Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence Summary and Analysis

Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence Summary and Analysis

That Long Silence Summary and Analysis

“If I were a man and cared to know the world I lived in, I almost think it would make me a shade uneasy–the weight of that long silence of one-half of the world.”

This statement by Elizabeth Robin forms the epigraph to Shashi Deshpande’s novel. That Long Silence announcing as it were, the intention of this talented contemporary Indian writer to break the long silence that has surrounded women, their experience and their world. For a long time, woman has existed as a gap, as an absence in literature, whether Western or Indian. This is not only true of the fiction created by men, but also by women, who have mostly confined themselves to writing love stories dealing with the experience of women in a superficial manner, creating the same kind of stereotypes of women which they find so reprehensible in the writings of men. Women writers have also often fallen a prey to that prescriptive feminist ideology of creating strong women characters. This doctrine becomes as repressive as the one created by male hegemony and represses the truth about the majority of their sisters and their lives.

Against this backdrop, Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence promises to be a refreshing departure from most of the fiction written by women. Of course, one cannot claim that she is doing anything extraordinarily. We readily recognize the middle class ethos and people that we come across in the novel. The novelist’s contribution lies in the heightened sensitivity and the fresh insights that she brings to bear on the well-known types and situations. The action of the novel is triggered off by a crisis in a middle-class family. Mohan, the narrator’s husband, in this pursuit of prestige and security, had indulged in certain malpractices, as a result of which he now faces an inquiry and may perhaps lose his job. Mohan is advised by Agarwal, his partner in the crime, to stay away from the office and this Churchgate flat till the storm blows over. Luckily for Mohan, the children are away on a tour with their family friends, and it all ends well, they need not even know about this disgrace. Mohan, therefore, decides that he and his wife Jaya would go and stay at the flat in Dadar. This flat had belonged to Jaya’s Maternal uncle. Jaya and Mohan had stayed there before shifting to a bigger flat in Churchgate. Jaya acquiesces to her husband’s decision and accompanies him, albeit in silent resentment, to their present exile at the Dadar flat. It is there, in the intolerable period of waiting and rising hysteria, that the process of self-examination and self-criticism begins for Jaya. She is flooded by the memories of the past-her earlier life, her marriage with Mohan, the frustrations and disappointments in her seventeen-years-old married existence, her personal failure, all these begin to haunt and torment her. By her journey into the past, Jaya gets the guidance for her future. By the end of the novel, the crisis–a mere storm in the tea cup, has been averted and everything outwardly appears to be as it had been, except for what has happened to Jaya. Jaya can no longer be a passive, silent partner to Mohan. The novel ends with her resolve to speak, to break her long silence.

That Long Silence, then traces Jaya’s passage through a plethora of self-doubts, fears, guilt, smothered anger and silence towards articulation and affirmation. Suman Ahuja, while reviewing the novel in the Times of India, observes that Jaya “caught in an emotional eddy, endeavours to come to terms with her protean roles, while trying, albeit in vain, to rediscover her true sell, which is but an ephemera-an unfulfilled wife, a disappointed mother and a failed writer”, Jaya, in fact rejects the patriarchal notion of a unitary self or identity.

Even a casual reading of the novel makes one conscious that Shashi Deshpande is not only writing about her female protagonist, Jaya, who is trying to erase a long silence and grapple with the problems of self-revelation and self-assessment, but through Jaya, also about other women, those unhappy victims who never broke their silence. The author, in the first place, points out how our culture has often kept silent on the subject of women. For instance, at one point in the novel, Jaya discovers that she does not figure in the family tree that her uncle, Ramukaka, had prepared with great pains and of which he was so proud. When Jaya asks her uncle why her name is not included in the family tree, she is given to understand that she now belongs to her husband’s family and not to her father’s. But this is only half of the truth. Neither her mother or her kakis, i.e. her uncle’s wives, not even her grandmother, Ajji, that indomitable woman, “Who single handedly kept the family together, find a place in the family tree. Java, to her dismay, finds that her name and existence, along with those of other women in the family, are completely blotted out of the family history. The novel, as it were, is Jaya’s protest against the kind of treatment that is given to women in our culture and her attempt to give another version of history from women’s point of view.

That Long Silence is also a scathing critique of our social institutions like marriage and family, the way they stifle the growth and free expression of the individual. These institutions put the individuals into the slots like wife, husband, brother, sister, daughter, son, etc, and obstruct the free communication between human beings. This is what happens in Jaya’s relationship with Kamat. Kamat was Jaya’s upstairs neighbour at Dadar. He was a widower and his only son had settled abroad. He was a lonely man and had shown a lot of understanding and sympathy for Jaya. In fact, Jaya was more free and uninhibited with him than she was with her husband. But in our society, this kind of friendship between a married woman and another man is always looked upon with suspicions and disapproval. That is why, perhaps, when Jaya had found Kamat lying dead on the floor of his flat on one of her visits to him, she had panicked and left the place in silence. This incident underlines how marriage often drives people into impossible and awkward situations. Jaya cannot even stay and pay homage to her best friend in his death for the fear of ruining her marriage. She perhaps does her role of a wife to a perfection, but fails as a human being.

