‘Self-revelation is a cruel process […] [there have been] times when I’ve been able to separate two distinct strands - my experience and my awareness of that experience. Can I do this with our story? Do I have the necessary ruthlessness?’
Penguin’s September release of Shashi Deshpande’s 1990 Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel That Long Silence is, in effect, a slow, cruel self-revelation. The novel traces the life of narrator Jaya Kulkarni who is married to Mohan and has borne him two children. The stark and unashamed first person tone to the novel initially comes across as arrogance, later to be replaced with pity or admiration as various readers may perceive it. Jaya, a writer, gives up everything to take up "her only profession" - being Mohan’s wife.
Like signature Deshpande, That Long Silence does not bank on the extremes of conflicts and crises for narrative mileage; instead exposes threadbare, the tense realities of the average Indian family’s architecture. This, she achieves by introducing the peripheral crisis of Mohan being implicated in business fraud at his job. The steps he takes to save his job inadvertently includes his family’s moving out of their permanent residence in Churchgate to the narrator’s brother, Makarandmama’s flat in Dadar. This shift disrupts the routine that till now governed Jaya’s life. Deshpande is terse in her prose and establishes with unconscious ease the predictability that meant Jaya’s life. To Jaya, this ritualistic custom of being a wife is a catch-22: she craves for a change - driving her to the desperation of wanting "a disaster" in her life, if only to disembark from the "just living" that she shared with Mohan. And yet, she is afraid of falling out of the comforts of habit. An unexpected cry from Mohan while making love to her sparks off mental frenzy in Jaya:
‘His procedure had always been so unvaried, that I could almost stand back and watch the whole thing from a distance… the same positions, the same movements, the same time. But, if the predictability of his actions had often dulled my response, the variation from it today filled me with terror. […] Why did he cry out like that? It sounded like a cry of despair.’
The subsequent parts deal with the disassembly of Jaya’s ignorant bliss, or rather the knowledgeable bliss that came from the unchanging schedules to their lives. The story is that of the stagnant puddle of their collective lives wanting to flow, but only about managing to ripple as Deshpande bares, drop-by-drop, the brittleness of human relations - of blood and bond with acerbic compositions like: ‘Nevertheless, we kept up this fiction of our friendship with great enthusiasm’ and a strong line wherein Mohan, in exasperation, says of his own father: ‘Why doesn’t he die?’, quickly adding, ‘I can’t see him suffer.’
Jaya eventually reclaims her life by getting back to writing after facing the double trauma of Mohan leaving her and her son, Rahul, going missing. Realizing her folly for ever having given up on her writing, she pens down her story – the novel itself: ‘So many bits and pieces – a crazy conglomeration of shapes, sizes and colours put together. What have I achieved by writing this?’
In the invocation of these fractures in human character rendered in Jaya’s voice, we don’t see an overt failure, rather a tempered violence in desperate need of a channel. The truths we see within our blood relations, but, taught by codes of civil society, refuse to acknowledge. The reluctance to spend money on the annual rites of a dead father, the blatant dislike a son harbours for his mother, the petty politics of property, everything finds a space in Deshpande’s writing; a spatial freedom that at times costs the novel its focus.
That Long Silence moves in a very slow present while shuttling to span a long, complex past of multiple family ties, giving it an annoying sense of unmoving station – the narrative flow frozen. It is a personal redemption to a battle already lost.