1.1 Indian Writing in English, a Survey:
Indo-English fiction owes its origin to the translations of various fictional works from Indian languages into English. It originated and grew up under the tutelage of British. Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s "Rajmohan’s Wife" registered its first appearance in 1864, which created a history whose roots have gone deep enough till this day.
Influenced by the greatness of the audience and fascinated by the global claim, a handsome number of Indian novelists then rendered their creativity into English. One among them was Rabindarnar Tagore who made a great impact on it. He translated his novels, which were originally written in Bengali. His novels, `Gora’, `The Wreck’, `The Home’ and `The World’ and his short stories are of this sort. K.S. Ramamurthi observes:
"The rise of the novel as an art form in the Indian literary scene was itself not an isolated historical event caused by the imitative impulses of the writers who had been exposed to the influence of Western art forms but an evolution and a growth brought about by changing socio-economic conditions which called for the emergence of a new literary form" (12).
The subjects of the early pioneering works of the Indo- English fiction were social, historical, detective and romantic. Despite its meager impact on the fiction, they heralded in a new literary form and provided a strong base for the development of the genre.
1.2 Different Terms for Indian English Literature:
The new literary form, in its genesis, has been variously designated as “Indo- Anglian Literature”, “Indian Writing in English” and “Indo-English Literature”. In ``Indian writing in English’’ (1962) K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar includes English translation of Tagore’s novels while H.M.Williams excludes these from his Indo- Anglian literature (1800-1970). As Paul Verghese puts it
Indian English is only a variety of English whose characteristics stem from the life and culture of the people of Indian. And the Indianness of it consists in its cultural overtones and undertones and not in a legislation of the ignorant misuse of English. (11)
The term, `Indo-English literature’, however, is to mean literature produced by Indians in English. Indians have used it to denote translations from Indian Literature into English.
1.2 Nature and Theme:
The Sahitya Academy has recently accepted Indo-English literature as the most suitable appellation for this body of writing. Nevertheless, by whatever name Indian English literature is called, it remains a literary phenomenon worthy of serious scrutiny.
Indo- English Literature expresses sensibility both thematically and stylistically. There is a harmony in the blend of the modern as well as the post-modern framework. It has its deep root in the tradition beginning from the old civilization. Indo- English Literature is not merely artistic but also of sociological, cultural and philosophic worth.
Enchanted by its special nature and unique situation, scholars and critics from across continents turned their attention on Indo- English literature. The literature has flourished more successfully since Independence than it ever did before. Some prominent writers of the period introduced various techniques of narrating a story in a novel. R.S.Pathak points out,
"It is during the eighties that Indian English novelists and novels earned unheard of honours and distinctions in the western academic world…To a considerable extent the novel in India came to acquire the same importance that it had acquired in the eighteenth century England…" (14)
2.1 Prominent Novelists:
There emerged a few talented writers of this living and evolving literary genre, who could lift this form to international status and universal recognition. The three names usually mentioned in the literary circles in this context are: Mulk Raj Anand (1905), R.K. Narayan (1906) and Raja Rao (1909). They are known as ‘The Big Three’, an epithet coined by the noted English critic William Walsh.
The credit of bringing a name and reputation to Indo-English fiction goes to a few contemporary writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Nirad Chaudhuri. They are the four wheels of contemporary Indo- English fiction.
Suiting themselves for a much greater literary space, the Indo- English writers of fiction are intentional in the choice of the subject matter. In Indo- English novels there are Sadhus, Fakirs, Caves, Temples, Vedanta, Gandhi, Rajahs and Nawabs. These subjects evoke the interests of the Western audience. They essentially represent the Western ideas of India. But they fail not to imprint the elements of Indianness, nationalism and patriotism, glorification of India’s past on their works. The themes of the Indo- English fiction are the problems of social, domestic and sex.
The most prominent technique of narration in the Indo- English fiction is the stream of consciousness narrative. Mulk Raj Anand introduced this technique in the Indo- English fiction. Raja Rao adopted the autobiographical form of narration. The technique is seen in many novels such as Raja Rao’s The Serpent and Rope and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
2.2 The Role of Women:
Though a western art form has been applied to an Indian mode of story telling in the Indo-English fiction, the content of it seems to be Indian revealing the Indian sensibility and the Indian social and political situations. The comprehensive vision and philosophical insight of the Indian novelist makes him on a par with the writers of international repute. There were also some women novelists who adopted the technique of narrating a fiction.
