Feminist Concerns in Shashi Deshpande’s The Binding Vine
Among the recent Indian women novelists writing in English, Shashi Deshpande's credentials are most impeccable. She has emerged as one of the mainstream woman writers in India and has drawn critical attention because of her detailed, sensitive and realistic representation of Indian middle class woman in the domestic sphere. Her major novels include The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980), Roots and Shadows (1983), That Long Silence (1988), The Binding Vine (1992), A Matter of Time (1996), Small Remedies (2000), Moving On (2004) and In the Country of Deceit (2008). Shashi Deshpande's forte has been the Indian woman, her conflicts and predicaments against the background of contemporary India. The issues and themes in her novels arise from the situation of women at the cross roads of a transitional society, changing from traditional to modern. With rare sensitivity and depth, she portrays the dilemma of the educated middle class Indian woman trapped between her own aspirations as an individual and the forces of patriarchy which confine her. G.S. Amur rightly observes: Woman’s struggles in the context of the contemporary Indian society, to find and preserve her identity as wife, mother and, most important of all, as human being is Shashi Deshpande's major concern as a writer. (Amur 10).
Her novels, featuring female protagonists, reconstruct aspects of women’s experience and attempt to give voice to ‘muted’ ideologies, registering resistance. Shashi Deshpande’s female protagonists are truly in search of inner strength and her attempt to given an honest portrayal of their frustration, hopes and disappointments makes her novels susceptible to treatment from the feminist angle. Shashi Deshpande, however, resents being called a feminist and maintains that her novels are not intended to be read as feminist texts. This is evident from what she says : Is writing by women only for women? . . . when I sit down to write, I am just a writer – my gender ceases to matter to me. …We are different, yes, but once again the factors which unite us are far more important than the gender differences which divide us . . . I’m a novelist, I write novels, not feminist tracts. Read my novel as a novel, not as a piece of work that intends to propagate feminism. (Deshpande 2003 : 143).
At another instance she writes : My writing has been categorized as ‘writing about women’ or ‘feminist’ writing. In this process, much in it has been missed. I have been denied the place and dignity of a writer who is dealing with issues that are human issues, of interest to all humanity. (Jain 37)
Shashi Deshpande’s novels, however, reveal her acute sensitivity to the issues involving women and her tremendous sympathy for women. She presents both the weaknesses and the strengths of the women. In her own words, she is portraying in her writings, “[the] ... vulnerability of women. The power of women. The deviousness of women. The helplessness of women. The courage of women.” (Dhawan 34). She seeks to expose the ideology by which a woman is trained to play a subservient role in society. In the words of Atrey and Kirpal, "Shashi Deshpande's novels eclectically employ the postmodern technique of deconstructing patriarchal culture and customs, and revealing these to be man-made constructs.” (Atrey and Kirpal 15).
In The Binding Vine, Shashi Deshpande deftly handles the juxtaposition of the two situations – rape committed within and outside marriage. The narrator-protagonist Urmila (called Urmi) highlights the despair of two women – Mira, who is a victim of marital rape and Kalpana, who is brutally raped outside marriage and is now on her death – bed. Through this novel, Shashi Deshpande sensitively depicts the trauma of such married women whose bodies are violated by their husbands but who would neither protest nor dare reveal this to anyone for the sake of social and moral security. She also highlights the plight of the women who are raped outside marriage. Such unfortunate victims often prefer suffering in silence to being exposed to the humiliation involved in publicizing their tragedies. Through the voice of Urmi, Deshpande offers us a glimpse into the lives of numerous other women who are victims of one or the other form of violence, oppression or deprivation.
Praising Shashi Deshpande’s bold step of projecting a woman’s biological needs and raising the question of a woman’s right over her body in this novel, Subhash K. Jha writes:
The Binding Vine is one of the few contemporary Indian novels to discuss its heroine’s sexuality, her ‘passion’ with a measure of unrepentant concern. In this novel, Deshpande travels much further down the road in exploring the working women’s needs of the head, heart and further down the anatomy, than her earlier novels. (Jha 14).
The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist Urmi’s grieving over the death of her one-year old daughter, Anu. She is consoled by her mother, Inni, brother Amrut and sister-in-law, Vanna. But Urmi cannot forget her loss. She, in fact, wants to cling on to her grief as she feels that any attempt on her part to blot Anu’s memory out of her mind would be a betrayal towards her daughter. Instead of fighting her pain and sorrow, she holds on to it as she believes that to let go of that pain, to let it becomes a thing of the past would be betrayal and would make her lose Anu completely. Like a masochist, she clings to her pain and allows her memories of Anu, every small incident to flood her with longing and a great sense of loss.
