Magical Terrains – Shashi Deshpande

Shashi Deshpande talks about dealing with new landscapes of love and goodness in her new novel In the Country of Deceit; the potential for conflicts between the magical and unexpected aspects of creativity, and the marketing hype of modern-day publishing. Excerpts from a conversation with writer USHA K.R.

With eight novels, six collections of short stories, four children’s books, essays and translations from Kannada and Marathi into English, you are one of the few Indian writers in English with a corpus of work, and one who has successfully handled different forms. You have explored conventional feminist themes, as in your Sahitya Akademi Award winning novel That Long Silence as well as broader human concerns through your male protagonists, such as Gopal in A Matter of Time and Baba in Moving On. Tell us something about your forthcoming novel. Where does it stand in the context of your work and your concerns?

Each new novel comes as a surprise — one never knows what’s coming and where it’s coming from. This novel, In the Country of Deceit, has been a surprise for two other reasons. One is the character who brought it into being. Generally, once a novel is done, the characters withdraw gracefully, making room for other people. But Devayani, a character in an early novel Come Up and Be Dead, lingered. I ignored her, but she was quietly persistent. Five novels and 20 years later, after completing Moving On, I realised that the next novel would be Devayani’s story. This, however, is not a sequel.

The second surprise to me was that this is a love story.

And the title is In the Country of Deceit?

Yes. Seems odd, doesn’t it? But when you think of what love does to people and the things love makes them do… My novel explores the slippery, treacherous terrain that love takes people into. Actually, except for one or two early attempts, I had never written a love story, in the sense in which these words are usually used. It amuses me that I had to get to this age to be able to write one. Once I began, I realised the difficulties of writing about love. It’s so easy to slip into clichéd language, clichéd situations, to become banal and maudlin. But the truth is that love is a strong emotion; there is nothing banal or clichéd about it. My gold standard for a love story is Wuthering Heights — the scene where Heathcliff waits outside all night while Catherine is dying is so amazingly powerful.

Some time during the writing of this novel, I realised that I have been exploring the idea of love in all my novels. Different kinds of love, the different faces of love. I also find myself increasingly interested in the idea of goodness in human beings. The emphasis today, perhaps because of the times, is on violence, on evil. Goodness, when it is written about, is made to seem like weakness. In fact, we shy away from the very word. We speak of values instead. Nevertheless, goodness is real, it exists — not only in people like Bapu or Mother Teresa, but in ordinary people. It is these people who make life worth living. So, whether it is Joe in Small Remedies, Kalyani in A Matter of Time, Akka in The Binding Vine, or Gayatri in Moving On, they make life possible for others.

A ‘writerly’ writer, I believe, pursues the same or similar themes in different guises, often without being aware of it. Your work has been strong on ‘literary’ qualities — the imagination, the story fused with its telling, with the structure, with deeply drawn characters. What do you basically seek to do in your novels? While the ‘imagination’ is important, how do you incorporate ‘fact’ into your fiction? How much of ‘research’ do you do?

To me, a novel is basically a story. About people. So when I write a novel, I write about humans and human relationships. Of their struggle to make sense of life, to understand their place in the scheme of things. At the same time, since people don’t live in a vacuum, I need to know the details of their lives: where they live, the culture, language, religion of the society they live in and so on. And there’s their work, their professions. I had to understand something of Hindustani music to write about Savitribai, I had to read up on anatomy to write about Jiji’s father, the Professor of Anatomy. Before I begin writing, I must have all this information, even though when I write I will use only those facts which are relevant to the story. Of course, our lives are affected by events around us, but the important thing to a novelist is how characters react to events, not the event itself. How people’s lives change because of happenings, not the happening itself. And that is how events and history enter the novel, through people’s lives, through their perceptions. I consider the demands of the story to be the novelist’s first concern. Research (a word I rather dislike in connection with a novel) is necessary in the interests of accuracy, but the facts have to be invisible, submerged. Even in a historical novel, where research is so important, a skilful author will weave facts into the story, into the lives of the characters and not make them obtrusive.

But there’s no denying that the novels that tackle grand themes, that span continents and centuries, or have major events at their centre are considered big. For instance, one would automatically assume that In the Country of Deceit signals to a larger entity…

I don’t think of it as big or small. I know that love is a basic and universal human emotion. So is the pain that comes on betrayal. I find it a problem that we divide novels into big and small (or major and minor) depending on the theme of the novel, the issues, or its ideological value. (Though, very strangely, if the ideology is feminism, there is a kind of devaluation!) Indian Writing in English (IWE) is more concerned with issues than ideologies, and therefore novels which deal with “big” issues, like terrorism, fundamentalism and national and international events, become major novels; so too those that span, as you say, continents and centuries. For some reason, IWE thinks that to be important, novels have to be “narratives of the nation”. But aren’t all stories of human lives part of this narrative?

And, as a reader, I am not looking out for a significant novel; I’m looking for a good novel. I did not think that John Updike’s Terrorist or Ian McEwan’s Saturday, (which is about 9/11), were good novels. We read a novel not because it increases our knowledge, but because it illuminates our own lives; human stories echo one another across time and space. And if large issues and themes were to make novels significant, what about novels like Emma, Howard’s End, or Wuthering Heights, almost perfect novels in my opinion? It is tempting to see the big picture as the real one, but one can get as much, if not more, from a micro picture. In fact, I very defiantly used Erica Jong’s words about all stories being stories of families as the epigraph to Moving On.

IWE has become an exciting place — other than big and small books, there are so may new writers experimenting with different forms — the graphic novel, variations of historical fiction, fantasy, chick lit … Is it time to celebrate the ‘richness’ of IWE? Can we claim that IWE has come of age?

