Uncategorized

09/01/2011 ~ “Spanking Words” ~ Roselyn D’Mello

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/4633-spanking-words.html

… Steer clear
of the opaque. Quirkiness is useful,
so is translucence. Spank
words carefully. Include
lots of skin, mouth,
tongue. However aesthetic
breasts work the best. Linger.


In her poem ‘How to Write Erotica’, Nitoo Das comes exactingly close to articulating what it is about the genre that makes it so coveted and yet so controversial, and most of all so elusive. Contrary to popular belief, a thick barrier lined with barbed wire separates erotica from pornography. If ‘pornography is the attempt to insult sex,’ as D H Lawrence suggested in his essay ‘On Pornography’, erotica is the attempt to celebrate its roots – desire. The two genres are motivated by entirely different impulses, but it is the degree to which the act of sex is alluded that demarcates the boundaries.

If there is still any confusion, the simplest rule of thumb is the level of facility it takes to dabble in either genre. Place a camera mechanically in front of a masturbating woman and you have pornography. Instead, document the sensation, the rush of blood from clitoris to head as she writhes and combusts and swims in wave after ecstatic wave until her lips contort into an open mouth, until the quivering ceases after the final gasp, the penultimate sigh. Erotica is what you will have produced. Pornography is a cakewalk. It does not necessitate the use of one’s imagination. But to write a single line of erotica from scratch, you must first create the universe.

That is precisely what Urmilla Deshpande seems to have done in Slither, her collection of erotic stories published by Tranquebar. The cover defines this body of work as ‘carnal prose’, and with every story a new dimension of this secret universe of flesh and fire unravels. The atmosphere is dense with alternating layers of desire and desperation: a single fertile river that runs underground and bifurcates into diverse streams of consciousness, infusing and irrigating everything it encompasses with passion and intrigue. The landscape is peopled with characters who live ordinary lives and who dabble routinely with the mundane, but who experience the world in all its sensual glory. But Deshpande’s true genius lies in her ability to play with the texture of language, to ‘spank words carefully’ and to create a dialogue between touch and the sensation of that touch – and, often, the longing for it. And finally, her capacity to linger in the afterglow of language so that what arouses the reader is not merely the quirkiness of the situation at hand but the symphony that her words conduct.

For instance, the title story is not so much about sex; the focus is on the impassioned lack of it. A woman of indefinite age tells us about her botanist husband, who is more aroused by Amazon gingers than her. She rants:

And still I loved his hands. I wonder what it is about him that rejects me over and over. It is not that he does not look at me. But it is not with the eyes of a lover that he sees me. It is with the eyes of a botanist. He sees my eyes – humans have two, plants none, so perhaps they do not impress him, though they are, I am told, fine eyes. He touches my skin, but with his fingertips, not his whole hands, through my clothes, not with the delight of knowing I’m right there below that layer but with some practical purpose – to guide me through some forest path perhaps, or stop me as he did that day to watch those snakes. He even lays with me, often enough that I would not notice this disinterest, but not often enough that I felt elevated above Amazon gingers.

The 18 stories spread over nearly 300 pages embody a range of characters who are, more often than not, of Indian descent, though not always located in India. Among the most notable we have the botanist’s wife, who finds herself seduced by a village chief in a village along the foothills of the Himalaya; an emotionally unavailable taxidermist who finds herself attracted to another emotionally unavailable person; a member of a family of spirits who can enter and control people’s bodies, a village girl who grows up to be an internationally acclaimed swimmer and who is desperate to lose her virginity and finally does so – at 50.

‘Goblin Market,’ Deshpande’s retelling of the eponymous poem by Christina Rosetti, is easily the most subversive. Here, the two sisters Lizzie and Laura are lovers, and the goblins in question are ravaging beasts with the power to corrupt one’s innocence.