Shashi Deshpande employs the first-person narrative and makes her central character Jaya tell her own story. Jaya warns the reader at the very outset that she is not the heroine of her story nor is she talking about her isolated self. One may say that her preoccupations are man-woman relationship, marriage and family life. But the novel avoids the facile solution of putting the blame on man only. Both men and women are products of th.ir culture and victims of the institution of marriage. It is as difficult for women to outgrow the image and roles allotted to them by their society as it is for men. For example, during her first pregnancy, when Jaya suggests to Mohan that he should do the cooking, Mohan is highly amused by the suggestion because he thinks cooking is not a man’s job. Later on, we discover that Jaya also shares her husband’s viewpoint, when she confesses to Kamat that the sight of him doing the cooking made her uneasy as she thought it was unmanly. Like Mohan, she too puts her children into the slots and feels disappointed when they refuse to remain there and contribute their share in creating the myth of a happy and harmonious family. It is only at the end, after her ordeal, that Jaya realizes her mistake and releases herself as well as her children from the slots into which she had put them.

In her anxiety to fulfill her roles of a wife and a mother, Jaya had not done proper justice to her own talents. Years back, Jaya had made a good beginning as a writer by producing a story which had won the first prize and was published in a magazine. But Mohan’s response to the story was most disheartening. He assumed that the story was about their personal life. He was apprehensive and hurt at the thought that the people of his acquaintance would think he was the kind of person as was the man portrayed in the story. No doubt, this incident had left a deep impression on Jaya’s psychic and affected her career as a writer. She, therefore, can easily make her husband a scapegoat for her failure, but in her self-critical mood at the Dadar flat, she refuses to have this easy way out. She reminds herself that even after her confrontation with Mohan she had continued to write-write under an assumed name (as women writers have often done under patriarchy) but her stories had been rejected. Something had been missing from them, something had been censured out of them. According to Kamat, it was Jaya’s anger, her strong passions. Jaya had tried to remind him what actually she had learned from her husband in her first memorable argument with him that a woman cannot be angry, that anger makes a woman unwomanly. She had also given the familiar excuse that women give, when they fail at anything, that they have no time for serious work, because of their household duties. Kamat had reproved of this tendency in her. “I am warning you–beware of this ‘women are the victims’ theory of yours. It’ll drag you down into a soft squishy bog of self-pity. Take yourself seriously, woman. Don’t skulk behind a false name. And work-work if you want others to take you seriously.” Kamat was a hard critic and he would leave no escape route for Jaya. The real reason for her failure, he pointed out was her fear. She was afraid of writing, of failing.

Jaya was in no mood to take such hard criticism. She had crawled back into her hole. She had resumed her career as a wife, as a mother. In the meantime, Mohan had suggested that she should write, light humorous pieces in the newspapers, what they called “middles”. Jaya had then started her weekly column “Seeta which had won the approval of the readers, the editor and above all of her husband. “And for me”. Jaya observes, “She had been the means through which I had shut the door, firmly, on all those other women who had invaded my being, screaming for attention: women I had known I could not write about, because they mightit was just possible resemble Mohan’s mother or aunt, or my mother or aunt.” Thus the novelist makes it clear that not only patriarchy has kept silent on the subject of women, but under patriarchy, women have also recoiled from telling the truth about their sex.

When Jaya finally comes out of her emotional upheaval, she has sorted out a few problems with herself. For the two nights that she has to herself, she puts down on paper all that she had suppressed in her seventeen years’ silence. What she has written is evidently the novel that we are reading. The novel is mostly concerned with women like Kusum, Mohan’s mother, and many other victims like them-victims of patriarchy and also of their own silence. That Long Silence puts into nutshell the history and evolution of women through four generations that Jaya has known and promises a better future for women.

In That Long Silence Shashi Deshpande has portrayed the irony of a woman writer who is also a young house-wife. Being a writer, she is supposed to present her views and ideas before the society but still she remains silent probing into her past, struggling with her present and trying to establish a rapport with her future. She is an intellectual who finds herself out of place in the society meant only for men.

The novel opens with Jaya and her husband Mohan shifting from their well-settled, comfortable house to their old house in Dadar, Bombay, where they had stayed immediately after getting married, when their financial condition was not good. They shift into their old apartment in order to escape the scene as Mohan has been caught in some business malpractice and an inquiry is in progress. Here in a small old flat, Jaya gets out of touch with her daily schedule and becomes an introvert. She sits deep in contemplation, thinking of her childhood and tries to analyze herself. As Adele King in her book review says: “Jaya finds her normal routine so disrupted that for the first time she can look at her life and attempt to decide who she really is.”