Urmi’s state of bereavement makes her highly sensitive to the suffering and despair of others. It is in this state that Urmi meets Shakutai, the mother of a rape victim, Kalpana, who is on her death-bed. Urmi meets Shakutai on her visit to the hospital where Vaana works. Kalpana is lying unconscious and Shakutai assumes that her daughter has been injured in a car accident. But the doctor, after examining Kalpana, informs Shakutai that her daughter has been brutally raped. Shakutai is shatterd by this news and refuses to accept it. She tells Vaana hysterically, “It’s not true, you people are trying to blacken my daughter’s name”. (Deshpande 1998 : 58). Later, when she hears Vaana and Dr. Bhaskar talking about reporting the matter to the police, Shakutai cries out in fear, “No, no, no... don’t tell anyone. I’ll never be able to hold up my head again, who’ll marry the girl, we’re decent people, Doctor, don’t tell the police” (58).
Urmi accompanies the wailing Shakutai to her house on Vanna’s request and from here their association begins. Shakutai blames her own daughter for the rape. She feels that it was due to Kalpana’s boldness and lack of any fear that she met this tragedy. Shakutai tells Urmi:
She’s shamed us, we can never wipe off this blot... She was so self-willed. Cover yourself decently, I kept telling her, men are like animals. But she went her way. You should have seen her walking out, head in the air, caring for nobody. It’s all her fault, Urmila, all her fault... I’m not afraid of anyone, she used to say. That’s why this happened to her... women must know fear. (147-148).
Urmi urges Shakutai to get the case registered as a rape so that the culprit is arrested and suitably punished, but she fails to convince Shakutai whose immediate concern is that the rape should remain a secret. Shakutai seems to be more worried about the scandal that would certainly ruin the family’s name and impair the marriage prospects of not only Kalpana but also her second daughter, Sandhya. The mother’s reaction is, undoubtedly, a reflection of the society governed by the age-old patriarchal norms. Shakutai wants her daughter to suffer in silence, for cries can cause curiosity and lead to a scandal making the matters only worse for her.
This incident is just an example of the reality of women’s position in society. A woman in a patriarchal set-up, has no place to go to once she is stigmatized. In Indian social set-up, the parents of a girl do not act boldly and firmly out of fear of society. Instead of bringing the guilty ones to law for punishment, they prefer to suppress the matter because they know all too well the hypocrisies of society. Conforming to the social ways, they keep their daughters secure in the four walls of their houses till they are handed over to their rightful masters. No wonder then, that Shakutai says, “But sometimes, I think the only thing that can help Kalpana now is death”. (178)
The rapist is ultimately discovered to be Kalpana’s uncle, Prabhakar, who had always lusted after Kalpana. Prabhakar is the husband of Shakutai’s younger sister, Sulu. Overcome by an unbearable feeling of despair and guilt, a shattered Sulu immolates herself. A grief-stricken Shakutai, who had always adored her sister Sulu, is left behind. Commenting upon Shashi Deshpande’s deft handling of the theme of rape in this novel, Y.S. Sunita Reddy says :
In writing about rape, Deshpande has not attempted anything new but the way she has portrayed this sordid drama is very realistic. The characters spring to life and the anger, frustration, helplessness and despair of the victim’s family are brought out evocatively. (Reddy 91-92).
In The Binding Vine, Shashi Deshpande makes a bold attempt to portray the agony of a wife who is the victim of marital rape – a subject dealt with in The Dark Holds No Terrors where the protagonist, Saru, is assaulted at night by her husband who vents his frustration on his wife as she becomes a successful doctor while he remains an underpaid lecturer. In The Binding Vine, Shashi Deshpande portrays a man’s obsession with his wife and her intense dislike of physical intimacy with him. The travail of the wife finds expression in a series of poems composed by her and discovered by her daughter-in-law, Urmi, long after her death. Urmi’s state of bereavement makes her highly sensitive to the suffering and despair of her long-dead mother-in-law, Mira. She makes a desperate attempt to explore the mind of the young Mira by delving deep into the poems composed by her.
