Year of first publication: 2001
Sumi is sitting on the couch watching television, when her husband Gopal, instead of sitting beside her like he has always done, chooses an armchair. He tells her that he's leaving her. The television in the meantime is still showing a ridiculous clown and the circus. Sumi is left with three daughters to look after and she cannot pay the rent of her flat alone, so she decides to go back to her parents' home. The tensions in the family grow, even though everyone tries to help and cheer Sumi up. Aru, Sumi's older daughter, is particularly angry at her father for leaving them without giving an explanation. Gopal in the meantime is living with one of his former students and cannot explain, neither to his daughter or his ex-wife, why he has left, if not by telling them that he was not feeling at ease. Little by little, the cracks in the family are revealed: Kalyani, Sumi's mother, hasn't spoken with her husband (who is also her uncle) in thirty years, despite the fact that they live in the same house. Sumi reflects on the fact that that kumkum on the forehead of a woman means everything in their society. Separated from her husband, she feels discriminated, to the point of fearing for the future of her daughters. Nonetheless Gapal is the real protagonist of the story: he is the one who reflects on the pain of living and puzzles over the meaning of ancient Hindu texts. Deshpande gives Gopal a level of introspection that usually women writers reserve for female characters. He is present and absent at the same time: the novel begins with Gopal and ends with Gopal, but "formally" the main characters are all women.
Deshpande's style lacks that strand of exoticism so easily found in Indian novels in English. It is not the kind of novel where spices are always being crushed and mixed while the characters explain what a puja is. Those elements are in there, but they are treated as daily routine and mixed up with Aru's moped or with the printing company giving shelter to Gopal. Dehspande is a "home-grown writer", because she has never studied or lived abroad. Her background doesn't include literature studies, so her writing is not an exercise in style but a way of expressing her feelings and thoughts. I'll quote a passage from Ritu Menon's foreword to the novel that explains it all:
‘Deshpande is quite clear that, for her, finding her own voice meant not just a woman’s voice but a literary voice of her own: no magic realism, no concessions to “marketability”, no themes or situations that pander to a so-called Western audience, no adapting her style to what a target readership might prefer. One will not find in her novels any element of the “exotic”, a National Geographic-land-and-its-people kind of treatment of the unfamiliar. Rather than serve up a dish that experiments with the spices of the Orient, Deshpande assumes her readers’ familiarity with the everyday ingredients of her offerings, relying upon their fresh, home-cooked flavor to have readers asking for more. Her writing style is marked by an absence of flamboyant or literary flourish. Nor does she beguile us with a Merchant Ivory-like gloss on “Indian Culture.” So, she has never, for example, felt any disjunction between her social self and her literary self, of the kind that critics have noted in other women writers writing in English’
Deshpande allows herself many references to the Indian epic tales, as a guide to follow or a path to avoid. This gives an indefinite aura to the novel, because the meaning of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are complicated and apt to personal reshaping, sometimes radical reshapings and appropriations.
It has been said that Deshpande rewrites the same novel over and over. Her fictions in fact often begin with a married woman going back to her parents' household and goes on with family secrets being slowly revealed. In spite of this, it is a writer Ifing myself often going back to, for her complex, insightful thoughts of what it means to be a woman or what it means to be living in this world.
Read also my review of Deshpande's "The Dark Holds No Terrors"(in Italian).