Laura could not resist the smell of the fruit, and the goblins licking them off her, off her breasts, biting and sucking and grabbing her, and then off her cunt, they gathered around it like creatures at a watering hole, lapping, sucking, squealing and pushing each other, fighting for the juices that flowed from her.

‘Isis’ and ‘Slight Return’ are the two other strongest stories. In ‘Isis’, the narrator, a young writer, gets increasingly obsessed with the title character, a yesteryears actress whom he would keep hearing about through his grandfather, who always speaks of her lustfully. He decides to write a book based on her and finally meets this almost mythical figure, finding himself further intrigued by her grace, her beauty and her missing eye. ‘Slight Return’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful story about Suman, a middle-aged woman and victim of a bad marriage, who finds herself transfixed as she chances upon her daughter clandestinely making love to her boyfriend in the dark. Her reaction is not one of horror or shame; instead, given her own negative sexual history and her experience with rape victims and prostitutes, she finds herself strangely appreciative of her daughter’s sexuality and her ability to articulate it. The act of looking is not voyeuristic; rather, it is tempered by tenderness and wisdom.

Each story in the collection has a personality of its own. Despite the phenomenal range and variety of the plots, you find yourself relating to and remembering the context of each narrative. Moreover, there is a dexterous quality to the language, a stylistic flexibility. Deshpande juggles different techniques of narration, from first-person to third, and each voice is unique so there is no room for repetition or monotony. This is a commendable feat considering what are, in this reviewer’s opinion, the limitations of the vocabulary of the English language, particularly when it comes to describing either sex
or intimacy.

Holy well
While the Subcontinent has a rich history of erotica, most of the pre-modern erotic writing by women has been within the domain of the devotional, by Bhakti women poets like Meera and Akka Mahadevi, the 12th-century saint from Karnataka. Given this history, erotica by contemporary Indian women writers could be read in the same vein as casual sex, an indulgence, writing for pleasure, which is precisely why the Indian moral brigade got its panties in a twist when writers such as Kamala Das started to write the way she did, irreverently and indulgently focusing on her erotic self. Erotica continues to be a controversial genre, which explains most women’s preference for adopting pseudonyms. While it is acceptable for men to brag about their sexual exploits, it is still taboo for women writers. The few women who do, usually hesitate to sign their real names to their writing.

Writers who so much as hint at being sexually experienced – such as Meena Kandasamy, who openly writes about the experience of being Dalit and a woman, and Mridula Garg – often have to bear the brunt of moral hypocrisy. Writing erotica comes at the price of one’s reputation. Ruchir Joshi’s introduction to Electric Feather is testimony. Joshi explains the difficulty he experienced in soliciting stories. ‘One senior Indian writer, who writes brilliant erotics, disdained to even answer my email. Three others did variations of sputtering into their beer, “Me write porn for you!?! No fucking way!” and promptly crossed their legs, all three. One star of the firmament smiled very sweetly and said, “If I find the time, I’ll certainly think about it.”’

Deshpande is possibly the first contemporary Indian author in English to publish a collection of stories devoted entirely to the erotic. In the last two years, though, a host of writers, particularly women, have been appropriating the space of the erotic. Most significant among them is the young provocative and award-winning M Svairini, who writes the rather risqué blog, ‘The Bottom Runs the Fuck’, and who recently published a piece in The First Post in defence of a ‘Masturbat-a-thon’. In a monologue titled ‘Kaliyuga Yoni’, which was originally written to be performed as part of ‘Yoni Ki Baat’, an ensemble show conceived along the lines of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, Svairini’s narrator personifies her vagina and simultaneously takes a stand on the much-debated issue about the use of the word cunt or even vagina in erotica.

She [my vagina] doesn’t like the word yoni; in English, it sounds spiritual and soft, new agey, shallow as a henna tattoo.

She prefers cunt, as in wet cunt, nasty cunt, naughty cunt, bad cunt, good cunt, beautiful cunt. Cunt from the Sanskrit word for well, or spring, a deep source: kund, as in kundalini. As in the word for menstrual blood: kundapushpa, flower of the holy well. Red Violent. The taste of birth and death, of origins.