They displayed Indianness through their characters. Many of them are the anglicized Indians such as Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian prince or Rajah, a sahib or an Englishman, a Eurasian, a Muslim, a Saint or Swami and a suffering woman.
The modern novels of `80s paid attention to the miserable plight of the contemporary middle-class, urban Indian woman. They attempted to reconstruct Indian womanhood, which has been characterized as ideally warm, gentle and submissive and the view that women deserved only to be kept in subordination to the male members of the family. Shantha Krishnaswamy comments on the general lot of women thus:
She is a creature who as a child is sold of to strangers for a bridal price, or when she grows up, serves as a supplier of dowry for her husband’s family, or who as a widow, in a final act of obliteration immolates herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre to be acclaimed as ‘Sita-Savitri’, as an immortal. (Qtd. in Sarbjit K. Sandhu 8)
2.3 Social Status of Women:
The ideal image of woman like the traditional Sita or Savitri was gradually replaced by the realistic one with the introduction of liberal English education. It not only brought significant changes in the middle-class life-style, but also raised a consciousness of freedom in the minds of women. This led to an intense desire for a freedom that was not easy to come by.
The modern age rendered women confused between the opposing forces of modernity and tradition. They found it difficult to reconcile between their romantic aspirations for the freedom of the nation and the realities of life. The women writers used this conflict between tradition and modernity.
Earlier, the problems of women were more of an emotional nature due to her attachment to home and family. But, with increasing consciousness as an individual, she has begun to assert herself within the family and outside as well.
2.4 Women, in View of Male writers:
Women in Raja Rao’s novels suffer from domestic injustice and tyrannical tradition, but the writer suggests no way out of their dilemma. His women characters, who are a little ambitious, end up playing the devoted role of wife, like Savitri in the Serpent and the Rope.
Bhabani Bhattacharya’s women are tender, charming and virtuous, and play a significant role in effecting the social change. But, in spite of their tenderness and virtue, they are victimized. Kajoli, in So Many Hungers!, undergoes immense suffering and misery, but her spirit remains invincible.
In all these cases, the male writers have either exposed their weaknesses and drawbacks, or placed her on a high pedestal and deified them. They could not pen the delineation of the reality of Indian women.
3.1 Feminist Movement in India:
Since the inception of the feminist movement in 1960s in the West, much has been written on women. The then women writers faced stringent norms in the name of social censure.
Only a few feminist writers made their contribution to the women’s movement against this oppression. Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Marilyn French and Margaret Atwood have contributed greatly in the movement and have been internationally acclaimed as feminist novelists.
They announced a rise of a new wave of feminism across the world. Their influence on India resulted in a new breed of Indian feminists. The prominent feminist novelists in the breed are Nayantara Sehgal, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Namita Gokhale, Shobha De, R.P.Jhabwala, Kamala Markandaya and Arundhati Roy.
They occupy prestigious position in Indo-English fiction. Their writings reflect a variety of shades, colours and visions. The assertion of identity in their writings deserves a better treatment at the hands of their male counter-part. They protested against the cruelty perpetrated on the women by portraying their responses and reactions. The spirit of revolt against mechanical life, mismatched marriages and wayward ways of their life partners was obvious in their writings. The protagonists of their novels are women of a typical Indian society. The plot of their story is woven around the women who negotiate the oppression of a patriarchal society. Fiction written in English in India today, especially by woman writers shows the variety of backgrounds that they hail from. Sarla Palkar Says:
"For a longtime, woman has existed as a gap, as an absence in literature. This is not only true of the fiction who have mostly confined themselves to writing love stories or dealing a superficial manner. (which) represses the truth about the majority of their sisters and their lives" (163)
3.2 Indian Feminism:
Unlike feminism in West, Indian feminism had a different story to tell. Women’s role in pre-colonial structures in India was not as bad as presumed. Some of the families during the pre-colonial period exhibited matriarchal tendencies. There were some revered images of women as unique and powerful. But the very idea of woman as `powerful’ was accommodated into the patriarchal culture through religion.
