(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Ajay Kumar Sharma
Shashi Deshpande, who wants to be called a writer, rather than a woman writer or a feminist writer, redefines the image of woman in her novels in general and in The Dark Hold No Terror, in particular. The feminist principle of emancipation forms the genesis of the novel; Sarita (Saru), the protagonist, goes against the desire of her mother. She continues her higher studies and becomes a doctor. Manu, her husband, belongs to a different caste, yet she marries her. Such marriages do not last long as a bliss and in this case the ego of Sarita clashes with that of Manu, who is frustrated, because he has to depend on the income of her wife. In the image of redefined womanhood, Sarita has to make certain compromises with her external life. She wants an advancement of her professional career, so she makes use of Boozie, her teacher at medical institute. This brings a tense complexity in the relationship of husband and wife. Sarita goes to her father in search of solitude and peace. But the wisdom dawns upon her that she belongs to a noble profession of a doctor and she has the sole responsibility of and is answerable to her patients. From social liberation, Saru enters an odyssey to the bondage of professional loyalty; and the novelist redefines womanhood by transforming her from a revolting wife to a caretaking philanthropist.
Keywords: Feminism, Redefining Womanhood, Emancipation, Image, Compromise
Ever since Shashi Deshpande began to write, she has been possessed with the desire of redefining womanhood; selfhood and self-expression are the hallmarks of her writing and she wants to be called a writer, rather than a woman writer or a feminist writer. Further, she wanted not to be evaluated by her gender. Her own acceptance of the nomenclature of a feminist writer shows the urge of redefining a womanhood:
Today, when I call myself a feminist, I believe that the female of the species has the same right to be born and survive, to fulfil herself and shape her life according to her needs and the potential that lies within her, as the male has. I believe that women are neither inferior nor subordinate human being” (“Why I am a Feminist” 83).
It is an irony and paradox that Shashi Deshpande denies that she is a feminist, yet the term ‘feminism’ is characteristically branded on her name and fame. To her Virginia Wolf provides the beacon light to feminism; in Indian context, though she tries to highlight mythical characters such as Sita, Draupadi, Gandhari etc. yet she keeps herself away from woman’s sensuality and pornographic representations as is peculiar with Shobha De, and Manju Kapur. Not only this, she tries to justify the brand of feminism labelled against her in the essay, Why I am a Feminist: “Feminism, I read somewhere, is a movement that has grown out of and built upon prevailing social needs, I can see how true this is in India, where it has grown out of our own society, out of local specific issues and has addressed them directly. The truth is that we cannot go back” (85).
The distinction between sex and gender is the nucleus of feminism, which is lucidly expressed in the opening sentence of Simone de Beauvoir's book The Second Sex (1949), “One is not born a woman; rather one becomes a woman” (Qtd. in Barry 125). The first is the work of divinity and the second is the work of society. In case of Shashi Deshpande the essence of feminism is that “these are women created by men. They are male fantasies which they have worked out into stone!” (Deshpande, “The Indian Women….” n.p.)
There emerged a ‘Women's movement’ in 1960’s, which is generally considered as the start of feminism, but the reality is somewhat far behind. The problems of women's inequality in society and their proposed solutions had already been expressed in the classic books, as Peter Barry aptly observes:
These books include Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which discusses male writers like Milton, Pope, and Rousseau; Olive Schreiner’s Women and Labour (1911); Virginia Woolf's A Room of One’s Own (1929), which vividly portrays the unequal treatment given to women seeking education and alternatives to marriage and motherhood; and simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), which has an important section on the portrayal of women in the novels of D.H. Lawrence. Male contributions to this tradition of feminist writing include John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869) and The Origin of the Family (1884) by Friedrich Engels (116).