Svairini is also a prominent member of an interesting online collective of Southasian writers that calls itself ‘Shameless Yonis’. Other members include Kama Spice, writer of an erotic trilogy, Kessa’s Pride and Sehra’s Honour and Tia’s War, based in a world where people shape-shift between being human and feline. Aisha Nayar, Sabah Guille and Sheherzade are the other permanent members of the collective. Every month, the blog (www.shamelessyonis.wordpress.com) features a guest writer who similarly pushes the genre to new and exciting heights.

As more and more publishers are waking up to the marketing potential of the erotica genre, more and more women are waking up to its capacity for subversion – this is especially so given the recent success of the Slut Walk phenomenon, with urban women becoming increasingly comfortable expressing their right to pleasure. Not only does it arouse and titillate, erotica also seems to offer women space to either articulate or satisfy desire, while answering 20th-century French feminist Helene Cixous’s revolutionary call to women to ‘write their bodies’.

~ Roselyn D’Mello is a journalist and writer in Delhi.

08.22.2011 ~ Slither review

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

http://thebookloversreview.blogspot.com/2011/08/review-slither.html

 


This is going to be a really short post but wanted to review this book simply because it is a ‘hatke’ book on a topic which we Indians talk about only in a hush hush, conspiratorial way. This is a book of short stories that are erotic in nature with the undercurrent of carnality.

The author in her acknowledgement says that this book was the result of a challenge from her editor friend and goes on to candidly admits that the book was uncomfortable to write but at the same time also empowering and liberating.
Fair enough. So I started to read but some stories down I could figure why writing stories like this is a tough ask. Stories were great but after a point I struggled to finish the book, not because of the writing let me be clear, but the subject. There is only so much one can read about slithering bodies, sex et al..you get the drift?
Maybe I am in minority where my reasons are concerned, but kudos to the author for taking up this challenge and doing full justice to it.
So if this genre interests you do pick up the book!

 

 

 

 

08.08.2011 ~ Tranquebar blog

Monday, August 8th, 2011

http://tranquebarindia.wordpress.com/

 

8.01.2011 ~ Mail Today, New Delhi, Sunday

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Mail Today, New Delhi, Sunday, July 31, 2011: Between the Lines by Insiya Amir

Carnal prose is not the same as writing about sex

IT SPEAKS volumes about a writer who “came up against the poverty of the English sex vocabulary” and still wrote 100,000 words for the erotic genre. But Urmilla Deshpande’s Slither (Tranquebar, Rs.250) is not just stories about sex. Desire, at its carnal best, manifests many forms in Deshpande’s short stories. If ‘Isis’ is about a young writer’s obsession with a long-retired actress — poignantly proving that sex is what happens between the ears — then ‘Slight Return’ is about an almost-40 woman who barely had a sexual life. “I go where a situation or character lead me. Many of these stories reveal my influences. I wish it were Austen and Shakespeare, but sometimes comics or a child’s poem live in you. In ‘Goblin Market’, and ‘Malekh’, this is overtly visible. But explorations, they may be more subconscious than conscious. I just let it happen. ‘Letting’ is often the hardest part,” says Deshpande, who has also written A Pack of Lies, which, through the protagonist, Ginny, examines the ruthless and unlikely life of Mumbai in the eighties. While Ginny explores divorce, incest, friendship and sexuality, Slither is more definitively ‘carnal prose’. “Having written a book or two, I know it takes honesty and fearlessness. Writing sex is even harder: you have to squash inhibitions — sexual and social ones. You have to allow characters to act in ways they would act. You cannot think about judgment. If you care about that, better not choose this subject, or write at all,” says Deshpande, who questions whether there is a benchmark that writing about sex has to achieve.