Besides, not all women of all castes enjoyed the rare privilege. Even, in the oppressive patriarchal social structures, the women had to negotiate survival through various patriarchal attributes like dowry, kinship, caste, community, sati.etc. Their position as submissive was justified by their male counterparts whose philosophy was that the individual was considered to be part of the larger social collective, dependent for its survival upon cooperation and self-denial for the greater good. This is evident in one of the laws of Manu, which says, “In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s and when her husband is dead, under her sons, she should not have independence…” (The laws of Manu 5.148)
On the other hand, there were multiple patriarchies, and so, multiple feminisms due to the heterogeneity of Indian culture. Hence, feminism in India cannot be considered as a singular theoretical orientation. Time and again, it has undergone gradual changes in relation to historical and cultural realities. It has also changed with the levels of consciousness, perceptions and actions of individual women and women as a group.
Thus, the Indian feminist had to struggle to carve a separate identity for feminism in India. They had to define feminism in terms of Indianness sans the imitation of Western ideas.
The story of the male oppressing the female from time immemorial could not be fully true in the Indian context because it was men who initiated social reform movements against various social evils. In many families, women were more adverse among each other. They were pitted against one another.
3.3 Indian Women Novelists:
All these issues could be brought out and explored to the core only by women novelists rather than their male counterparts as they themselves are the experienced and the experience. A few of the Indian women novelists who achieved their ideal through writings are Anitha Desai, Shashi Deshpande and Bharati Mukherjee are of that kind.
They bear a curious resemblance to one another in certain aspects. They belong to urban middle-class, English educated society. They deal with the world of women. They depict their women characters in all their negative and positive traits. For these women novelists, character takes precedence over plot as they could easily depict the inner landscape of their women protagonists. We see in the women protagonists the “power of women”.
Among the three novelists, Shashi Deshpande’s novels reveal her deep insight into the plight of Indian women, who are smothered and fettered in a male- dominated society. She highlights their inferior position and the subsequent degradation in the male-dominated society. She owes a great popularity in the field of Indian literature.
4.1 Shashi Deshpande’s Life and Works:
She was born in Dharwad in Karnataka as the daughter of the well-known Kannada dramatist as well as a great Sanskrit scholar Sriranga. She pursued her education in Dharwad, Bombay and Bangalore. She has completed her degrees in Economics and Law. She completed them with a gold medal.
After her marriage, she was moved to Bombay where she undertook a course on journalism at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and worked for a couple of months as a journalist for the magazine, “On looker”.
In 1970, she published her first short story. “Legacy” was the first collection of her short stories, which came out in 1978. Two years later, she published her first novel, “The Dark Holds No Terrors”. The subsequent year saw her next brainchild “A Matter of Time”, which was published in the United States of America. The Feminist Press of New York brought out that novel for the first time in that country.
Shashi Deshpande has made bold attempts at raising a voice to the disappointments and frustrations of women despite her vehement denial of being a feminist. “Roots and Shadows”, was her another novel depicting the agony and suffocation experienced by the protagonist, Indu. She is frustrated with her husband who is no better than less educated and conservative Indian men. The demanding reality of playing a subordinate role of the ideal Indian wife against her frustrates her to a great extent. In her quest of identity, she even develops an extramarital affair to finally realize that it is possible to exercise autonomy within the parameter of marriage. Deshpande, thus, exposes the gross gender discrimination and its fall-out in a male-dominated society.
“The Dark Holds No Terror” was her second novel. It is about the traumatic experience of the protagonist, Saru. Her husband refuses to play a second-fiddle role. Throughout her life, she undergoes a great amount of humiliation. Neglected as a child by her mother, she pins hope on her lover cum wife. In the hands of her husband, her life is shattered like anything. The novelist discusses the blatant gender discrimination shown by parents towards their daughters and their desire to have a male child. After her marriage she gains a greater social status than her husband, Manohar. Her husband develops an inferiority complex and feels humiliated on seeing the reaction of society to Saru’s superior position. The novelist clearly portrays the sexual sadism of a frustrated husband’s victimization of his wife.
Pande’s “That Long Silence” talks about Jaya, who, despite having played the role of a wife and a mother to perfection, finds herself lonely and estranged. Jaya realizes that she has been unjust to herself and her career as a writer, as she is afraid of inviting any displeasure from her husband. Her fear even discourages her from acknowledging her friendship with other men.
