Book Review : Shashi Deshpande

Ships that Pass

Shashi Deshpande

Raintree Publications

Pages 136

Indian born Peter Sarstedt’s    iconic song “Where do you go to my lovely, when you’ re alone in your bed.”  made it to the  UK’s number 1 single in 1969. Veteran novelist Shashi Deshpande’s haunting new book makes one remember the apt lyrics.   Because that’s what  the protagonist’s sister, Tara’s alleged suicide is about. Literature, film, music have explored themes around people with ghosts in their heads. Take Hollywood films like Daniel Sackheim’s  `The Glasshouse’ (2001),  and the superb Ingrid Bergman starrer `Gaslight’ (1944).  Like the consummate artiste she is, Deshpande  too digs deep  into the inner recesses of  the mind where only intrepid authors choose to go. This crime thriller hinges around a mind-game played out between Tara and her husband Shaan as narrated by Radhika . The surface  shimmers with what lurks beneath.

In `Ships that Pass’  Deshpande  explores the nature of grief in the voice of Radhika, younger sister of the much loved and admired  Tara or Akka.  Grief can tear relationships apart, sometimes degenerating into a tortuous blame game.  Tara’s marriage to  sweetheart Shaan or Shantanu, begins to fall apart when their daughter Geetu dies of leukemia.  Shaan writes to Radhika to visit to ease the pain.  “It’s Tara. She’s not well, her arthritis is much worse yet she won’t see a doctor, she won’t let me tell you people about it, she won’t let me help her.”  And Radhika obliges only to begin to see through the chinks of their marriage. Further mystery comes from Tara’s relationship to Dr. Ram Mohan, and  Shaan’s with young widow,  Rohini, till Tara’s assumed  suicide and Shaan incarceration in prison for murder. But  am I  giving anything away?  No, for the novella begins with the death and prison sentence.

Radhika moves from being a silly young graduate looking for an escape from making weighty life decisions by going through the motions of an arranged match, “ Get cracking…” she tells her father. “get the horoscopes, the gotras, or whatever is needed” ( short listing Ghanshyam (GS))— to a shift in perception.  She finally understands the somberness of such decisions, of what they can turn into. The novella is almost like a Reader on marriage for adolescents about to take the plunge. Radhika soon realizes her choices to be superficial.

To an older  generation for whom arranged marriages seldom raised such weighty questions of compatibility etc.,  compared  to today’s youth  where `options’ have opened up, this is a telling/teaching novel for both parents and modern progeny.  Deshpande,  no stranger to exploring intimate relationships  answers some queries, but some crucial ones  she leaves out, leaving the reader asking for a little more.

The  novella takes its nomenclature from a quote by poet H.W. Longfellow, which  is a bit baffling. Yet on deeper thought it seems to be a metaphor on marriage. Deshpande  says she initially wrote this as a series for the `Eve’s Weekly’ women’s magazine in 1980 and the characters stayed in her mind.  Crime always fascinated her, because as she says “The mystery of the human mind remains the greatest mystery of all.” She was compelled to explore the theme more fully.   Her authenticity of voice and superb prose makes the read compelling. But it is definitely not just for the light-hearted as the blurb `crime thriller’ suggests.

Deshpande’s  oevre includes critically acclaimed novels such as `The Dark holds no Terrors’, `Country of Deceit’, `Small Remedies’. For `That Long Silence’  she was  recognized with the Sahitya Academi Award. Despite this, she remains one of India’s most understated feminist writers. Padma Shri anyone?

Manju Kak   

A shorter version of this book review was published in India Today, here.