Despite the fact that there is actually an award for Bad Sex in Fiction — whose recipients include John Updike (Lifetime Achievement), Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe — Deshpande says that writing about sex is in itself a mature thing to do. “Is there a benchmark that writers have to get to? Writers write what they know, and imagine. My mother, for example, wrote frankly about sexuality, in Marathi. I can’t judge the state or maturity of Indian, or any writing about sex. I guess when sexuality comes of age, writing will too, if, as you say, it hasn’t already,” explaining that it may be the reader who needs to ‘come of age’. “We connect with sexuality much more than— say police procedurals. So we judge this writing differently, less impersonally,” she says. Some explanation, says Deshpande, may also lie in the language itself. “There are medical words, or pornography. I appropriated the word cunt from the porn vocabulary, a misogynist vocabulary. I hope I’ve taken the sting out of it, imbued it with some affection, and sweetness,” she says.

Despite literary criticism in general claiming that most sex writing fails, Deshpande thinks otherwise: “Fail is a strong word, implying that all sex writing is unsuccessful. I wouldn’t paint all sex writing with the broad brush of failure. Perhaps though, this dissatisfaction with sex writing hints at our success or failure at sex itself — we write about it uneasily, we read about it even less easily, maybe it means we’re just not good at sex. Maybe we’re better at murder. Writing about murder is very mature isn’t it?”

7.29.2011 ~ Reviews: love and hate for ‘Slither’

Friday, July 29th, 2011

http://www.timeoutmumbai.net/books/book_review_details.asp?code=495

Carnal prose. Those two words on the cover of Urmilla Deshpande’s Slither may draw you to pick up the book. But a few paragraphs into this collection of short stories, you realise that there is much more to the book than erotica. Deshpande could well lay claim to a genre of her own – carnal noir.

The stories go beyond the sexual. Some are dark and mysterious in their thoughts, others are warped in their actions. Those expecting amorous reading may be a tad disappointed but those who persevere will be richly rewarded with the complexity of each story. The copulatory imagery is just a garnish on the prose that delves deep into the human psyche. The layers peel to reveal to the reader what each protagonist feels: shame, anger, jealousy, even confusion as their bodies seek out ways to satiate sexual urges.

The piece titled “dUI” is an excellent play on a coincidence that leads a man and woman to a place of “gentle blood and gentle love”, while “Isis” explores an inherited lust where a young man salivates over a has-been porn star only to discover her best co-star was his grandfather. In “Beyond the Pale”, an albino looks for colour in her life. She finds it only when she draws blood from her husband. You feel strangely sympathetic and see her as a victim and killer.

French impressionist Paul Gauguin’s 1897 masterpiece Nevermore O Tahiti, of a nude basking in seemingly post-coital glow is the front cover, setting the mood for the raw emotions that copulate with the strange circumstances within the collection. You want to know what the protagonists of each story did and why they did when they did. The author is not voyeuristic and her writing balances eroticism with sensitivity. Urmilla Deshpande’s prose seduces the reader’s mind. Karuna John

http://www.deccanchronicle.com/channels/lifestyle/books/slither-sex-menu-177

How many authors of Indian origin would gladly choose the subject? And a book of short stories it is, too. Having attempted to write romantic scenes in fiction, and knowing how tough it is to describe the details of an embrace, let alone osculation or for that matter sex, I knew that Slither: Carnal Prose by Urmilla Deshpande either had to be hugely wonderful or poetic smut.

Poetic because Indians excel in what I call the Wannabe Rabindranath Tagore-style essay writing — descriptive, rhythmical but still a load of convoluted balderdash. And smut because the protagonist and the man she is attracted to are watching a pair of snakes in a “loveknot”, “wrapped around each other, an elaborate motion of sinew and sex… time meant nothing, not to them, not to me…”
I groaned when I read this on the very second page.

How does she know what the snakes are feeling, if at all? Will one have to endure more voyeuristic scenes? Will they get better or just put you off sex for a while?