Not satisfied with her married life, Jaya recalls her past days, her upbringing the environment in which she was brought up and the preachings that were thrust upon her when she was growing up e.g. she has been taught that “a husband is like a sheltering tree.”

Though Jaya has been educated and influenced by the modern thought of the west and other advanced countries, and is herself a writer, she still wants to compare herself with the image of Sita, Draupadi, and other ideal mythological characters. She had always tried her best to keep a balance between husband and wife: “Ours had been a delicately balanced relationship, so much so that we have even snipped off bits of ourselves to keep the scales on an even keel.”

On the occasion of Raveti’s birthday, Jaya as well as her daughter, Rati, feel that Mohan loves his niece Raveti more than his own daughter. But she does not say anything to Mohan as he only dismisses it as her “writer’s imagination” and nothing more. She always wishes to proceed as per her husband’s wish.

Generally, a woman’s identity is defined by others, in terms of her relationship with men, i.e. as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother etc. The question “What a woman does” is never asked but “who she belongs to” is always considered important. She doesn’t have an identity of her own. Her name keeps on changing according to the wishes of others. In That Long Silence the writer has presented this phenomenon through the character of Jaya, who is known by two names: JAYA and SUHASINI. Jaya which means victory, is the name given by her father when she was born, and Suhasini, the name given after her marriage which means a “soft, smiling, placid, motherly woman”. Both the names symbolize the traits of her personality. The former symbolizes revolt and the latter submission. The dreams of her childhood, to change the ascribed situation of woman resulting in achieving her goals, are shattered by the environment, the surroundings, and above all by the society which imposes all sorts of restrictions on women. She is absolutely helpless and is unable to do anything to improve her situation. Ultimately, she tried to adapt herself to the main current. She longs to be called an ideal wife. She revolts in silence. She comments on a situation when her husband talks about women being treated very cruelly by their husbands and he calls it “strength”, “He saw strength in the woman sitting silent in front of the fire but I saw despair. I saw a despair so great that it would not voice itself. I saw a struggle so bitter that silence was the only weapon. Silence and surrender.”

Coming to the physical relationship between husband and wife, it is again the case of a dominating husband and a suffering wife. Even if the husband hurts the wife, she remains, silent. Jaya, too has been cast in the same mould. She cannot say “Yes” when her husband asks her whether he has hurt her. She has to tolerate everything. “The emotion that governed my behaviour to him, there was still the habit of being a wife, of sustaining and supporting him.”

All this certainly doesn’t show natural and harmonious relationship between the two, when we see that one is unable to express his or real feeling to the other. Their physical relationship always ends up with Mohan’s question whether he has hurt her. It obviously shows a forced relationship and not a natural one. Jaya doesn’t immediately react to the situation but the reader is informed through the flashback technique used by the author. Lying alone in a small house, her mind travels through the past and the present and thus covers the whole span of her life. At times the author uses the technique of stream-of-consciousness to project the minds of the characters, and thus making the story authentic and realistic.

In the Indian context, “Once a girl gets married to a man whether it be a love marriage or an arranged one, the husband takes complete control over her. Whether the husband follows the right path or the wrong one, she has to follow blindly in his footsteps. When Mohan is caught in an act of malpractice and is supposed to be unavailable for certain period, he assumes Jaya would accompany him. Though she is unwilling to follow the example of Sita and Savitri, paradoxically, she is compelled by the situations and circumstances to follow the principle that “both are yoked together, so better to go to the same direction, as to go to different directions will be painful.”

Jaya’s husband Mohan, always interprets things in relation to the effect it may have on the society. He unobtrusively likes to conform to the social norms even if they are strong. The success of Jaya’s novel depicting the relationship between man and woman is weighed in relation to what society would think in future. So, he wants to make Jaya also think like him and induces her not to deliberate on such themes that would endanger their marriage. Jaya, a representative of the typical Indian woman in the present context, wants to mould herself as her husband wills. But all these male-chauvinistic ideas are not her own, but have been thrust upon her by the society in general and her father in particular. Her father made her think that she was different from others and hence, she could not cope with her hostel-mates and kept herself aloof from other girls.

In her childhood, she had been brought up in a loving and affectionate manner without any responsibility. But after her marriage, she changes automatically, her anger withers away: “She as a child used to get angry very soon. But after her marriage she tolerated her anger. She realized that to Mohan anger made a woman ‘unwomanly. “When Kamat asks her why she has not expressed the anger of woman in her writings, her reply is “Because no woman can be angry. Have you ever heard of an angry young woman.”