Shashi Deshpande has adroitly redefined the image of woman in her novels in general and in her master-piece and first novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors in particular. The feminist principle of emancipation forms the genesis of the novel, which can be traced out in her short story "A Liberated Woman" wherein a new woman is described, who marries her lover, belonging to a different caste. The woman revolts against her parents, who oppose such a marriage. The new redefined and liberated woman becomes a successful medical practitioner. Her husband feels that his ego is hurt and the result is the break-up in marriage. The same tale has been repeated by the novelist in the novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors. Sarita (Saru), the protagonist, goes against the desire of her mother. She continues her higher studies and becomes a doctor. Manu, her husband belongs to a different caste, yet she marries her. Such marriages do not last long as a bliss and in this case the ego of Sarita clashes with that of Manu, who is frustrated, because he has to depend on the income of his wife. In the image of redefined womanhood, Sarita has to make certain compromises with her external life. She wants an advancement of her professional career, so she makes use of Boozie, her teacher at medical institute. This brings a tense complexity in the relationship of husband and wife. Sarita goes to her father in search of solitude and peace. But the wisdom dawns upon her that she belongs to a noble profession of a doctor and she has the sole responsibility of and is answerable to her patients. From social liberation, Saru enters an odyssey to the bondage of professional loyalty; and the novelist redefines womanhood by transforming her from a revolting wife to a caretaking philanthropist.
Francis Bacon’s line, ‘Men fear death as children, fear to go in dark’, justifies the aptness of the title of the novel, for there is internal evidence in the sequence of events. Saru remembers how once she was sleeping in her room with her brother Dhruva by her side. The touch of the brother's skin was distasteful to her. However, her hand touched his lips. They were baby soft. Saru drew her hand back. A dialogue followed and the sister threatened her brother that she would tell Ai that he was scared of the dark and came to her bed. The brother surrendered. Saru analysed it and thought, “Poor little scared boy, who never grew up to know that the dark holds no terrors. That the terrors are inside us all the time. We carry them within us, and like traitors they spring out, when we least expect them to scratch and maul” (The Dark Holds No Terrors 76-77). Here the woman has been redefined as a psychoanalyst. There is an inherent desire in an elder sister to dominate her younger brother and it is based on some sense of detestation.
Shashi Deshpande presents transformation of Saru as different woman, relatively in an aesthetic sense. An Indian woman is too much conscious of her appearance; Saru knew that she was an ugly girl. Whenever she stood in front of a mirror, she had great expectation that one day the mirror would tell her that she was beautiful. A day came, when a girl came to her school, who gave a look of an exotic bird amidst sparrows. Saru could not forget her face, for her eyes looked nonchalantly at the world. Saru, the protagonist, fell in love with her the moment she saw her. The entire experience is depicted as follows: “Today everything has a sexual nuance, and when a girl says she loves another, it can mean only one thing. But Lesbianism was an unknown word and an unknown concept to me then. And for long after. That love. . .the feeling I had for her. . .should lead on to something else was also an unknown idea. It was enough love, to gaze upon her face, to thrill in ecstasy at the sight of her” (The Dark Holds No Terrors 54). When she grew up and observed the grotesque form of womanhood comprising “a deep furrow, dividing her body sharply in two” (55), she exclaimed with the sort of disgust, “If you’re a woman, I don’t want to be one” (56). Thus, a modern woman is possessed with a critical insight and is conscious of her presentability, by negating the traditional sense of dress and redefined attitude towards the slim appearance.
Shashi Deshpande’s epoch-making novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors is a compendium of multidimensional Feminism; on sociological level, it is a tale of a woman named Sarita or Saru, who wants to assert herself; on financial levels she wants to establish herself as a reputed ‘bread earner, though she has to bear the brunt of male chauvinistic ego; feminism and psychoanalysis intermingle with each other in her personality development. The gist of what happens in The Dark Holds No Terror can be summed up in very few lines. Sarita is a success-oriented gynaecologist. Her husband is antagonistic to her assertions and ambitions, for it goes very much against his grain to accept the idea that his better half is the prime bread-winner in the family. The self consciousness and pride of Sarita motivates her to go to her parent’s house with a view to inhabiting there for the entire remaining life. It is a bolt from the blue that her own father does not support her and presents himself as an unwilling and reluctant host, who has no option but to entertain his own flesh and blood as an unwelcome guest. As a traditional Indian patriarch, he has the privilege of being “a man, the master of the house, not to be bothered by any of the trivialities of daily routine” (The Dark Holds No Terrors 23).