Yes, there are more instances throughout the book. Suman watched Biren “put his hands on her naked bottom, one on each side”, the ‘her’ here being Suman’s daughter. Suman is watching her daughter “making little sounds like a kitten, and still giggling”.

Oh spare me the bad marriage debate which stops Suman from reacting. If she stays to watch her school-going daughter make love to her boyfriend, and in graphic detail, it teeters on that precarious line that could be called smut.

The language of the stories — if you wish to call these episodes of sexual writing that — is so flowery and repetitive, you feel compelled to put down the book more than once. In fact, the words are cloying and claustrophobic so you don’t realise that there is not much of a story in it. Much like pornography that masks its explicit content by attempting to weave a story in the whole shebang. What was amusing to note is that the tone of voice in every story is the same, and I found myself saying, “what the hell?”

upon discovering that the protagonist is a man. The imagery or the sexual metaphor is a joke because it doesn’t really grow beyond “bananas” and “shaft”. Yes, it is a bold move indeed to choose to write carnal prose, but if the language of these stories is a cure for insomnia, and the characters do not evoke an iota of empathy, then the experimentation is a failure.

As a fan-girl of Jack Murnighan, who dissects and offers infinitely sane advice to writers on all matters of sex, I can safely say that writing in Slither does not turn you on. It is just writing about sex, woven in almost Victorian floral patterns that rely on breathy repetitiveness.

Instead of lying back and letting imagination run riot when you read the stories, you lie down and promptly fall asleep. This are very tedious tales of sex wrapped in old fashioned lace ripped off your granny’s bloomers, and just as passionless. And yes, the five marks for attempting carnal prose, stay.

Manisha Lakhe is the author of The Betelnut Killers

7.18.2011 ~ Jai Arjun Singh reviews Slither

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Jai Arjun Singh – I would have been happy for even a bad review from him. I have been reading his reviews for a long time, so it makes me very pleased that he even read Slither, let alone that he actually enjoyed some of it!

Link to his own blog Jabberwock (lots of gyre and gimble there!)

http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/ 

and here’s the whole review:

Spirit and flesh: on Urmilla Deshpande’s carnal prose

[Did a version of this for the Sunday Guardian]
It’s often said that Indian authors aren’t good at writing about sex – that they get self-conscious, or struggle to find the balance between biological descriptiveness and subtle, feather-touch erotica. Actually, the existence of the international Bad Sex Award – which has been thrown at such notable writers as John Updike, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe – suggests that awkward sex writing is a universal phenomenon. (The sole Indian winner of the prize so far is Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13, with its analogies involving Bugattis and Volkswagens: “She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high.”) But I admit that my initial reaction on coming across Urmilla Deshpande’s Slither was to be impressed that an Indian writer has even attempted a collection of “carnal prose” (as the subtitle puts it).
Once I began reading the book, I was pleased to find that not only is much of the sex writing here quite good, but also that the stories show imagination and variety. Sexual passion, in its many forms, plays a central role throughout, but these are also searching narratives about other aspects of the human experience: loss, insecurity, nostalgia, generational and cultural gaps.
One of Deshpande’s strengths is that she can bring a strong – and unexpected – charge even to seemingly mundane incidents, such as a woman and her mother-in-law chatting with each other while being measured for blouses by an old, half-blind family tailor. Or the same mother-in-law matter-of-factly saying that her aged husband acquires a temporary libido once a year, “usually after a wedding, when he has seen all you girls and your raw-mango breasts, and imagined everything that is going on in the nuptial bed”.
Like many short-story collections, Slither has its hits and misses, but the high points are very strong. In one of the best pieces, “Isis”, a young writer becomes infatuated with a long-retired movie siren; as his loins are stirred by a woman old enough to be his grandmother (and by talk of the effect she used to have on men in her heyday), we are reminded that sexual desire is as much a matter of imagination as of naked flesh. At the same time, other stories provide counterpoints to Isis’s feral, age-defying sexuality. Suman, the protagonist of “Slight Return”, is barely forty but she has never really had a sexual life at all – even her visits to her (male) gynecologist, she reflects, were warmer and more fulfilling than her emotionless trysts with her husband. When she accidentally sees her 16-year-old daughter making love with a boyfriend, she thinks about her own life and the many taboos she grew up with. But she has also accumulated life experiences that allow her to be accepting of her daughter’s sexuality: having done social work with rape victims-turned-prostitutes, she knows about women who never even had a choice in these matters. I thought the contrast between Suman’s wisdom and her private sense of desolation and discomfort was very well expressed.
The stories that didn’t work for me are the ones – like the stream-of-consciousness narrative “dUI” – where the prose becomes overly turgid and self-indulgent. (“What purpose has coincidence? To dam two streams into a single flow, to stroke an eager cock, suck a succulent nipple, arch the long back of a long torso in the moment of the end of the scene?”) But it feels churlish to criticise a writer for taking risks or for reaching beyond the confines of straightforward narrative storytelling, and I admired at least the intent and ambition behind some of the more experimental pieces such as “Goblin Market”, which is a revisiting of Christina Rosetti’s controversial, symbolism-laden 19th century poem. (Writing this story appears to have been a form of catharsis for Deshpande, who says she was haunted by Rosetti’s work for years.)
I was also amused by Deshpande mentioning, in her acknowledgements, that much of this book was written in a decidedly unsexy setting – during a family Christmas in Canada. “I often found myself in a roomful of nieces and nephews and in-laws and sisters, typing carnal prose into my laptop while eating and drinking whatever was handed to me … tea or coffee, turkey-and-cranberry sauce, bhel, chicken curry.” It reminded me of the caricature of the phone-sex worker who is really a slovenly, middle-aged housewife in a low-rent apartment, going about her daily chores even as her husky voice inflames her callers’ imaginations. As they say, it’s mostly between the ears.

6/23/2011~ Carnal prose is (not) read on Mumbai trains!

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

http://www.mumbaimirror.com/article/45/20110623201106230412498293b8c407c/Ideal-commuter-reading.html

Eunice d’Souza advises against reading this on the daily commute… and says the book takes itself very, very seriously. Again I learn, once I write it and send it out in the world, a book will do what it pleases. Like take itself very, very seriously!

3/31/2011 ~ Gauri Deshpande: A Distinctive Voice

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

A friend sent us this link. The text is here, but can be seen in the Sparrow Newsletter Number 14. (Thank you Imran)

http://sparrowonline.org/newsletter.htm

In Marathi or in English, in person or in print, the prolific poet, fiction-writer, and translator Gauri Deshpande (1942-2003)has a distinctive voice: strongly feminist, wryly humorous—usually at her own  expense, confident yet self-critical, irreverent yet steeped in tradition, cosmopolitan yet grounded in her love for language and place. No matter who or where her audience is, she is bound to challenge their assumptions, producing both discomfort and delight.

In 1993, as a postgraduate student preparing with trepidation for our first meeting at the University of Poona’s English Department, where she was teaching postgraduate courses, I carefully donned a traditional Pune sari to meet the daughter of the illustrious anthropologist Iravati Karve and the granddaughter of the illustrious social reformer D.K. Karve. To my embarrassed surprise, a tall, lanky, imperious-looking woman dressed in torn trousers came striding toward me and grasped my hand in a firm handshake. We became friends quickly, thanks to her openness and generosity, and my husband, son, and I have fond memories of our visits to her house during our stay in Pune, as we all ate and talked non-stop, and played fast and furiously competitive card games (the game of “Running Demons” I shall forever associate with Gauri Deshpande) with her and her daughters, son-in-law, and grandsons. Back in the United States a decade later when I heard the sad news of her untimely death, I could hardly imagine returning to Pune without her there.