In her novel “A Matter of Time”, Shashi Deshpande for the first time enters into the metaphysical world of philosophy. Basically, it is about three women from three generations from the same family. Sumi is deserted by her husband Gopal, and she faces her humiliation with great courage and stoicism. Her mother Kalyani was married to her maternal uncle Shripathi. When their four-year-old son gets lost at a railway station, Shripathi sends her back to her parent’s house. When she returns he maintains a stony silence for the rest of his life. Manorama, Kalyani’s mother, fails to beget a male heir to her husband, and fears he should take another wife for the same purpose. Manorama, to avoid the property getting passed on to another family, gets Kalyani married to her brother Shripathi. Thus, the novelist has revealed the fear, frustration and compulsions of the three women from three generation and the invariable social condition of the Indian women for generation.
The novel “Small Remedies” is about Savitribai Indorekar who avoids marriage to pursue her genius. She has led the most unconventional of lives, and undergoes a great mental trauma due to the opposition by a society that practises a double standard. Even as a child, she was a victim of gross gender discrimination.
4.2 Synopsis of The Binding Vine:
“The Binding Vine”, her fourth novel, deals with the personal tragedy of the protagonist, Urmi. Through Urmi, Deshpande narrates the pathetic lives of other victims, Kalpana and Mira. Mira is Urmi’s mother-in-law, a victim of marital rape. Mira lives in the solitude of her unhappy marriage. She also narrates the tale of her acquaintance Shakutai, who had been deserted by her husband for another woman. The worst part of her tale is that her elder daughter Kalpana is brutally raped by her sister Sulu’s husband, Prabhakar. Urmi takes up cudgels on Kalpana’s behalf and brings the culprit to book.
The novel begins with Urmi grieving over the death of her baby daughter. She is treated with a tender affection of her loving mother and her dear sister-in-law Vanna. Despite the efforts of her friends and family members, she clings on to her grief. In spite of her fight for the loss, she feels that forgetting this grief would tantamount to betrayal.
She is married to an insensitive husband Kishore who is a Merchant Navy. Her husband leaves her alone the most of the time. She has also got a son Karthik. It is Urmi who narrates the whole story. There are five pairs of mother-daughter, namely Inni-Urmi, Mira’s mother-Mira, Shakutai-Kalpana, Akka-Vanna, and Vanna-Mandira, and their relationships between themselves is based on some sort of misapprehension or dissention.
Urmi’s displeasure with her mother was deep-rooted in her separation from her parents. Right from her childhood days’ she was sent to her paternal grandmother, she had no experience of the kind of mothering a daughter. But Urmi was neither in a position nor in a mood to find out the cause of her displacement or her mother’s predicament. Inni had an early marriage, leading to an early motherhood, and being too young herself, she was unable to take care of her child properly. While trying to vindicate herself she explains to her daughter her position. Towards the end, Urmi becomes empathetic and forgives her.
Urmi’s father was a dominant patriarch and a domineering husband, he was the decision-maker and instrumental in her displacement, but Inni, Urmi’s mother had to bear the burnt of the consequent blame.
She has to survive the rest of her life to make up for the loss of love for her daughter. She was doting on her indifferent daughter to a great extent whereas Urmi was on the wrong belief that her mother had deliberately sent her to her mother-in-law for her own convenience. Urmi disillusions the wrong notion only after Inni unveils the truth ----“A sense of being vulnerable and naked, as if some armour I’ve been wearing all there years-against what?-Has been taken off (200). (5)
She feels frightened to think of her father’s unkindness to her mother, who went through the pain of child birth, but was deprived of the right to decide what would be best for her baby.
In an aggrieved state at the loss of her daughter, Urmi is drawn into the lives of three different women. She happens to meet Shakuntala, the mother of a rape-victim, whom she meets at a hospital where Vanna works. Her daughter has been admitted to the hospital. Dr. Bhaskar reports that Kalpana has been brutally raped. Shakuntala refuses to believe that her daughter Kalpana has been raped. Her reaction is that of a typical Indian mother bred in an oppressive male-dominated society. She cries in agony and fear. Most Indian mothers would react in a similar way as they are concerned about their daughters’ marriage. Shakuntala is in a traumatic state and is sobbing. Urmi escorts her to their home and from there starts her association with her. She pays regular visits to Shakuntala’s place to inquire about Kalpana’s state.
