Depiction of Exploited Women
Literature is the mirror of contemporary life. The Literature of any era and any region portrays the life of people in that place at that time. Shashi Deshpande – a third generation women writer writes about the lives of the people as sees. She subtly portrays how women are exploited in the society in the guise of love and affection. She takes the readers even to the bedroom of her characters and reveals their inner trauma in such an acoustic manner that we feel one with her characters. We not only sympathize with but also empathize with her characters. This paper brings to light some of her women who have been exploited by the society and situations and are lost in their search for identity. Her characters have a variety of women from the bride to the housewife to a working woman. Hailing from a literary background she started her career as short-story writer. Though she has due recognition as a novelist, her short stories are no less as they form the basis of her novels. Both her novels and short stories depict the anguish and conflict of the modern educated Indian Women.
Deshpande’s short stories can be categorized as (1) the stories that mirror the reality portraying the subjugated position of women in Indian Society and (2) the stories that shape the reality by depicting the reaffirmation of women. Indian Woman is the victim of gender bias and oppression. She is defined with respect to man, and is regarded as a subordinate to him. Trapped in her feminine role in the family, she questions her socially ordained sub-ordinate status. As Penelope Brown observes, the oppression of women occurs when,
"they don’t have control over their lives, decision making ability, freedom of choice,….vulnerable to physical attack by man…[I]f there are valued cultural activites from which they are excluded…." (244)
Deshpande explores these different levels of oppression in different manifestations in her short stories where her concern is for the woman and how she fares in the society.
Marriage in India represents not only a personal relationship but also a socio-cultural status symbol. Whatever be the consequences, women are not expected to break off their marriage and social stigma is attached to the woman who walks out of her marriage. The traditional mores of patriarchy are so deep-rooted in the woman’s psyche that she cannot easily cast them off. As a result she bears the entire psychic trauma in silence and puts up with her married life. The protagonist of the story ‘A Liberated Woman’ is a promising doctor by profession who had married the man of her choice against the wishes of her parents, but is not happy in her married life. Her husband, a lecturer in a second rate college is enraged by her success and fame. As a result he bruises her and attacks her during night times as if possessed. But in the mornings he becomes normal unaware of his doings at night. The wife neither tries to make him normal nor takes divorce from him but endures it. Though she is labeled as "A Liberated Woman" she is a conventional, tradition bound woman who "plug(s) all her escape routes herself and act(s) like a rat in a trap." (44) The reason is she does not have the courage to cast off her marriage and bear the social stigma.
‘Travel Plans’ is the story of a girl betrayed by a man in marriage. Deepa is married to Shriram who is already married abroad. Neither his parents nor his wife knows what has really happened. On getting a hint about his marriage from her relative abroad, Deepa writes to him asking for clarification. He writes back confessing his marriage and his betrayal. On reading the letter she feels herself a stranger to his parents and his home. So she goes to her natal home to seek refuge. But there too she feels herself a stranger, as her family members are deeply engrossed in discussion about a burglary next door. Then she feels, "The drama of a burglary has a place here, but the melodrama of a deserted wife, of a possible bigamist husband?" (46) She also remembers Emily Dickinsons, "I’m nobody? Who are you? Are you nobody too?" (47) and goes back to her husband’s home. On reaching there she learns that her mother-in-law has lost her sight as a part of SLE and sympathizes with her. Then she attaches herself to them and plans her future to be destined after the death of her mother-in-law. She considers her travel plans as "the charting of a route through an unknown continent" (50). This story belongs to the second category of Deshpande’s stories where the protagonist reaffirms her human bonds not her womanly bonds of a wife and a daughter-in-law.
‘A Day Like Any Other’ projects the feeling of women who put up with their husbands infidelity. The protagonist of the story learns from her friend about her husband’s flirting with another girl. She is the last person to learn her husband’s infidelity and from that moment she has a mixed feeling of anger and hatred. But she does not feel self-pity as she considers that she hasn’t done any sacrifice by marrying him and by rearing up his children.
