Of Indian Women, Class and Sexuality: Examining The Short Stories of Shashi Deshpande
Feminism has been defined by scholars in a manner that it stands responsive to the varied geographical settings and thereby their contexts. This explains the need for separating "first world" women from the "third world", non-white from the white. The necessity to diversify these categories is due to the politics evident in the conceptualisation of the feminist movement that traces its origin to the West, which was gradually found to be an inadequate yardstick to define feminist relations in the rest of the world. Scholars allege that its inconsistency in addressing the issues faced by third world women justifies the creation of Third World Feminism which emerges as a categorical marker to point to the issues raised in third world patriarchal settings.
Then, there are feminism(s) that arise out of nationalistic preferences. For instance, today we theorise American Feminism, British feminism, Indian Feminism, and so on. In India, feminists who have worked extensively on feminist issues are Ritu Menon (1949), Urvashi Butalia (1952), Ruth Vanita (1955), Madhu Kishwar (1951) who each locate feminist theoretical premise in Partition Studies, Queer Studies, Bhakti Movement respectively. Then, there are Indian women novelists such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (1956) and Shashi Deshpande (1938)  who include feminist debates in their works that inform us of the patterns of resistance followed by women in Indian society.
I will examine the female issues that are raised in Shashi Deshpande's short stories and show how women can utilise these messages in order to combat patriarchy. The short stories by Deshpande have anonymous characters and stories with inconclusive endings. Their focus is on domesticity, marriage, menstruation and work, issues which squarely touch the life of every woman.
Deshpande is a short story writer and a novelist who believes in bringing reform to women’s lives. Consequently, analysing her short stories acquires pivotal importance against the climate set by Western feminist theory which alienates Indian women from their immediate surroundings in its application. The Indian context favours marriage and motherhood as major events in any woman’s lives. Yet, in a postcolonial and capitalist economy, this contradicts the aspirations of women who wish to be independent through participation in the economy.
One of the most important issues concerning the Indian feminists is marriage as a primary site of exploitation. Marriage becomes the central theme in 'The Intrusion' where Deshpande depicts the heart-wrenching story of a newly married woman who is the victim of marital rape on her honeymoon . Just as feminist theorists are concerned with the process rather than the event, in the same way we find in this story a meditation on the process. The wife’s narration implicates both her husband as well as her parents as the oppressors of her situation. The parents neither care whether their daughter would be comfortable in her marriage nor do they arrange a meeting between the daughter and the man. The narrator remarks, “No one had asked me if I had agreed; it had been taken for granted”, (Vol 1, 203). This portrayal shows a grim picture of arranged marriages in India.
However, modernity in marriage seems to offer no respite to women either. In 'A Liberated Woman', an earning woman who marries a man of her choice is also subjected to marital rape because she earns more than her husband. The fact that the wife’s earning exceeds the man’s creates egoistic barriers between the husband and the wife and as a result the man punishes his wife by subjecting her to corporeal abuse. The wife calls this rape as “an exercise in sadism” (Vol 1, 40) but she continues to endure her husband’s bestiality, dreading its disclosure to their society and to maintain the façade of marital harmony. However, at the same time, ironically the husband does not prefer that his wife gives up her job, displaying how women are crushed between men’s approval and disapproval as they dislike both an independent wife and also a dependent one.
In India, one also finds that issues like intercourse and desire are hidden from women, and parents often refrain from discussing these important issues. This reality brings unhappiness to the woman in 'The Intrusion' as she has to scan forbidden books to explore sexuality. She claims that the books were sensual in nature and that her mother would blush at them. The woman faces a dilemma in her marriage because until that time she was never encouraged to take decisions on her own. This drawback hampers her when she lacks the strength to hold a conversation with her husband on their honeymoon.
A study conducted by Fran Hosken reveals that women in third world countries are still forced to undergo genital mutilation so that their sexuality could be suppressed. In Deshpande’s 'An Antidote to Freedom' the readers learn of the woman who commences an extramarital relationship as her husband grows unresponsive to her sexuality after the birth of a son but this does not provide her with an outlet as the husband soon discovers and threatens her of abandonment. Ultimately, she has to give up on her love with another man.
In India, values such as gender neutrality are seldom inculcated among the male children. In 'The Intrusion' the husband does not respect his wife’s sentiments. The cause of this insensitivity is traced to his mother who already constructs the figure of an ideal daughter-in-law and looks for those traits in any girl. This shows the complete objectification of women and a rampant ignorance of their subjectivity. One sees the other side of this practice when a boy in the story 'The Boy' innocently articulates how his sister is smarter than himself at studies and how she helps him with his homework. Through this story, Deshpande shows how we can change grown up men’s attitude by giving them a gender sensitive upbringing.