When she leaves her home after getting married, her father advises her to be always good to Mohan and she, at all times tries her best to follow his advice. It also throws light on her being closer to her father than to her mother. Even when her mother scolds her or questions her going out and returning home late, she complains against her mother to her father.

Social conformity has always been more obligatory for a woman than for a man. Generally, a woman’s identity tends to be defined about moulding her tastes in order to suit those of the rest even if her superior intellect is not satisfied. In the very beginning of the novel, we see that she tries to reason out with her father as to why she would not listen to the songs broadcast on the radio, but ultimately she keeps silent, suppressing her desire. Here, Deshpande has presented the theme of lack of communication. As she herself declares,

“The themes of lack of communication may be over-familiar in western fiction, but in extrovert India it is not much analyzed.”

In the novel under study, Shashi Deshpande presents the meanings of silence. As she herself puts it: “You learn a lot of tricks to get by a relationship. Silence is one of them. You never find a woman criticizing her husband, even playfully, in case it might damage the relationship.

The novel is not an autobiography, except for certain parts dealing with the frustrations of an unsuccessful writer. Shashi Deshpande has presented an Indian woman as she is in India of the eighties and not as she should be. Veena Sheshadri says in her review:

“Why has the author chosen a’heroine’ who only succeeds in evoking waves of irritation in the reader? Perhaps it is because a competent writer like her is never satisfied unless she is tackling new challenges. Also she believes in presenting life as it is and not as it should be and there must be thousands of self-centered women like Jaya, perennially gripping about their fate.”

To make the story authentic and appealing, Deshpande has used the device of first-person narrative to ensure its credibility by making the protagonist read her inner mind and thus representing the psyche of the modern middle-class learned woman.

Also Read:

Jaya is basically a modern woman rooted in tradition, whereas her husband, Mohan, is a traditionalist rooted in customs. The difference between their outlook is so great they fail, time and again, to understand each other. To Mohan, a woman sitting before the fire, waiting for her husband to come home and eat hot food is the real “strength” of a woman, but Jaya interprets it as nothing more than despair. The difference in their attitude is the main cause of their failure to understand each other.

It was due to difference in attitude, their marital life grows shaky and gloomy. It becomes more of a compromise than love based on social fear rather than on mutual need of each other. The cause may be rooted in their choice of a partner. For example, from the very beginning, Mohan wanted a wife who was well educated and cultured and never a loving one. He made up his mind to get married to Jaya when he saw her speaking fluently, sounding so much like a girl whom he had seen speaking English fluently.

Shashi Deshpande in her novel That Long Silence on one level presents the condition of the woman in Indian society-her role model and how the different types of woman act out their roles with their silence. The title emphasizes the silence that the protagonist Jaya wishes to break and to search her own self, her wife role and her real individual self. At another level, she examines the role of Sita and Gandhari and Maitrevee. at still another level. it is the modern convent-educated English speaking woman who gropes into the darkness of life-the dissatisfaction with her role model in marriage and her agony over her own acceptance, though unconsciously, of the two standards for man and woman in society-the two language formula of the Sanskrit drama, Sanskrit for the man and Prakrit for the woman.

Shashi Deshpande unmasks both Jaya and Mohan when they face the crisis in their lives. They have run into stormy weather and their secure sheltered life washes away like a water colour in a rainy storm. The disaster they face affects them differently and they react differently. What exactly has happened to the ambitious Mohan is not clearly stated, but it is mentioned vaguely that Mohan has likely to be dismissed for malpractice. Mohan feels that Jaya, who cared much for him, no longer cares for him because of the crisis in his life. His life is centred around his office work and his family. Now that he has no office work, he becomes unsettled. Waiting to hear from his colleague, he becomes restless and ghostlike. He is a traditionalist and has clear-cut ideas about his role in life. When this is shattered, he is confused and knows not what to do. Waiting takes him and unnerves him. He expects his wife Jaya to not only share his anxiety, his unhappiness, his doubts but to positively speak out and help him face the crisis. He says that whatever he has done he had done for his wife and children, not merely to realize his ambition of good high society life. He wishes to use his wife as buffer, an opiate to soften the impact of the forces he has set into motion against himself. In fact he is seeking emotional wants to hold hard to Jaya in whom he seeks an anchor in this tempest.

Jaya, on the other hand, reacts differently. Her whole life revolved around the wants of her husband. Now that he does not want anything, she is at a loss. The two are as if in aranyavas like Rama and Sita. But she is not a Sita and cannot be a Sita. Here they are in her Dadar’s house, what for her is home-coming. Significantly, this home-coming makes her take stock of her life, to review her life examine her inner self and her relationship with Mohan. So far she was like the leg of a compass, all her life arranged on the circumference of Mohan’s life and his activities. But now she no longer wants to silently revolve around Mohan. As she has given up the newspaper column “Seeta”, so she wants to give up her traditional role model of wife.

Leave a Comment

x