It is during these regular visits that Urmi comes to know about Kalpana from Shakuntala. Shakuntala holds two extreme views on her daughter; sometimes she is all praise for Kalpana. And, many a time, she puts all the blame on her. She says that Kaplana is secretive in nature as she does not even tell her about her pay. She also expresses her surprise at having given birth to a pretty child like Kalpana. She is full of praise when she talks about her daughter’s physical appearance.
Shakuntala is of the view that it is Kalpana’s attitude which is responsible for her fate. Urmi fails to convince Shakuntala and is enraged at the fact that Shakuntala’s blame game and subjection of will to fate would lead to the rapist’s getting away scot-free.
Shakuntala does not want a report to be lodged with the police, as she knows that if she does, a much greater injustice awaits her and her daughter. A victim of rape is a loser on two counts: First, she has been raped; secondly the society looks down upon such a victim as a characterless woman, which ushers in a much miserable plight.
The police officer registers the case as a mere accident to the great shock of Dr. Bhaskar. Urmi wants justice to be done to Kalpana by bringing the culprit to book. She finds herself a lonely crusader in her fight. Despite opposition from Vanaa and Urmi’s mother, she takes the matter to the press. She gets the case reopened and with this the identity of the rapist is revealed who is no other than Prabhakar, Shakuntala’s sister’s husband. Sulu gets so guilty conscience that she immolates herself leaving behind a grief-stricken Shakuntala.
Yet another saga of misery, submission and sorrow is that of Urmi’s late mother-law, Mira. Mira has aversion to physical intimacy with her husband and still she has to put up with his obsession for her. She voices to her inner self in her poems.Urmi receives an old trunk full of books and a few other things from Mira’s husband’s stepmother, referred to as Akka. Among these books Urmi finds Mira’s diary which is “not a daily account of her routine life but a communication with herself” (51).
Urmi goes through the poems in Mira’s diary and gets a glimpse of her troubled marriage. She comes to know from Akka how Kishore’s father had pursued and married Mira, a college student. The poems and entries in the diary are proof enough for Urmi to conceive the forced sexual activity Mira had to undergo in an incompatible marriage.
Through her photographs and poems, Urmi gets an image of her mother-in-law as a lively and intelligent girl snuffed off in a forced, incompatible marriage. Mira’s inhibitions about her voicing a desire to become a poet are clear in the lines of her poems. Thus, Mira symbolizes the miserable and hopeless lot of innumerable Indian women, who suffer silently and their voice remains smothered.
In case of Harish and Vanna also, we see Vanna’s submission just to keep her marriage intact. She longs for a son and the same is denied to her by her husband. After the birth of a second baby-girl she expresses her desire to Harish for a son. Harish snubs her by saying that she should be one of those women who craves for sons. He also asks her as to how she could think for sure that the next child would be a son.
Despite all these arguments, she is ready to take a chance. Urmi gets terribly irritated at her constant refrain “Harish says”. She tells her to assert herself and not to crawl before her husband. She is also critical of her going out to work and also doing domestic chores all by herself, thereby spoiling him and in the process denying love and care to her children. This leads to her daughter, Mandira, to grow with her own notions of the role of a woman as a mother and wife. She thinks that the duty of a woman is to first look after her home and children. Mandira expresses her displeasure at her mother leaving her and her sister in the care of a servant. Towards the end, Urmi seems to be optimistic and gets ready for her usual responsibilities.
1. Deshpande, Shashi, The Binding Vine, New Delhi: Penguin, 1992.
2. Palkar, Sarla. “Breaking the Silence : That Long Silence.” Indian Women Novelists . Ed. R.K. 3.Dhawan.Vol.5. New Delhi: Prestige, 1991.
4.Pathak, R.S. Ed.The Fictional World of Arundhati Roy. Creative Books, New Delhi, 2001.
5.Ramamurthi, K.S. “Does the Indian Novel in English Have a Future?”
The Indian Novel in English ed. T.Prabhakar. New Delhi: Phoenix Publishing House Pvt. Ltd: 1995.
6. Sandhu, Sarbjit K., The Image of Woman in the Novels of Shashi Deshpande, Ed. R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991.
7.Verghese, Paul. “Indian English” The Indian Novel in English Ed. T. Prabhakar New Delhi: Phoenix Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. 1995.