Certainly there has been much vigour and confidence, as well as good writing in IWE in the last few years. But there’s no room for complacence. It has to go a long way before we can call it “rich”. We need many more books in all genres — romance, historical fiction, crime novels, children’s books, drama, poetry and so on. While non-fiction is doing well, short stories are dwindling, poetry remains invisible except to poets and poetry lovers, crime fiction is still not making its presence felt and we don’t have enough books for children of all ages. And have you noticed the lack of diversity in the voices? We’re all so politically correct. And of course, there’s the never-ending problem of letting Western publishers decide which are the books that matter, since the books they publish inevitably get more noticed. Personally, I also consider the lack of what I call good middle-of-the-road writing a huge lacuna. There are not enough readable books, something between the literary novel and pulp fiction. Not cordon bleu cuisine, not junk food, just everyday food that keeps you going. As a child, writers like Daphne du Maurier, A.J. Cronin, Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie — and many others who wrote good books, if not high literary fiction. — kept me hooked to reading.

Yes, it is not enough to breed ambitious writers. There has to be a healthy, vibrant literary environment to sustain them — libraries, book clubs, through which readers and writers can interact, responsive university departments, a culture of literary criticism.

No argument about this! Circulating libraries have always been important in popularising novels, right from Jane Austen’s time. I too did all my reading through library books. There were no bookshops, and who had the money to buy books anyway? I was fascinated to read that in Victorian times, Mudie’s, the circulating library, was able to influence the shape of the novel. The three volume form came because it was more profitable for Mudie’s to circulate one novel among three readers. And since most subscribers belonged to the middle class, the novels were also expected to be close to their sensibilities. The point was that that the novel was mostly read through these libraries which made it possible for Mudie’s to subsidise publishers. Sadly we have few book libraries in India now.

Books must also be written about. Writing and criticism go hand in hand …

Yes, criticism is important for both writers and readers, But what do we have? Academic critics, whose jargon distances the ordinary reader. Reviews in magazines and newspapers, necessarily short, because there is never enough space for books, often casual, if not flippant, poorly informed and at times actuated by malice and frustration. Recently I read somewhere that John Updike’s reviewing was accessible and designed to give pleasure. That’s how a review should be. There should be honesty, not cruelty. And respect for the work being reviewed. Some of the reviews in India are what I can only call soul-destroying. I can imagine what it does to younger writers.

While there are more people writing in English today, we still do not seem to have a domestic market that can sustain indigenous writers.

No, we don’t, which is why I was amazed to read Jeffrey Archer’s comment that the Indian market is bigger than the U.S. market. Things are changing and at some time this may happen, but right now it isn’t true. You and I who are published in India know this very well. I’ll believe that we have a big domestic market the day an author from the West sends a manuscript to an Indian publisher and the Indian publisher says, “our readers won’t understand this. Why don’t you change this and this and this?” And the author does it!

On the one hand, writing is an unhurried, reflective activity. We know that writers take time to mature, to find their voice, and they need publishers who recognise this, and readers who will grow with them. On the other hand is the loud, high octane act of marketing, which is unavoidable today but quite contrary to the spirit of creativity. This also creates a climate of impatience which sends out misleading signals to young writers. That perhaps there are ‘formulas’ for success. It is making it increasingly difficult for writers and readers to trust their judgement. How can we ever resolve these two contrary aspects?

There was a time when I was optimistic, I thought IWE is on the right path, we have many talented writers, publishers and a bigger English readership. But marketing has changed everything. With huge global markets and so much money at stake, it has become frighteningly powerful. The problem with IWE is that writing in English enables a book to enter the world market. And agents/ publishers have their own idea of what an “Indian novel” should be; to be published, writers have to toe the line. I heard an Australian writer say, (they are roughly in the same situation as we are, not enough of a home market, so they need to publish outside) her book was judged by a question: where are the kangaroos? For us, it would be: where are the elephants? Young writers will try to provide the elephants because they need to be published. How does one blame them? And will publishers ever understand that even if the book is now a product to be sold by aggressive marketing, good writing, unlike other products, can’t be produced using a formula! There’s some magic about creation, about its unexpectedness and amazing vitality. We lose out on originality and the unexpected if we try to control or curb creativity. That’s why the willingness and ability of young writers to adapt worries me, because the future of any literature lies with the young.

And you are so right about writers and readers beginning to mistrust their own judgement, given the kind of books that are thrust on us as “great”. But this is where literary critics need to take control and assert literary values, to separate the grain from the chaff.

Equally worrying is what marketing does to readers. Veteran readers may go past known names and best-selling lists to choose a book by an unknown author, or a less-known favourite author. But novice readers have to go entirely by what they read in the media. And the media projects only some authors, the successful ones mainly; most others remain invisible. Readers should not be hustled into buying a book because of marketing spiel! I think that literature is really a conversation between a writer and a reader. We need to re-establish this direct and personal relationship.

But writers persist, despite everything. What would you say to young or aspiring writers?

That’s true. I think the fact that so many of us go on despite indifferent publishers, ignorant reviews and little money makes it clear that it’s the writing that really matters. As for me, I don’t think I’d ever want to do anything else. I’ve written through bad times, through difficult times and later wondered how I did it. But I guess that’s what kept me going, still keeps me going.

Advice for aspiring writers? Keep reading, keep writing, and don’t expect to make a living out of writing. Hold on to your job!

(Source: The Hindu)

One Response to “Magical Terrains – Shashi Deshpande”

  1. Dr.Anupam Shukla Says:

    It was a very erudite write up bringing forth message for the present ,so called, novelists who thrust fleshy plots of eroticism in their fiction for market orientation.

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