making
adjustments which may include sacrificing sometimes, things which are dear too.
She says-

“He
needs a woman who will look after everything, who will make him comfortable and
leave him to pursue his music. I’m not sure I can do that. I can only give him
a part of my time. I’m not the nurturing kind.” (p. 115)

            Again,
Aparna makes it very clear that her work is very important to her, which she
cannot give up by way of making compromises to make her marriage work, like
Madhu gives up her passion for dancing to make Abbas comfortable or Like
Aparna’s boss Dr. Bhagat’s wife who a great fan of Aparna’s father who say:
“I
loved theatre, but when I got married I had to let everything go.” (P.

            The
above lines evidently highlights a modern career-woman’s hesitation of getting
married, because the institution of marriage is still entrenched in the old
values of women as full-time home makers steeped in domestic duties and with a
rather passive accommodative mindset. But today’s women who have taken on
responsible positions as professionals would find marriage quite intimidating
and strain them with double yolk of home, children and outside competitive
world. So, the novel records the protesting voice of Aparna against getting
tied up in a binding relationship and rather prefers a live-in relationship
sustained only by pure love and does not bring in the burden of expectations
and compromises that marriage entails.

             The novel has a subplot of Ahalya’s story, in which
Ahalya, towards the end of the story is discovered to be the grandmother of
Aparna’s father and that of Jyoti’s uncle, Dr. Laxmanrao Kirtane, the famed
surgeon, thus establishing the connecting link between Aparna and her patient
Jyoti. The autobiography of Ahalya, written in Marathi, is found among some of
the writings left by Aparna’s father. After a chance finding of it, Aparna
gives it to Jyoti who translates it into English thus making it available to
Aparna and her cousin Madhu. The revelation of the life of Ahalya during the turbulent
historical times of British India, when the women’s question was at the centre
of discussion leading to several reforms in the life and status of Indian
womanhood is at once illuminating  of the
journey of Indian women. From Ahalya’s life of subservience, of not much of
choice, steeped in customs to that of Aparna who confidently dictates her own
terms and chooses to live her life the way she desires, the trajectory of
Indian women’s lives has been very meaningfully traced in the novel. However,
the protest against patriarchal control and the desire to carve her own niche
is also a part of Ahalya’s life, though she does not gather courage to voice
them openly in critical situations. But, finally Ahalya finds herself
expressing all her questions and complaints in a written form which she leaves
to posterity. She transgresses the order of her father-in-law Bhausaheb not to
use their family name by signing off her write up as Ahalya Kirtane, which
itself is her protest against the patriarchal norms imposed on her after
alienating her from her own little son, at a time when the child needed the
mother most. However Ahalya’s narration of her life presents certain pertinent
questions about how women’s life is objectified, leaving no control over their
lives. She writes-

“One
of the things I have begun to see as I write is how little control I have had
over my life, which has been shaped by other people, by their thoughts, their
actions. I could call it fate.”(p. 137)

            The
above statement resonates the plight of Indian women for ages. Though Ahalya’s
father, a school teacher who loved her very much, when the situation arises of
marrying her off to an unknown stranger, he does not think twice due to the
taboo attached to the unmarried women-“A
dead daughter was better than an unmarried daughter” (P. 138)

            However
it was this chance marriage with a stranger that set Ahalya to think with her
own mind, for her husband was one of the enlightened few who was rational and
believed in equality and freedom in life. Her association with Miss. Simpson
and a chance to listen to the discussion between her husband and Miss. Simpson
further ignites her thought processes, which leaves her with an inherent desire
to become a teacher like Miss. Simpson, which when she gets a chance later in
her life fulfills it, and retires as the headmistress of a school.

            Ahalya,
brought up in a conservative home however, having developed her own mind
triggered by her husband later begins to question many of the assumptions. For
example she writes-

“Earlier
I had prayed to the Goddesses. Like most women, I thought that as a woman I had
a special right to their protection, their favour. After I gave up prayers, I
realized that these goddesses were subservient to their husbands, the same as
us. So what could they do for us poor ordinary women? (p. 189)

            Again
during her narration she remembers the cruelty of her father-in-law who left
her in a place for widows and abandoned women. She writes of the miserable
plight of women living there, bringing out the pathos of their helplessness and
agony-

“All
of us slept in the hall at night and all night I could hear the sounds of women
sighing, women sobbing quietly, women speaking in their sleep, one or two
suddenly crying out as if someone was attacking them, so that they had to be
woken out of their nightmares. It was always a very uneasy, disturbed sleep for
all of us. It was as if a cloud of sorrow and cruelty and suffering hung over
all of us in that room. I have never forgotten those women.” (p. 230- 231)

            So,
now as a teacher, Ahalya tries to make her girl students develop self-reliance.
She adds-

“Each
girl I teach, I think- let her not become one of those women. I try to tell
girls they must have some control over their lives. I know it is hard, I know
it will not happen in my life time, perhaps not even in theirs. But we have to
keep working, hoping that someday 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.”(p. 231)

            This
desire of Ahalya of women to have control over their lives is partially
fulfilled in her great granddaughters Aparna, Jyoti who somehow have led their
life on their terms, and the novel ends with Aparna having to decide the future
course of her life. However, the irony is that this independence for women
comes with a cost. For example, Sulabha, Aparna’s mother protests her husband
Gaja Dandekar’s extra marital affair with a dancer by leaving Chandrapur and
settling in Mumbai, cutting off all ties with him leaving her an embittered
woman at the end, dying of cancer. Similarly Aparna’s acceptance of marriage
will only give her the fulfillment of companionship of Shree Hari Pandit, whom
she loves passionately; else she has to forgo his love if she chooses her
complete independence. While Gaja, Bhausaheb, his son Mr. Kirtane, Shree Hari
could take their decisions without having to forego their independence, or make
major compromises in their lives. It is this inequality in the way the world is
ordered catering to the needs of men that the novel protests by way of exemplifying
the lives and the numerous conflicts of the multiple women characters in the
novel.