"Sacrifice? What have I sacrificed? I always wanted to marry, to have children. I have what I want. A life without all this makes no sense. I enjoy this. What then have I sacrificed?" (184)
Though she feels humiliated, she doe snot want to give up her self-respect and change herself to win her husband back. On the other hand she thinks, "I cannot change… And it’s not only I cannot; I will not change either. He will have to take me as I am." (186) She finally decides, "My life is my own" (188) and continues to live as usual without any change. The story also projects the pitiable condition of the women with whom the married men flirt with. They are nothing more than an illusion for the men. The husband confesses to his wife, "She means nothing to me, nothing at all. The children and you – this is my real life. You mean everything to me." (188)
Penelope Brown says, "in order to survive a woman must, by kinship and later by marriage, be attached to a man." (130). A divorcee is looked down by the society, refused to be given a shelter in spite of her economic independence and status. If this is one aspect of the society, there are some women who feel uncomfortable to live a life of their own. These two are the themes of the story ‘And Then?’ Shaku in the story has left her husband and as a result is looked down by the society and is denied being given a shelter.
Even her friend’s brother does not believe her as she is a woman who left her husband. He says, "I know she is Anju’s friend, but she’s a woman who has left her husband. We don’t know why….." (180).
The old woman in the story feels uncomfortable in her son’s house and feels she is burden to them. She had pleaded her daughter not to leave her alone and go abroad. But the daughter had lent deaf ear to her words. The day of her husband’s she had broken to pieces. Added to the agony of her husband’s death, she had to bear her daughter’s separation, which left her in the ocean of sorrow. She recalls how they had clung to her in their childhood and asked for her security, which is reversed now. "Anju holding my hand, Vishwa holding my hand….but that’s the past, that’s all over. It’s I who am holding their hands now" (179). In spite of being a traditional woman who cannot hear Shaku breaking off her marriage is unable to tolerate her son talking bad of Shaku as a separated woman and feels compassionate for her.
"Is this what Shaku sees on people’s faces when she goes to ask for a house to live in? And this is my son VIshwa? He seems so smug, so self-righteous, so narrow" (180).
After hearing her own words through the mouth of Vishwa, she reconsiders Shaku’s proposal and takes the decision making into her hands instead of leaving it to her son. She finally declares, "Yes, I’m sure. Whatever it is, I’d rather tell her myself" (180). Thus thinking about Shaku, the old woman got a reassertion of herself and her identity.
In Indian culture marriage is considered to be the destiny for women. From the day she is born, she is brought up to become somebody’s wife and somebody’s daughter-in-law. As the girl grows up, she becomes a burden to her parents – a burden to be relieved of. A woman who decides to remain a spinster is scorned at by the society. She is looked upon as having wronged someone. During the bridal interview or later a woman’s wishes are never cared. It’s only the boy who demands that he wants such a girl. But the girl has no rights to demand for the boy of her choice and has to accept anyone at her disposal is the theme of the story ‘I Want.’ The protagonist of the story has been denied by the grooms in the first nine alliances and so her parents are delighted when the tenth alliance gets fixed up. Now that the alliance is fixed they feel that they can look at the world without feeling abashed. Her mother exclaims, "Now I can look the world in the face again. I used to be ashamed. A daughter of twenty-seven and not married" (143). Even the protagonist Alka felt relieved of her burdens. "And it was true. Some burdens had fallen off – the burden of inferiority, of being unwanted, old and despised" (144). But she has a grief that neither her parents nor the groom asked for her opinion. As an unmarried woman of twenty-seven she is not considered a human form to be preserved but taken for granted as a shapeless fluid capable of taking any shape. "I suddenly felt fluid, as if I had no shape of my own. As if I was capable of taking any shape" (145). The boy went on with his demands that he wanted a wife who can get on with everyone, who can manage everything and so on. But he never bothered to ask her what type of a man she expected. When she refuses the alliance, her father asks her, "What more do you want?" If she says, "A man with a four figure salary, a man with a car" they can understand that. But if she says, "A man who hears my voice when I speak" nobody can understand her and will call her "crazy" (149). So she finally surrenders her illusions and embraces the reality by agreeing to marry. The reason is she is already twenty-seven. "Twenty-seven. Time to forget dreams and compromise for security" (150).
Which is important to a woman – her life with her husband or her career? If a woman chooses to develop her career she has to sacrifice her life to certain extent. But if a woman wishes to have a blissful family life, she has to forgo her career. These two juxtapositions are the themes of the stories ‘It Was the Nightingale’ and ‘A Wall Is Safer.’ In It Was the Nightingale the protagonist of the story Jaya decides to go abroad to develop her career. Though her husband permits her to go, he has his own resentment against her going. He believes that she has decided to go abroad because of obstinacy. "You know, Jayu, I believe it is not pride or ambition but obstinacy that is your real vice after all" (67). But he never knows how hard he fought herself against her wish to give up her career and stay by him.