Meera’s deepest feelings are expressed in her poems written in the vernacular, Kannada. Urmi carefully translates these poems into English. A careful study of her poems enables Urmi to decipher the essence of the thoughts that Mira had attempted to put down on paper. Her writings reveal her untold suffering due to the forced sexual activity subjected on her by her husband. She could only tolerate in silence the violation of her body. Her humiliation and trauma is expressed, however, in her poems. One poem particularly reveals Mira’s tragic despair :
But tell me, friend, did Laxmi too
twist brocade tassels round her fingers
and tremble, fearing the coming
of the dark-clouded, engulfing night (66).
Pursuing Mira’s diary, Urmi is convinced that she had written from her personal experience. She (Urmi) observes that: “It runs through all her writing – a strong, clear thread of an intense dislike of the sexual act with her husband, a physical repulsion for the man she married”. (63) Mira’s suffering epitomizes the plight of countless other women who silently undergo similar traumatic experiences in their married lives. The violation of one’s body, even if sanctified by marriage, can be as humiliating and traumatic an experience as rape. Such examples prove the validity of Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that : Marriage is obscene in principle in so far as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge; it gives an instrumental and therefore degrading character to the two bodies in dooming them to know each other in their general aspects as bodies, not as persons. (Beauvoir 463).
Though the novel The Binding Vine chiefly revolves around the individual tragedies of Urmi, Mira, Kalpana and Shakutai, Shashi Deshpande, subtly hints at the suffering of numerous other women in a sexist society. The gross unfairness that prevails in Indian society against women is evident in the marriage of Akka. Akka willingly agrees to marry a widower who is the father of a child though she is well aware of her prospective husband’s obsession with his dead wife. Akka’s willing acceptance of such a marriage proves the fact that in a male dominated society many young girls accept marriage under any condition because they have been taught that marriage is the most desirable goal for a girl and finding the groom is the most difficult thing. In a traditional society women are groomed and educated for dependence, for wifehood and for motherhood. In the words of Colette Dowling :
... because of a profound, deep-seated doubt in their own competence, which begins in early childhood, girls become convinced that they must have protection if they are going to survive. This belief is bred into women by misguided social expectations and by the fears of parents. . . It leads them to feel intimidated by the men they marry and to defer to them in the hope of being protected. It even leads . . . to the crippling of the women’s intellectual abilities. (Dowling 94-95).
It is no wonder then, that despite the fear of living under the constant shadow of a dead woman, Akka willingly agrees to marry Kishore’s father.
Mira’s mother, whom she refers to in her diary is another example of a self-sacrificing, suffering woman. Totally absorbed in her role of an ideal wife and mother, she never thought of her individual self. Giving an account of her mother in her diary, Mira writes :
I remember the day the astrologer came home. He read all our horoscopes, told us our futures... Only my mother’s horoscope was not read. ‘Don’t you want to know your future?’ I asked her... she was serious when she said this – ‘What’s there in my life apart from all of you? ... If I know all of you are well and happy, I’m happy too’. (101).
Mira wonders at her mother’s total indifference to her own life and asserts that she can never be like her mother, “I’ll never think my life, myself nothing, never”. (101). Mira’s dairy also reveals the prejudiced attitude faced by women in the literary world. Mira has genuine interest in writing poetry but she is discouraged by her very idol Venu, the highly admired and acclaimed poet of her times, whose greatness Mira aspires to achieve. Venu tells her, “Why do you need to write poetry? It is enough for a young woman like you to give birth to children. That is your poetry. Leave the other poetry to us men.” (127). Thus in a male-dominated society, a woman is discouraged to have any identity of her own. Her identity is expected to be merged with and grow from her role as wife and mother. Female children grow up with indoctrination that holds up, overtly and covertly, this ideal as the only one a ‘good’ woman should aspire for.
Vaana’s daughter, Mandira, is a perfect example of how females, in particular, grow up with pre-conceived notions regarding the role of a woman as mother and wife. Mandira thinks that looking after her home and children is a woman's first duty. Expressing her resentment at her mother's going out to work while leaving her and her sister in the care of an 'ayah', she says to Urmi, “You know, Urmi auntie, when I grow up, I'm never going to leave my children to go to work... I’ll never leave my children alone.”(72). Urmi, too, is urged by Bhaskar’s mother to give up her job since her husband was earning sufficient money for the family. She is told: "What do you need a job for then? Your husband must be earning a lot of money. Give up your job, give it up.”(157). The popular belief thus is that a woman’s place is at her home and that she should find fulfilment in motherhood and domesticity alone.
