Intersections: Embedded Imagi<i>nation</i> and Otherness in Shashi Deshpande's <i>That Long Silence</i>
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Embedded Imagination and Otherness
in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence

Kamalakar Bhat

  1. Shashi Deshpande's novel That Long Silence, through details of everyday practices, routine, mundane, and particular stories, engages with issues of collective identity. The novel explores how images of nation are embedded in the ordinariness of lives and how the nation-state through an affective mechanism of individuals' imagination institutes them as citizen-subjects. Through this exploration the novel develops a critique of the patriarchal construction of 'nation' and contests the legitimisation of the male discourse as the 'normative' national discourse. I wish to argue in this paper that the equalised terrain of the victimisation of women that the novel presents glosses over the cultural marks of the women characters represented in the novel leading to the appropriation of the cultural other into a universalised brahminical 'woman.' This critique is further supported by calling attention to the way there is a belittling of female discourse in the novel.
  2. That Long Silence presents the oppressive, debilitating life situation of a housewife. This family life is firmly located in its middle class environs. The silence and the silencing of the woman as a gendered subject is the focus of the narrative. But even as the family life is located in the middle-class environs, the narrative maps the position of the middle class in the larger social network of relations.
  3. The point of departure for the novel is the individual tale of domestic strife. The crisis in the conjugal relationship of the protagonists, Jaya and Mohan, is engendered by the professional misconduct of the husband. The moment of the narrative is located in a suspension of the 'normal' lives they lead occasioned by the seclusion to which they have taken refuge because of Mohan's professional difficulties. This hiatus in the normal life of the couple is the immediate stimulation for Jaya to reflect over the nature of her relationship with Mohan and the kind of life lived. The reappraisal of their roles that ensues brings to the fore the tension between the two but also significantly leads Jaya into an exploration of the schism between her social and psychical selves. The novel consistently makes this an exploration that is never hinged upon her particular experience. Jaya's reflective narrative repeatedly places her in the larger context of patriarchy and the metanarrative of nation. The former is chiefly done by developing a polemical prose (this term here refers to the reflective parts that are argumentative, not rooted in 'events' and thus do not have a strict narrative function) that undertakes to historically view the position of women in society. Here allusions to a variety of master discourses, both 'Indian' and 'Western,' entrench the implicit thesis about the systemic nature of the subjugation that Jaya, the protagonist, experiences. The metanarrative of nation is invoked through narrative details wherein the particular experiences of Jaya (and her family) are seen as not 'local' in so far as they are necessarily implicated in the story of the nation-state. The narrative is acted out against the backdrop of the post-independent India's story of re-construction. The Nehruvian model of planned development dominates the narrativisation of India in official representations through text-book history and state-published accounts of the nation-state. The novel makes oblique references to this story through its references to factories, steel plants, the idealism of the engineers and the growing urban space. Within the novel these images come to invoke an extra-textual narrative of the Indian nation-state's 'planned' efforts at modernisation through industrialisation.
  4. The middle class life of Jaya, the narrator, and Mohan, her husband, is implicated in the metanarrative of progress and development of the country as symbolised by the steel plant of Lohanagar. The symbolism of the steel plant is not merely an affective for Mohan and the other engineers working there.[1] It involves Jaya too, though for her those days were full of the misery of domesticity: 'Pregnancy, baby's wails and sleeplessness.'[2] This affective state covers Mohan and Jaya, loosely the male beneficiary of the metanarrative of progress and its female victim. Jaya is a victim in so far as being a house wife (not necessarily out of choice because Mohan did not want her to 'work') she experiences displacement from her native town (Ambegaon), has to adjust to the 'drab houses, dusty roads'; she also has to put up with the effects of Mohan's over work. While his job at the plant was exhausting, which he did not mind,[3] at home he had to have undisturbed rest in the night. To ensure rest for him Jaya had to wake up from sleep every time the baby cried and take the baby and go to the kitchen. Thus, the steel plant at Lohanagar has different memories for the two of them. For Mohan, along with the other engineers working with him, it meant an opportunity to participate in the idealistic march of progress of the country. The impact of his benefit on Jaya was the additional burden: of displacement, of sleeplessness along with the imprisonment in the role of a housewife. This reading of the burdening of Jaya as a gendered subject of nation finds validation in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, who have pointed out that, 'far from enjoying the benefits of so called development, the majority of women have been pushed to the margins of the production process.'[4]
  5. Nevertheless, this varying impact is smoothened in Jaya's recollection of those days: 'even to me those days seemed touched with freshness…purpose,'[5] because, she too is immersed in the preoccupations and desires of the middle class for mobility and material improvement: 'It was enough for me that we moved to Bombay, that we could send Rahul and Rati to good schools, that I could have the things we needed…Decent clothes, a fridge, a gas connection, travelling first class.'[6] Now we have a schematic view of the way in which the daily practices of individuals are caught up in the story of 'nation building': citizens are invited to contribute their labour to the 'progress' of the nation; the labourers are overworked; they in turn push their family members (usually women) to overwork; none are made to feel that what they are doing is at the bidding of the 'nation-state'; contrarily, they are all lodged in an affective state of idealism, care giving, and material advancement. The novel emphasises the voluntariness of the citizens and reveals the extent to which they are bound in the affective state by the disjunction between the experience and awareness about it. It is only now in her reflective retrospection that Jaya comes to realise how much work was extracted from her; and how it was all in the name of bettering their standard of life. The issue is how the metanarrative of progress is inscribed into an affective mechanism of personal improvement and, this is the point, how the individual lives are embedded in the narrative of the nation. In viewing this embeddedness, the fact that the trope of allegory is not relevant is also worth mentioning.
  6. The desire of the middle-class family for social mobility is also driven by viewing the life of the 'upper' class. For Mohan this viewing begins in his childhood when he, while at a function, watches three women conversing in English. The three women, who were for Mohan 'so different from all the women' he had known,[7] also carry with them intimations of modernity for him. The way Jaya comes to understand this experience of Mohan is as a 'revelation': 'Those women had given him his first vision of a different kind of life, a life that had none of the poverty, the shabbiness and ugliness, the rigid rules and rituals he had known till then.'[8] For Mohan this 'revelation' of modernity in the image of the English-speaking women becomes the starting point of an ambitious life. It is this again that is behind his choice of Jaya as wife, one who is 'educated and cultured.'[9] As pointed out by Doreen D'Cruz:

      Jaya's right to language is inscribed within her marriage to Mohan. It was her facility with English which identified her as the woman of Mohan's dreams. She recalled to him his impoverished fascination at the women he had seen from a distance at a wedding to which he had been taken out of charity. Their effortless English, along with their perfume and their gossamer saris, proclaimed them as fantastic beings. They reflected access to a culture that Brahminism alone was insufficient to unlock. Mohan's arrival at that point of cultural privilege was to be mirrored by his possession of the right wife.[10]

  7. If Mohan's move towards life in modernity begins with this desire image, for Jaya its roots lie in her father's belief that English education is more important than one's customs. Her father believed that 'It is going to be more useful to them than being good Brahmins.'[11] Coupled with the embeddedness of individual lives in the metanarrative of nation, the effect of modernity on the individual choices and aspirations speaks of the over-determination of ordinary lives with that of the nation-state. Thus in the novel, the family life of Jaya and Mohan is not only portrayed as a middle-class life, but the middle class itself is located within a matrix of desire for social mobility, economic improvement, and modernity. In this sense the novel attends to the subject-in-the-making within the metanarrative of nation.
  8. This process of subject-in-the-making is significantly gendered. Apart from the differential experiencing of national progress there is another important aspect to this gendered process of being inscribed in the metanarrative of nation which may be schematically stated thus: the gendered citizen of the nation is also a subject of patriarchy. The woman-subject of the patriarchal nation-state is not only embedded in an affective state of social mobility (like her male counterparts) but is also silenced. Jaya in this novel realises how her voice is muted with respect to articulating her experiences. In her retrospection she is alive to the restrictions on her self expression. Her narrative, which forms the novel That Long Silence that we read, written in secrecy, is a breaking of the silence imposed on her because it is a violation of the gendered modes of self-expression. The novel reveals the limits on the woman's ability to participate in a free circulation of ideas and employ 'fiction' as a mode of self-expression. Mohan takes strong exception to Jaya's story published in a magazine where it had won a prize because he feels the story will be construed as real by their acquaintances (who read the story), and they would see him in poor light. He says:

      They will all know, all those people who read this and know us, they will know that these two persons are us, they will think I am this kind of a man, they will think I am this man. How can I look anyone in the face again? And you, how could you write these things, how could you write such ugly things, how will you face people after this?[12]

  9. Interestingly, Mohan offers a paradoxical reading of the story here. In feeling hurt, he seems to find the story realistic and hence feels denuded in the public, yet he insists that he is not the man in the story though others would mistake it to be so. This acts as a force containing Jaya's free expression and she turns to writing 'womanly' pieces in women's magazines, gaining popularity. This regulated and conformist mode of writing is appreciated by Mohan. In this entire episode the determining factor is not Mohan's individual preferences or attitudes. It is the patriarchal 'role' that drives Mohan into such a position. In the novel this is indicative of how the patriarchal order moulds the modes of self-expression of women and interferes in women's cultural self-representation.
  10. There are other concerns of the middle class that are thematised in the novel such as the desire for safety. The mortal fear of the middle class is the sight of the lower classes. The fear of slipping downwards, loosing the grip on the present class position, informs the attitude of the middle class toward the lower class. Early in the novel this fear is evoked. Mohan is shaken after watching some women with their children sitting on the street demanding justice. He learns that they too were middle class (they are wives of army men who have been arrested). The status to which they are reduced (to be on the streets) scares him. He wonders what 'people like us' would do in such situations. The fearful vision of the lower class, as with Mohan here, introduces the conflictual relation between classes and the perception of 'otherness' that comes to problematise the contestation of nation developed in the novel.
  11. Mohan's fear of 'people like us' being reduced to beggars informs his middle-class desire for security. Jaya too believed in the idea of lifelong security until she was jolted by a crisis in her marital life. Her life was also conditioned by this logic: 'stay at home, look after your babies, keep out the rest of the world, and you are safe.'[13] Though later, with the crisis in her marital life, she concludes that this is a false belief: 'I know that safety is always unattainable. You are never safe.'[14] The placidity that Jaya displays, till the crisis in her life pushes her to begin an interrogation of her life, may be read as a sign of her enclosed consciousness. Viewing this as a limitation of the novel, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan says, 'for a woman in Jaya's position to take no cognisance of the world of work, politics, even physical geography is to neglect an important component of the reality of the Indian bourgeois woman's situation.'[15] Shashi Deshpande seems to be alive to the delayed self-assertiveness of her protagonist. In an interview she has argued:

      My novels always begin in a moment of crisis. Most of us go on unquestioningly until we are shaken out of the rut by something catastrophic or disastrous. Suddenly all that you have taken for granted becomes doubtful, everything falls apart. You begin then to question everything. And it is through this questioning, through this thinking that you move on, pick up your life once again. But you are never the same after this. This is true of all human beings, not just women. My protagonists being women, one of the things they question is the fact of their being females, what it has done to them. But they are also probing the human condition, the human predicament. In this thinking process, humans do discover their own potential. So do the women I have written about.[16]