The issue of class is also interweaved with gender results in girls from lower class and lower middle class families often being dissuaded from taking interest in education, and we see the short and long term effects of this drawback in 'Why a Robin?' where the relationship between a mother and her daughter turns sour as the mother is unable to help her daughter with her homework thus the mother becomes filled with despondency and low-spirits. However, Deshpande suggests that illiteracy does not undermine motherhood by depicting the mother restoring her daughter’s health on her first menstruation.
As Indian society imposes solely bearing a male child on women, we see the lack of reproductive rights. In 'The Legacy', the husband accosts a man to impregnate his wife to have an heir and the wife remains silent throughout the conversation which indicates her lack of agency over the situation. The introduction of political economy and capitalism has acquired prominence in forging marital relationships and in growing indifference towards children. This is mirrored in 'Can you hear Silence?' where an earning woman finds it difficult to manage her household and her husband offers no succour either in taking care of the children or in helping with the household chores as his gaze remains fixed on a newspaper throughout the story.
The identity of a woman is ideologically propped upon her home and community. Although the woman in 'The Intrusion' dislikes the prospect of consummation, she is also fearful of returning to her parents’ home as her returning would mean sacrificing the lives of her two sisters who are not yet married. Mohanty raises this point when she asserts that women tend to internalise the fear that their un-reciprocality to male sexual feelings may compromise the dignity of their parents. Further, in 'The Intrusion' the woman is emphatically informed about the financially stable position of the bridegroom to make sure that she does not lose out on this offer. Dorothy Smith aptly calls this kind of interlocking of patriarchy and capitalism as “relations of ruling” (Mohanty 56) that become a two-edged weapon to exploit women.
After learning about the various factors that obstruct Indian women one tends to look for solutions that could resolve their crisis. Carole Vance suggests an important idea to tackle the distaste with sexuality as is the case with the woman in 'The Intrusion'. She maintains that women should share their sexual histories with one another (Vance 6). Thus, if the woman in 'The Intrusion' were informed by her mother about sexuality then she would understand her agency and what is and is not acceptable. Jodi Dean (1962) develops the concept of reflective solidarity which calls for unity and solidarity among women as an effective measure for fighting gender disparity (Mohanty 7).
Through these short stories we learn that dislodging patriarchal institutions is essential for resisting psychic and social domination that socialises women from an early age to the extent that they forget to question unjust practices and comply with whatever is demanded of them. Mohanty argues for a collective effort to dismantle the institution of patriarchy. The accomplishment of solidarity would be the creation of “new men” who would cooperate and support their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters (Mohanty 8).
The discussed short stories are left inconclusive possibly because Deshpande does not advocate remaining unmarried, giving up jobs to please husbands, abortion, stifling motherhood, suppressing sexuality, complying with the unjust demands of husbands, and abandoning home. As a writer steeped in Indian conventions and traditions, Deshpande applies her tinge of modernity by stressing that Indian women could lead a productive life by learning to assert themselves (Kirpal 25). This solution is implied in her oeuvre, like how the woman in 'A Liberated Woman' is educated but still succumbs to patriarchal pressures. If in any of the short stories women had articulated well then there is the possibility of escaping ill treatment, unjustified ill treatment nevertheless. The short stories urge female readers to break their silence and learn to respect their thoughts by articulating them. Through the short stories, one gets the sense that Indian women should challenge the mainstream on their own terms and neither through compliance nor aggression. The short stories intend to bring a positive change in women’s lives and thus they offer the solution of assertion that is poised between tradition and modernity.
By Dolly Sharma
 Shashi Deshpande is an Indian female author in English. She was born in Bangalore, India. She started to write pretty late after the birth of her two sons. Although she was born to a father who was an author by profession, her interest in writing revived when she visited England with her husband who had secured the Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue PhD in the UK.
 Deshpande’s writing gained attention with the publication of “The Intrusion.” Notably, she was the first female author to give extensive representation to women’s sexuality in her work.
Carole S. Vance. ”Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality”, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, pp. 1-27.
Deshpande, Shashi. “An Antidote to Freedom”. Collected Stories: Volume 1, New Delhi: Penguin, 2004.
Deshpande, Shashi. “A Liberated Woman”. Collected Stories: Volume 2, New Delhi: Penguin, 2004, pp. 36-44.
Deshpande, Shashi. “Can you hear Silence?” Collected Stories: Volume 2, New Delhi: Penguin, 2004.
Deshpande, Shashi. “The Boy”. Collected Stories: Volume 1, New Delhi: Penguin, 2003, pp. 162-170.
Deshpande, Shashi. “The Legacy”. Collected Stories: Volume 1, New Delhi: Penguin, 2003, pp. 1-8.
Deshpande, Shashi. “The Intrusion”. Collected Stories: Volume 1, New Delhi: Penguin, 2003, pp. 200-209.
Deshpande, Shashi. “Why a Robin?”. Collected Stories: Volume 1, New Delhi: Penguin, 2003, pp. 45-52.
Kirpal, Viney and Mukta Atrey. Shashi Deshpande: A Feminist Study of her Fiction, Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1998.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practising Solidarity, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2003.