While Gauri Deshpande was unquestionably one of the most important and innovative writers in contemporary Marathi literature, and was well-known and respected throughout India and among scholars of Maharashtra, she began her career writing well-received poetry in English. She published three collections with the Calcutta Writers Workshop and edited a collection of Indian poetry in English in the late sixties and early seventies, but then switched over to writing fiction in Marathi and made her name with her novellas and her translations. At the time of her death in 2003 she was relatively unknown beyond India; however, that was changing, since her work in English had been gaining greater exposure throughout the 1990s. One of her Marathi stories was translated into English and anthologized in the important two-volume Women Writing in India published in 1993, and her first collection of short stories in English, The Lackadaisical Sweeper, was published in 1997. Several of her important Marathi-English translations were also published or re-issued in the late 1980s and 1990s, including Sumitra Bhave’s Pan on Fire: Eight Dalit Women Tell their Story (1988), Jayawant Dalvi’s searing social critique, Chakra: a novel (1974, 1993), and Sunita Deshpande’s …and Pine for What is Not (1995), a controversial memoir by the wife and secretary of the popular Marathi playwright P.L. Deshpande.

Like Gauri Deshpande herself, her stories confound readerly expectations—whether the readers are Indians or non-Indians— of Indian society, and specifically of women, and the stories are often profoundly unsettling, jarring the reader out of complacency. In addition, they continually shift perspective, from India to the United States and back, from gender to caste-class, from mother to daughter, from the rational to the emotional, from the abstractly philosophical to the earthily physical, and back again. Further, the categories themselves are unsettled, as women resist femininity, Indians refuse to behave in a stereotypically “Indian” manner, and the direction of global flows are reversed, as Americans migrate to India and become entirely assimilated.

In That’s the Way It Is (Ahe he ase ahe), the story published in Women Writing in India, the utterly rationalist first-person narrator gains a new perspective on herself at middle age, in a chance meeting with an old friend, an American long-settled in India. As she goes literally and figuratively to buy glasses to correct her far-sightedness, she discovers that she has understood nothing at all of life and love. When her friend observes, “You really do need glasses to see up close” (475), his comment prompts a shift in perspective, as the narrator, remembering so many incidents in the past, realizes that he has loved her silently ever since their childhood, while she has remained oblivious. “And suddenly, I saw…I was all wrong; I had missed my way in life. My constant arrogant insistence— “What I say is right!”— had kept me from knowing what is was that others understood about life. I didn’t let myself know. All this”. This capacity to be at once opinionated and self-critical is typical of Gauri Deshpande’s writing.

In the title story of The Lackadaisical Sweeper, two newlywed upper-middle-class wives, one Indian, the other American, stationed in Hong Kong with their businessman-husbands, meet and become friends as they take their daily morning walks. At first the American woman appears to be stereotypically brash and self-involved, the young Indian woman (aptly named Seeta) equally stereotypically meek and submissive. However, the Indian wife’s unquestioning submissiveness to her husband’s demands leads her to betray her American friend’s open confidences about her husband’s business dealings. Learning from Seeta that her American friend and her husband are Jewish, Seeta’s businessman-husband is able to use anti-Semitism and his wife’s inside information to force the couple to flee the country, grabbing their real-estate holdings just as the property market is booming. The reader’s disgust shifts from the uninhibited sex talk of the American woman to the unethical behaviour of the Indian woman. And then, in a characteristic shift, Gauri Deshpande gives a silent, sullen street sweeper the last word. Every morning the American woman has greeted him as they pass him on their morning walks, trying in vain to elicit a response from him. In the closing scene, Seeta greets him and he answers back, to her delight, though she understands nothing of what he has said. In her parting shot, Deshpande leaves us with a view from below: “It was fortunate that she did not know Cantonese”. Wealthy, sheltered Seeta’s naiveté does not excuse her from complicity with her husband’s land-grab plot, neither does it excuse her total ignorance of the sweeper’s point of view. The reader is left pondering the sweeper’s judgment of Seeta, who may be a virtuous Indian wife, but is not a good human being.