Shashi Deshpande’s apparent negation of being branded as a feminist forms the nuclear hypothesis of any critique of her novels under the feminist perspective. Her misandric view point finds an eloquent expression in one of her interviews, “Feminist may scoff at me but my husband has changed me. . .only because of him I’ve learnt to relate to people, to alive and to see the world in a better way” (Shekhar 45). The novelist thinks that both the male and the female sex have the right to live together; hence their emotions and feelings should be shared simultaneously, “until women get over the handicaps imposed by society, outside the inner conditioning, the human race will not have realized its full potential” (Letter qtd. in Ray 135). Despite innumerable definitions of the term ‘Feminism’, in Indian context, following which Shashi Deshpande becomes explict of humanistic feminism; it will not be out of joint to refer to what Chaman Nahal opines: “I define feminism as a mode of existence in which the woman is free of dependence syndrome, there is a dependence syndrome, whether it is the husband, father, the community or a religious group, when women free themselves of the dependence syndrome and lead a normal life, my idea of feminism materializes” (17).
Whereas conflict is the keystone of the arc of Feminism and Shashi Deshpande is no exception to the above precept, her novel The Dark Holds No Terrors becomes an exhibition of the grotesque and ugly aspect of human sexuality, no matter it is unusual in Indian context. Saru, the protagonist, fails to comprehend the complexity of human relationship, as precipitated upon her by the method of Manu, as the husband behaves in a brutal manner during the darkness of nocturnal hour, but in the light of solar splendour, the tyrant becomes quite natural. In terms of existentialism every person dies in the night and is reborn with the saffron rays of dawn. The case of Manu’s metamorphosis is identical; however, Saru abandons to make an attempt to put two dimensions of one person, the terror-creating unknown husband of the night and pathos-oriented Manu of other times. This dichotomy is cathartic in nature; Saru consoles herself by thinking that she is married to a man who is a sadist. “Shashi Deshpande has conceived man-woman’s relationship in bodily terms precisely to give it an existential orientation” (Niwas 138).
It is an interesting factor to know that sometimes a woman gets erotic delight out of the sadism of a man. She considers this also to be a form of an assertion; Saru, being no exception to the above notion; whenever finding her husband guilty of sadism, she imposes the guilt of sadism upon herself also. The consequence is that she does not hesitate in giving up her liberty and individuality, thus undergoing a gradual extinction of her personality, to become a pleasant object of Manu’s lustful and libidinous gratification; Manohar (Manu) sometimes suffers from the feeling that he is becoming insignificant, as compared to his wife; hence, in order to avenge, he asserts his masculine virility in the darkness of night: “and so the esteem with which I was surrounded made me inches taller. But perhaps the same thing that made me inches taller, made him inches shorter. He had been the young man and I his bride. Now I was the lady doctor and he was my husband” (The Dark Holds No Terrors 37).
The feminine taciturnity is an extremely complex characteristic of feminism, as depicted by Shashi Deshpande in the novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors. ‘What cannot be cured, must be endured’ is an old but eternal truth oriented proverb, which makes silence a common denomination of women characters created by the novelist; a silent forbearance of the vicissitudes of life has since long been considered as the destiny of the weaker sex, as envisaged by the eminent feminists, including Elaine Showalter and Helene Cixous; the former has pointed out that feminine silence is an unheard melodious zone in the world dominated by androgynous supremacy. “Saru also did not speak of her husband’s sadism. Instead she put another break on the wall of silence between them. Possibly she will be walled alive within it and die a slow, painful death. If she articulated her husband’s sadism, she said the words to herself, tasting them, savouring their texture, their flavour on her tongue” (Niwas 138).
