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Saturday, April 14, 2012
Star Books Review

The illusion of happiness

Nausheen Rahman studies the travails of women

Anything to do with women's dilemmas immediately takes on an intriguing quality for most of us women. Women in any part of the globe are worth studying, knowing more about. Women in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, in particular, have so much to say (or hide), and there are many ways of looking at their views (or silences).

Jaya, the protagonist in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence, starts her story in a bitter and cynical way: "To achieve anything, to become anything, you've got to be hard and ruthless". Jaya is a writer who compares the process of writing to childbirth as she "struggles for words". For the first time, she finds it hard to express herself through her writing as this story is of her and Mohan, her husband. She says, "You can never be the heroine of your own story. Self-revelation is a cruel process. The real picture, the real 'you' never emerges". So, she decides not to write from the "inside", but to see herself and those in her life, from a distance.

What ensues is a sincerely and candidly told tale. She says she had lived with the illusion of happiness, yet frequently felt that family life was unbearable; the sameness of the days had made her wish for something drastic to happen. But life had remained dull and placid ---- until the sudden bolt of lightning that falls on her and her family.

As the story unfolds, we get glimpses of Jaya's relationships: with her spouse, her parents, her children and her other relatives. It appears that she had stopped talking about herself at a young age, and now, after the incident that has turned her life upside down, she is attempting to break that "long silence" via her writing.

Jaya is totally unprepared for the shocking news that her husband has been involved in corruption at his workplace. This jolt has the effect of taking her back into the past, a past that includes her restrictive childhood and her marriage (which is seventeen years old). Reflections of difficult times with her husband, as well as with her son and daughter (both teenagers), force her to confront the truths in her life.

One of the first things Jaya feels after knowing about the mess their life is in, is that all four of them should commit suicide (to escape the shame). Mohan, of course, totally rejects the idea. Jaya's caustic words give us a clear picture of their marital life: "Could we have come to such a decision without squabbling? We,who could not even decide upon a meal or a movie without bickering ---- could we have chosen death in such harmony?"

Jaya had fallen in with Mohan's plans of what to do while the investigation was going on(as she was wont to do). She thinks Sita, Savitri and Draupadi had all done the same. Besides, opposition would have been more difficult. Jaya and Mohan decided to retreat into an old flat of theirs until the matter died down. There, Jaya comes to the conclusion that "the ghost most difficult to confront is the ghost of one's own self". The sudden change of lifestyle brings on feelings of confusion, regret and helplessness. As Jaya goes over moments and incidents of her life, she comes face to face with her own self: " The nothingness of what had seemed a busy and full life was frightening ---- and yet I had a curious sense of freedom".

Realization dawns on Jaya in bits and pieces as she mulls over her life and relationships. The character of Kamat, and Jaya's relationship with him, are described in a subtle way----and we are left feeling that not just us, even Jaya does not fully understand it for what it actually was. Kamat has been dead for some time. Jaya's sense of propriety and the seriousness with which she took her role as Mohan's wife, had come in the way of her friendship with Kamat: " I suddenly realized ---- it was not Mohan but marriage that had made me circumspect".

Traumatic experiences in Jaya's life, like her father's suddenly passing away, her mother's selling off their home (without telling her anything), Kamat's unexpected death, her husband's being implicated in fraud, are described with admirable starkness. As she strives to write her story, Jaya acknowledges, "But in this life itself there are ao many crossroads, so many choices". She recalls reading about Krishna's advice to Arjuna: "I have given you knowledge. Now you make the choice. The choice is yours. Do as you desire". Attempting to be honest and objective, Jaya also remembers what Daniel Defoe ("that old puritan") had said: "Fiction is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart at which by degrees a habit of lying enters it".

The book ends with Jaya's accepting the fact that people don't change overnight, maybe not even over long periods of time, but they can always hope ---- without which life would not be possible. She says, "And if there is anything I know now it is this: life has always to be made possible"

This passionate yet somehow dispassionately written novel,\is about a woman's trying to come to terms with realities ---- one of which is her real self.

Nausheen Rahman studied English literature at Dhaka University and is a teacher and critic.

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