In Map, a tribute to Edward Said, a middle-aged woman reclaims her body as her own territory after a love affair has ended. The story draws upon the postcolonial critique of colonial thought as a gendered discourse that designates the colonised as female, a blank canvas passively desiring to be conquered and mapped. Her ex-lover was the colonial explorer cartographer, drawing the map of her body in his own, exoticised terms. As in Edward Said’s Orientalism, where the “Orient” as represented by the European Orientalism bears no resemblance to actuality, but is a projection, a “will-to-power”, of Europe itself, in Deshpande’s story,the female first-person narrator now recognises “that the me in his mind had nothing to do with the me in my mind”. Taking pleasure in self-discovery at last, she declares, “it’s my body now and my map”.

In my view, Gauri Deshpande’s refreshing frankness in discussing the female body and female sexuality is never offensive, because patriarchal representations of women use a language of power and domination, while hers use a language of love and self-acceptance.

In Insy Winsy Spider, another story in the same collection (translated from the Marathi original Bhijata Bhijata Koli, a mother is forced to recognise her daughter’s difference from herself. The mother is a highly-educated professor of Buddhist philosophy, as scholar of the Self who ironically seems to have little self-knowledge. She and her husband, also a philosophy professor who have named their daughter Maitreyi, “to help her on her way to greatness,” are mortified when the daughter announces that she has no interest in studies and is going to get married, without even having done her BA. The next day, as the mother clears her mind to write an academic paper on the development of self-awareness in the ‘self’, the sight of her daughter chopping onions gives her a sudden revelation: while all growing children must learn to differentiate the ‘I’ from the ‘not-I’, she, in her self-involvement, has failed to differentiate herself from her daughter, despite her age and education. Like the spider in the nursery rhyme, climbing back up the water spout, “It was necessary to begin all over again…‘I’ am not this Maitreyi”.

I want to close with a few personal reminiscences of Gauri Deshpande that might shed some light on how her mind worked. With regard to the title of the story, Insy Winsy Spider, she once told me that one of her professors during her postgraduate studies in English literature insisted that his Indian students read English nursery rhymes in order to become as fully immersed in the language as a native speaker. She herself was in complete command of English, confident enough to reshape it in her own image. With regard to her firm commitment to write in Marathi, she once observed with a wry smile how much more money she could be making if she were writing in English. With regard to her exalted caste status and eminent parentage, although she rejected many upper-caste/class social and gender norms, Deshpande loved the language and culture of her community. Talking to fellow-Marathi writer Ambika Sirkar, she once observed sadly that, with the passing of their generation, certain turns of phrase particular to their community would disappear forever. When we visited her in Pune, even as she offered her guests a cold glass of beer, she also offered us a tumblerful of a cooling green mango drink explaining that it had to be drunk at this particular time of year.

As Shanta Gokhale wrote soon after her death, “How could this strapping, handsome, vibrant, gutsy, intense and intellectually passionate woman have just ceased to exist? Gauri had an insatiable zest for living, for experiencing new places and people, for friendship, for loving and giving” (Woman of Substance). As a writer and as a person, Gauri Deshpande has left a gap in English and Marathi fiction and society that is not easily filled.

— Josna Rege

Associate Professor, Department of Languages and Literature, Worcester State College, Worcester, MA, U.S.A.

03/04/2011 ~ New book, soon…

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I just delivered “Slither”, my book of short stories. Westland’s new blog talks about this genre of fiction…

http://tranquebarindia.wordpress.com/

01/22/2011 ~ Jazz and Poetry Symposium II video

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

In April 2010, my dear friend Joseph Hellweg read from A Pack of Lies to the music of the immensely awesome students of the Jazz department at FSU’s music school.