  12. As against her 'secure' middle class life, Jaya witnesses the fragile life of her servant, Jeeja. Jeeja and her husband used to live in a chawl. The husband had a good job in a mill, but after a strike in the mill he lost it all. The husband had since become a drunkard and Jeeja was supporting the family by working as a housemaid. This viewing of Jeeja's life can proceed in three directions: Jaya can find common human suffering across classes; she can find gender solidarity across class division; or she can maintain class division within the gender framework. It is possible to read Jaya's incorporation of the life stories of the underclass in her narrative as a sign of solidarity which cuts across class and gender. Such a reading will then be able to structure the contestation of patriarchal hegemony over 'nation' as the chief polemics of the novel. There is in the novel a very vigorous questioning of patriarchal constructions of nation and the systematic devaluation of women's selfhoods even as they are deployed in the service of the nation. This devaluation is analysed with reference to the frameworks of both culture and political economy. In the culture framework, it is the metanarrative of tradition that is deflated and in the framework of political economy it is the metanarrative of progress that is targeted. Thus the novel suggests the intertwining of tradition and modernity as perpetuating, instituting, and reconfiguring the apparatuses that effectuate the subordination of women. A subordination that suppresses them to the extent of spending a lifetime before realising, as Jaya does, that they haven't begun their life yet, busy as they are playing the feminine role assigned by the society. It is this subordination that through an affective mechanism has obtained women's consent and renders them silent. Jaya's first-person narrative is a sign of the break in that silence and the break contests the very premises of the 'nation-state' with respect to the construction of nation.
  13. Yet, paradoxically, the novel takes recourse to a generalised view of womanhood. This is to be seen in the polemical prose of the novel which apparently aims to point at the victimisation and silencing of the gendered subject in the scene of middle class life by patriarchal discourse. The polemics of the novel is contained in its insistence on challenging the silence, even patriarchy's mechanism of silencing. It is the presence of the lower class women that problematises this polemics. Any attention to them unravels the tension between the polemical prose and its implicit agenda of appropriating the gendered subject within middle-class brahminical identity by shutting out the cultural marks of others or by shutting out alterity all together. While the gendered subjects in this novel are traced through their class and gender matrix, there is a strange silence about the identity politics on the cultural plane. Hence, within the narrative universe of this novel, the construction of the gendered subjects in their class environs represents a collective identity whose voice is discursively silenced under the aegis of the metanarratives of progress of the nation. This is one plane on which the novel problematises an undifferentiated notion of nation as a collective identity. This polemics nevertheless restrains from attending to the cultural politics of the gendered subjects, as it attenuates cultural 'others' in the novel. The novel insistently operates at the level of a class-determined binary of male and female social categories and this amounts to a rarefying of cultural marks of the gendered subjects. This gives rise to a structural irony in the novel wherein the configuration of 'self' and 'other' poses many complications. At the level of the narrated incidents it is the underclass/caste that come to be 'othered' while at the level of the polemical prose, a division between 'they' and 'I' is posited wherein the patriarchal structure ('they') 'others' the 'I', the woman. The irony refers to the way in which the othering of the underclass/caste is unproblematically situated within an oppositional polemics about the policy of 'othering' practiced by patriarchy. This comes to our view when we attend to the polemical prose of Jaya.
  14. The narrator sets up a binary between 'I' and 'they' by way of such expressions as 'They never told me' that are used throughout the polemical prose. Here the 'I' is not necessarily the delimited self of the narrator–character, Jaya. Within the polemical prose of the novel, this 'I' is a space occupied by the victims of patriarchy. At the level of the narrated incidents it is the underclass/caste that come to be othered while at the level of the polemical prose, a division between 'they' and 'I' is posited wherein the patriarchal structure ('they') others the 'I', the woman. It is a space occupied by the instruments of patriarchy—male or female. The polemical point is about the presence of hierarchy; about the power of the 'they' over the 'I.'
  15. But significantly, this opposition hides another kind of opposition between 'I' and 'they.' Within this other framework, the 'I' of the polemical prose itself is split into its class/caste opposition. This split is then reconstituted into a separate 'self' and 'other' divide. Herein we see the class/caste construction of 'I.' The polemical prose constitutes the problems of the 'I' with a flattening of class and caste difference in such a way that it appropriates the other cultural identities to merge with the 'I,' who is a victim of patriarchy. Patriarchy is seen here as the common enemy, without class/caste (or other) specificity. As has been noted by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan:

      The force of Deshpande's indictment of women's lives lies in the way she is able to universalize their condition, chiefly by drawing similarities among Jaya and a variety of other female figures, including characters from Indian history and myth; and among three generations of women in her family (Jaya, her mother, her grandmother); among different classes of women (Jaya, her maid Jeeja); among different kinds of women of the same class and generation (Jaya, her cousin Kusum, her widowed neighbour Mukta). So compellingly realistic is this rendering that no Indian woman reader can read this novel without a steady sympathetic identification and, indeed, frequent shocks of recognition.[17]