"He does not know, he will never know, how I have fought myself. How I longed to give ambition and success the go-by and stay with him, throttled by his love. No, not throttled, that’s not fair. It’s a soporific, his love and mine, which makes me long to lie down in lethargic bliss" (65).
The actual reason for choosing to go ahead with her career was that she does not want walk the road of self-abnegation and consider others as traitors as her mother did.
"If I give in once, if give way once, I will walk that road of self – abnegation forever. And shall I then end up like my mother who stripped herself of everything and cried out against us denuders?" (65)
Whether it is Jaya’s mother or mother-in-law, they see no point in sacrificing normal life for the sake of career. They find fulfillment in their domestic chores, husbands and children. As Jaya’s husband puts it,
"For women of her (his Mother’s) generation life held nothing, literally nothing, apart from husband and children. She can’t understand how a woman can see beyond that" (66).
In reality Jaya’s husband wants her to be like them, loving, caring and sacrificing because the night before her departure, he remembers his grand aunt who looked after him when he was a child.
"He does not know why he thinks of her now, but I do. He had often told me how totally selfless, totally loving she was. To him, she is always the ideal woman and though he loves me, he finds it hard to accept me as I am, so unlike that woman who mothered him when he was child" (67).
She goes abroad knowing pretty well that things will never be the same again for her. In spite of being modern woman she cannot escape the pang of guilt for going against the traditional norm.
"But I know that each parting is a little dying. And so it is for him and for me. And this is my doing and all my life I will carry the burden of this guilt" (68).
A Wall Is Safer is the juxtaposition of It Was the Nightingale where the protagonist Hema forgoes her lawyer’s profession and settles in a remote village along with her husband who is an agricultural scientist. She has done it as she has no other alternate other than that. The reason for her action is that she cannot tolerate months of separation from her husband. Though she keeps on saying that she is at peace with her life, she has the grief that she cannot continue with profession or take it with her.
"I go to bed in a good mood, but I am surprised by a fierce surge of longing to be one of those women who carry their work about with them – a writer, a painter, a musician" (101).
She even has a hint of envy on looking her husband’s job satisfaction. "I only know that I bitterly envy Vasant, when he comes home tired, satisfied and full of what he has been doing" (101). She is uneasy when her friend cross-examines her about her life and career. Finally she goes to the extent of not willing to meet her friend for she threatens her imagined peace. When Sushama declares that she may come there for another meeting she doesn’t look forward to it. She feels, "In some way, Sushama threatens the tenuous peace I’ve built around myself" (102). It is not Sushama but her inner stigma that threatens her. It is obvious from her question, "But suppose the dangers are inside? What do you do then?"
In all the above stories we can see that the women are exploited by the social conditions and beliefs - thus each becoming a victim of socio-cultural constructions one way or the other. To be at norm with the society they have to sacrifice something or the other. Due to their patriarchal mind-set ingrained from their childhood via socialization they fail to walk out of the traditional norm. At least they have to undergo a psychological reaffirmation and accept what is ordained to them as the thing of their choice. Otherwise they have to bear their pang of guilt and the questioning of inner conscience. But we can observe that all of Deshpande’s women are able to face the out-of-the-ordinary situation with heads on without any melodramatic scenes. On the whole in the words of Deshpande she is portraying "the vulnerability of women;
the power of women;
the deviousness of women;
the helplessness of women;
the courage of women." (The Writing of a Novel
Brown, Penelope. "Universals and Particulars in the Position of Women." Women in Society: Interdisciplinary Essays.
The Cambridge Women’s Studies Group. London: Virago rpt.1985:242 -256.
--- Marthe Macintyre, Ros Morpeth, and Shirley Predergast. "A Daughter: A
Thing to be Given Away."
Women in Society: Interdisciplinary Essays
Then Cambridge Women’s Studies Group. London: Virago rpt.1985:242 -256.
Deshpande, Shashi. "A Day Like Any Other." Collected Stories Vol II
. New Delhi:
Penguin Books Ltd, 2004.39-50.
--- "A Liberated Woman." Collected Stories Vol I. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2003. 36-44.
--- "And Then?" Collected Stories Vol II. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2004. 170-180.
--- "A Wall Is Safer" Collected Stories Vol I. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2003. 95-102.
--- "It Was the Nightingale" Collected Stories Vol I. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2003. 62-69.
--- "I Want…." Collected Stories Vol II. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2004. 143-150.
--- "The Writing of a Novel" Indian Women Novelists. Dhawan: 31-36
"Travel Plans" Collected Stories Vol II
. New Delhi: Penguin Books
Ltd, 2004. 39-50.