Shashi Deshpande’s writerly memoir Listen to Me calls out plaintively for attention. Deshpande engages in a long conversation with the reader, documenting the many years of her life. The memoir transports us to the idyllic world of Dharwad, ‘when the world was on the cusp of change... on the brink of the Second World War.’ This war’s end marked the shift from colonialism to democracy.
Born in 1938, nine years before India became independent, Deshpande’s memoir chronicles the life of a girl growing up to adulthood in a new world, punctuated by wars, migrations and global changes, on a scale not witnessed in the previous centuries.
In the Nehruvian years of hope and optimism, Deshpande’s narrative records the small and personal, significant to the Indian reader in the context of a rapidly transforming Indian landscape. Through the filter of a woman’s experience, Deshpande’s memoir records the most successful oppression in history, namely the oppression of women, sanctified by every religion and cultural practice. Deshpande has an extensive repertoire of translations from (Kannada and Marathi) short stories, fiction, children’s fiction and film script in the English language.
Despite her prolific writing in the last two decades of the 20th century and her committed exploration of intimate lives and choices and circumstances in modern India, Deshpande’s writing, as her memoir often suggests, has not received its due. Although she has been widely read, translated and republished and has travelled for conferences and literary festivals to different parts of the world.
She effectively grafts her personal reminiscences on to the eras that she has lived through, making this a remarkable record of contemporary, modern India. Her recollection of her childhood years and her life in a nuclear family, her sense of the various communities she grew up with, subsequent marriage and shift to Bombay and other parts of the world, before settling down in Bangalore make for absorbing reading.
At no point does the narrative become a personal outpouring. She remains extremely reticent about her personal life. For instance, we learn that her father, a famous dramatist and public literary figure, is Shriranga only towards the end. Consistent effacement of the personal in the memoir allows Deshpande to speak in a writerly voice and offer valuable insights. Having translated her father’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Deshpande succinctly explains that the philosophy of work without expectation of the fruits of labour, was to be implemented as a life choice, not by the average wage earner but by a potential leader. Similarly, the issue of free-will is clarified by recalling Krishna’s emphasis about how each individual is free to make his or her own choice at the end of being provided with all the relevant information.
Deshpande’s interaction with Naipaul and Rushdie highlights the difficulties of being a woman writer in a hierarchical, patriarchal society that patronises arrogant male writers. Her annoyance at being described repeatedly as a writer dealing with women’s problems is justifiable. Widely read, clear headed, and drawing succour from innumerable writers and friendships, Deshpande’s memoir provides the curious reader with a long list of a large community of writers past and present, inviting them to plan future journeys.
Deshpande’s regret that she has been unable to express her views about contemporary life, culture and politics, outside of her fiction, remains poignant. In India, we do not celebrate our writers and thinkers enough or provide them any manner of platforms. We do not cherish them as non-renewable national treasures. In place of mindful engagement with our cultural icons, the steady stream of mindless consumption of all manner of material goods has been allowed to prevail. Hopefully, listening to Deshpande, will nudge readers in the direction of her significant and relevant written work.