  16. The victim of patriarchy as 'I' is seen as fragmented when we give attention to the narrator's attitude towards the maid servants. For example, Jaya's attitude towards Nayana: 'I hesitated…when I came upon a shoe, the inside of it filled with an unhealthy growth of fungus. My fingers twitched with horror. Finally I pushed it with my foot outside the door, leaving it there for Nayana to carry away.'[18] This shows that Jaya and Nayana occupy a social space that is divided by class position but also importantly they are valued differently. What is repulsive to Jaya is not supposed to be repulsive to Nayana. This reveals that the polemical prose of the victim makes invisible another 'other'; one who is kept distinct in class terms; and the cultural identities of this 'other' are subsumed into that of the 'I.' Thus, in the polemical prose that develops a critique of patriarchy 'they' refers to the construction of the gendered other. But the manner in which the 'I' is constituted as a sign of collectivity on gender basis and the divisions of class and caste are made indistinct implies that within Jaya's polemical prose the 'I' and 'they' are composite pronouns. They are refracted by divisions across which the polemical prose seems to position identities. That is to say, 'I' comes to signify a class/caste-specific victim of patriarchy though in her polemical prose Jaya claims it as a general category of 'woman.' This 'I' incorporates the underclass and lower-caste women, yet it fails to incorporate within the polemical prose the structures that victimise the underclass and the lower caste. In other words, Jaya's narrative appropriates the underclass and the lower caste victims of patriarchy but constitutes the patriarchy as evenly victimising all women. This narrative element may be read in the light of what Nilufer Bharucha argues:

      Although women in India are bound by a common reductiveness, it would be simplistic to categorise them as a hegemonic sorority. Third World feminists quite rightly point out the dangers of lumping together white-middle class women with those belonging to the underprivileged nations of the world…women belonging to different ethno-religious groups experience this secondary status in different ways.[19]