Feminism and psychoanalysis are the two wheels of the applecart of Shashi Deshpande’s novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors; however, it is interesting to note and comprehend that psychoanalytic approach has attracted several essentialist feminists such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who have scrutinized the feminine images created by English women novelists such as, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. The essentialist feminists “describe a feminine utopia for which women authors yearn and where wholeness rather than “otherness” would prevail as a means of identity” (Guerin 227). It is considered to be a bold step to take into account Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist, who is thought to be inimical to the liberation oriented concept of Feminism. He practised upon his devoted daughter Anna and Marie Bonaparte; alongwith other women, his daughters also were diagnosed by the patriarch as “hysterics”, and they formed the corner stone of psychoanalysis:
Particularly troublesome women in those days could even face hysterectomies (the uterus was considered the font of hysteria, from the same Greek word) or merely isolation or shock treatments. Freud’s contribution was not only to identify or “medicalize” women’s psychiatric obstacles but also to emphasize textual nature of his cases; indeed, he seemed to read his patients like texts or languages. Freud also argued that art, whether by men or women, had a pathological origin; following Freud, maneuvers such as bringing a ‘repressed’ subtext to light are similar moves in psychoanalysis and literary criticism, for the goal of both is deeper understanding (Guerin 228).
Lacan calls such a cosmos the ‘phallagocentric universe; for man is in control of “words” and a woman has to remain silent.
The above discussion leads to the finding that in The Dark Holds No Terrors Shashi Deshpande adopts psychoanalytical methodology to climb the pedestal of Feminism in its multidimensional aspects to present a picture of redefined womanhood; in spite of transformation of woman to assert her identity in the postcolonial world, Deshpande establishes that, traditionally to some extent, woman’s prime exploiter is woman herself, because “it is a woman who oppresses a woman. This is also the result of centuries of indoctrination which keeps on giving a new lease of life to gender bias. Even though their heroines are caught in the mesh of tradition, social propriety and gender differentiation, the introspection and self-realisation of the latter makes them emerge more confident and cheerful by the end” (Saxena 159).
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Viva Books, 2012.
Deshpande, Shashi. The Dark Holds No Terrors. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1980; Penguin India, 1990, 1993.
---. “The Indian Women-Stereotypes, Images and Realities.” A talk delivered on 30th October 1997 in Zurich, Switzerland.
---. “Why I am a Feminist.” Writing from the Margin. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988, rpt., 2003.
Guerin, Wilfred L. et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Nahal, Chaman. “Feminism in English Fiction Forms and Variants.” Feminism and Recent Fiction in English. Ed. Sushila Singh. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991.
Niwas, Ram. “Shashi Deshpande: The Dark Holds No Terrors – An Existential Reading of Feminism.” Helicon Views: International Research Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2, July 2008.
Ray, K. Mohit and Kundu, Rama. Ed. Studies in Women Writers in English. (Despande’s Letter to Usha Tambe, dated: 7th July 1989, quoted in the book). Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2005.
Saxena, Monisha. “Gender Differences: Some Perspectives by Shashi Deshpande and Kamala Markandaya.” Ruminations: A Bi-Annual International Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, December 2011.
Shekhar, Ratna Rao. “Shashi Deshpande: That Long Silence Breaks.” Society, December 1989.
About the Author:
Dr Ajay Kumar Sharma is Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, Maharaj Singh College, Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh (India). Dr Sharma is a genuine pursuer of knowledge with a vast reservoir of 25 years’ experience of teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students. Besides publishing two books entitled, Indian Writing in English: A Kaleidoscope of Recent Criticism, and Critical Perspectives on Indian English Literature, thirty scholarly articles in reputed research journals and anthologies, he has presented seventeen research papers and participated in twenty six national and international seminars, conferences and workshops. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.