  17. I am not suggesting that a novel that deals with patriarchal violence must also tell stories of other forms of victimisation. Such a story would be impossible as the structures of domination cannot be posited as being limited.[20] What is significant in Jaya's narrative is that, she develops a polemical prose that constitutes an 'I' so as to incorporate the underclass and lower-caste women, and then the class/caste-specific structures of patriarchal domination are elided to focus on a unitary notion of 'they,' the patriarchy. The problem with this kind of equalised terrain of women is identified by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid when they say, 'The lives of women exist at the interface of caste and class inequality, especially since the description and management of gender and female sexuality is involved in the maintenance and reproduction of social inequality.'[21] It is thus that in the novel the framework of self and other becomes problematic. The 'other' happens to be not so much the 'they' of the polemical prose in the novel (patriarchy), but the culturally blank marginal underclass/caste.
  18. There is another proof for this observation about the otherness of underclass/caste in Jaya's narrative. We need to examine the tropes of silence and women's language to obtain that proof. The characterisation of the silence and the silencing of the women in the novel critiques the deafness of the patriarchal social order towards women. It is suggested that the 'long silence' is a result of patriarchy's refusal to comprehend women's 'language' in so far as women's work, speech, acts and aspirations are not attributed any value. But the burden of breaking the silence is finally placed on the women in the novel. Silence can be broken only if women 'learn' men's language, it seems to imply. This suggestion is the result of two tendencies in the novel: one, the anger felt by Jaya at speaking 'Prakrit' and the desire to speak 'Sanskrit' that she displays at the metaphorical level; second, the citational engagement in Jaya's polemical prose with the 'master discourses.'
  19. Towards the end of her reflective narrative Jaya remembers how in Sanskrit drama, women characters spoke not in Sanskrit but in Prakrit. With this she also comes to the realisation that her reading of her own subjectivity had been wrong. All along in the narrative, Jaya has been afflicted by the silence imposed on her. Her perception of herself as a silenced subject is now revised. She realises that what had been imposed on her is not silence but a 'different' language: 'I have been speaking Prakrit myself.'[22] If she has all along felt herself unheard, it is not due to 'silence,' not due to muted subjectivity. It is because the patriarchal institution of communication, the 'normative' discourse, is at variance with her speech which is conducted in a 'different' language. In that sense, with this realisation she comes to see her reflective narrative of her subjectivity as conducted in the patriarchal discourse (or the sign system that has led her to place the 'value' of silence on her own speech is one that does not accommodate the signification of her speech). If she has been speaking in Prakrit and has been rendered silent, it implies that her language is 'unheard,' made not only incomprehensible but also 'unsounded' by the male discourse. Now, if she herself viewed her life as silenced thus far ('I will have to erase the silence between us'[23] ), it is so because she too had not recognised the nature of her language. For the male discourse, within which her reflective narration views her life thus far, the space of 'Prakrit' signs is a black hole—they cease to exist in their very enunciation.
  20. Why does Jaya feel that she has been rendered silent? It is because Mohan hints that all that she has done in her life has not 'meant' to signify her care for him. Mohan, after so many years of conjugal life, accuses her of not caring about anything except her needs: 'He accused me of not caring about the children, of isolating myself from him and his concerns, even of some obscure revengeful feelings that were driving me to act this way.'[24] He does not even understand how the kind of writing she is doing is a betrayal for her of what she has wanted to write. At the moment of this crisis in their married life, Jaya and Mohan are total strangers to each other, as if in all the years they have never understood each other. Jaya feels that Mohan's accusation means that she had failed in her 'career' as a wife. But Mohan is not merely complaining about Jaya. His accusation extends to all women: 'It's not just you, it is all women.'[25]
  21. This dramatic exchange that takes place before Mohan walks out on her and leaves the house indicates the incomprehension that exists between the two. It is as if despite living together, Mohan has not understood her. What is the reason for this? Jaya comes to realise that what lies between them is not silence. If it is, it is not speechlessness; it is a loaded silence, or even loud silence. Silence, in this novel comes to suggest not the absence of communication but the failure of signs to signify. Mohan does not understand Jaya or any woman because their sign system does not carry any value for him. Women avail themselves of language, they register their voices, send forth the signs into circulation that remain undecoded within the normative male institution of communication. The women reside within a language the users of which do not understand their language. Women inhabit a discursive space which is constituted by patriarchal language and which renders women's articulations insignificant. It is thus that Mohan 'cannot' comprehend 'all women' as within the patriarchal linguistic structures that form him, what women 'say' remains un-signified, as it were.
  22. This raises the issue of women's language. But the protagonist of this novel does not value the proposition of women's language in any positive manner. For Jaya, it is a source of irritation. She not only feels the burden of resultant silence but also a denial of even maturity, because she thinks that Prakrit was 'a language that had sounded to my ears like a baby's lisp.'[26] This is suggestive of Jaya's own valuation of her language because in this context 'Prakrit' has only a metaphorical meaning: the language of women. Jaya is angry that she is not speaking Sanskrit. This means that Jaya too does not positively value her 'language,' and places the burden of communication on women rather than on the patriarchal deafness to women's language. The reason why she has in her narrative till this moment (till the last but one paragraph of the narrative) seen herself as silenced is because she too fails to understand the structure of women's language, as it were. She has been completely incorporated into the patriarchal discourse so that her own speech has only signified for her 'silence,' an absence and not a difference.
  23. There are two frames of reference in the novel with which there is a citational relationship of intertextuality: English literature/Western philosophy and Sanskrit literature/philosophy. Jaya's own speech is carried out in a site of intertextuality where Daniel Defoe, Karl Marx, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and others on the one hand and the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Vedas, etc., on the other are cited and alluded to. The allusions to these two frameworks indicate the desire of the first person narrator to make her narrative engage in a critical dialogue with these 'master discourses.' This desire to cite and to be sited in relation to master discourses places Jaya's narrative not so much in an oppositional relation, but in a negotiating relation with the will to power of the male discourses. Jaya's need to locate her speech in a negotiating relation with the master discourses of Western and Sanskrit literature and philosophy indicates an eagerness to 'speak in' the dominating discourse which links up with her anger at having to speak (symbolically) Prakrit and not Sanskrit. Jaya's citational relation to 'Sanskrit' and 'Western' discourses may be seen as cultural hybridity induced by the experience of colonialism. Read as a mark of cultural hybridity it may be seen as a sign of resistance. But the conclusion I draw here has to do not only with the corpus of citations in Jaya's narrative but the exclusive nature of that corpus. It is significant that the condition of cultural hybridity is limited to the discourses of 'high traditions.' Jaya only engages with texts of the 'master discourses.' She finds no need to draw upon oppositional low-traditions. The substantial point of this analysis is that Jaya's polemical prose and the narrativisation of her life experiences indicate a belittling of female discourses. This conclusion becomes visible when we attend to both forms of binary oppositions employed in the novel: 'I' as the undifferentiated woman, a victim of 'othering' by patriarchy; as well as the 'brahminical self' engaged in othering the culturally-unmarked underclass women characters.
  24. The foregoing analysis may be summed up here to arrive at certain conclusions. In this novel the structuring of the middle class within the framework of the metanarratives of progress situates the narrative in the context of nation building. This process of nation building places the burden of 'servility' on women along with the burden of self-formation. This self-formation is disrupted in the scene of the family where a career for woman conflicts with the social order. The disruption is seen as a kind of silence. It is a historical silence—That Long Silence—stretching both in time (across generation) and space (across social groups). But the protagonist of the novel, even as she notices 'difference' in language as the structure of the silence, tends to insist on being incorporated into the 'normal' scene: that of speaking and being heard within the male discourse rather than continuing with what the male discourse has refused to decode—the Prakrit of women or women's language. In so doing the self–other equation is altered whereby, male is no more the 'other' of the victimised woman as the underclass/caste slide into that role.
  25. The narrative built up by the protagonist in the novel develops two sets of 'self' and 'other' relationships: one emerges through the emplotment while the other emerges through the polemical prose. In the first, the protagonist sets herself in opposition to her underclass/caste counterparts. At this level, gender solidarity becomes a means of glossing over the identity politics; of hiding the cultural marks of others present within the very narrative that the protagonist is weaving together. The second set emerges from the polemical prose wherein the patriarchal social order (they) renders the 'I' (gendered subject including the protagonist) othered. In this scheme the othered 'I' comes to be generalised, without the cultural mark differentiating social experiences.
  26. That Long Silence presents a rigorous contestation of the construction of 'normative national interest,' challenges the regulation of women's cultural self-representation and questions the hegemony of patriarchal constructions of nation. Working on the material of the middle class life, the novel sets up particular stories in its interrogation of the metanarrative of nationhood. In this respect the novel displays an embedded imagination.[27] In its location of the space of women, the protagonist's narrative prefers an axis across class/caste/region/time. The universalised space of gender deflects the conflicts in the terrain of cultural politics, especially in relation to the vision of 'nation.'


    [1] Shashi Deshpande, That Long Silence, London: Virago New Fiction, 1988, p. 58. All references to the novel are to this edition. Emphasis is always added.

    [2] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 58.

    [3] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 59.

    [4] Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, 'Introduction,' in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Sangari and Vaid, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989, pp. 1–26.

    [5] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 58.

    [6] Deshpande, That Long Silence, pp. 61–62.

    [7] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 89.

    [8] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 90.

    [9] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 90.

    [10] Doreen D'Cruz, 'Feminism in the postcolonial context: Shashi Deshpande's fiction,' in SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, no. 36, 1993, online:'Cruz.html, site accessed 7 May 2009.

    [11] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 90.

    [12] Deshpande, That Long Silence, pp. 143–44.

    [13] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 17.

    [14] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 17.

    [15] Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 'The feminist plot and the nationalist allegory: home and world in two Indian women's novels in English,' in Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 39, no. 1 (1993):71–92, p. 83.

    [16] Chandra Holm, 'A writer of substance', in Indian Review of Books, May 2000, p. 5.

    [17] Rajan, 'The feminist plot,' p. 78.

    [18] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 13.

    [19] Nilufer Bharucha, 'Inhabiting enclosures and creating spaces: the worlds of women in Indian literature in English,' in Ariel, vol. 29, no. 1 (1998):93–107, p. 95.

    [20] Judith Butler makes us see this point clearly when she says in the context of feminist debates: 'The theories of feminist identity that elaborate predicates of color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and able-bodiedness invariably close with an embarrassed "etc." at the end of the list. Through this horizontal trajectory of adjectives, these positions strive to encompass a situated subject, but invariably fail to be complete. This failure…is a sign of exhaustion as well as of the illimitable process of signification itself. It is the supplément, the excess that necessarily accompanies any effort to posit identity once and for all.' Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 182–3.

    [21] Sangari and Vaid, 'Introduction,' in Recasting Women, p. 5.

    [22] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 193.

    [23] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 192.

    [24] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 120.

    [25] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 120.

    [26] Deshpande, That Long Silence, p. 192.

    [27] I use the term 'embedded imagination' here, without the connotations of Romantic notions of creativity, to suggest a strategy which, through details of everyday practices, routine, mundane, particular stories engages with the issues of collective identity, which under modernity happens to be 'nation'; images of nation are embedded in the ordinariness of lives in a novel like That Long Silence.

Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 19 April 2010

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.