Through the character of Shakutai, Shashi Deshpande highlights the oppression of women in the lower levels of the society. Shakutai's husband is a lazy, worthless fellow who does not stick on to any job. After the birth of three children, one after the other, Shakutai takes it upon herself to work and support her family. Despite all the sacrifices that she makes for her husband and family, Shakutai is deserted by her husband who leaves her for another woman. While talking toUrmi of her husband, Shakutai says, “That’s been the greatest misfortune of my life, Urmila, marrying that man.” (110). It is indeed ironical that after putting up with such a worthless husband and struggling alone to bring up her children, Shakutai lives in the fear of being held solely responsible for anything wrong that happens in the family as in the case of Kalpana’s rape. Talking about people's reaction to it, Shakutai bitterly tells Urmi, “What can you expect", they say, "of a girl whose mother has left her husband? Imagine! He left me for another woman, left me with these children to bring up.” (147). Dr. Bhaskar is amazed by Shakutai’s hankering for the marriage of her daughters when she could herself get no happiness or comfort from it. Expressing his amazement at Shakutai’s fear for her daughters remaining unmarried, Dr. Bhaskar tells Urmi, "Women are astonishing. I think it takes a hell of a lot of courage for a woman like that even to think of marriage.”(87). Urmi replies that women marry despite everything because it provides security.
Urmi, the narrator-protagonist, experiences a void in her life due to her husband’s withdrawn attitude and his frequent and prolong absences from home in connection with his job with the Navy. During the long absences of her husband, there are moments when Urmi is overcome by a desire for physical gratification. In her friendship with Dr. Bhaskar, who displays a definite liking for her, Urmi gets ample opportunity for the satisfaction of this urge.
On some occasions, we find Urmi vulnerably close to responding to Dr. Bhaskar, but she checks herself and holds back, thinking: “It’s so much easier, so much simpler, to just think of virtue and chastity and being a good wife.” (166) Thus Urmi remains totally faithful to her husband, Kishore, despite a certain incompatibility in their married life and it is obvious that she will never overstep the limits of propriety in her relationship with Dr. Bhaskar. However, this virtue of Urmi will perhaps go unappreciated and unacknowledged by Kishore. Simone de Beauvoir is quite right in her observation that men take their wives’ loyalty for granted. She writes:
A husband regards none of his wife's good qualities as particularly meritorious; they are guaranteed by society, they are implied by the institution of marriage itself; he fails to realize that his wife is no character from some pious and conventional treatise, but a real individual of flesh and blood; he takes for granted her fidelity to the strict regimen she assumes, not taking into account that she has temptations to vanquish, that she may yield to them, that in any case her patience, her chastity, her propriety, are difficult conquests; he is still more profoundly ignorant of her dreams, her fancies, her nostalgic yearnings, of the emotional climate in which she spends her days. (Beauvoir 492).
Though independent to some extent. Shashi Deshpande’s women characters are firmly bound by the shackles of tradition and seek fulfilment only within the orbit of family and tradition. Urmi, however, appears to be the most rebellious of Deshpande’s female protagonists. Being acutely aware of the injustices and inequalities prevailing in the society against women, she makes an effort to set things right. She strongly fights on behalf of the rape victim Kalpana and resolves to translate and publish her long-dead mother-in-law Mira's Kannada poems. She also admonishes Vaana, who is a meek and submissive wife, and encourages her to be more assertive. The novel celebrates women’s coming together with other women as friends and companions and sharers of life rather than as rivals for approval by men. The Binding Vine presents a female world in which women come together in a feeling of fellowship. Commenting on this new dimension of theme, Indira Nityanandam observes:
The step forward, achieved in this novel, is the introduction of female bonding, the desire of one woman to help another less fortunate one. Urmila draws society's attention to the plight of the rape victim and is determined to get Mira's poems published. This is a positive development in the protagonist, for Sarita, Jaya and Indu were involved in fighting only their own battles. (Qtd. By Dhawan 66).
Describing The Binding Vine as a refreshing change from Deshpande’s earlier novels, she further comments : The Binding Vine is a refreshing change from the first three novels of Deshpande. Protest comes easily to herprotagonist here and there is less agony in attempting to change societal roles and attitudes. The hope for Indian women lies in the happy fact that though there are Miras and Kalpanas and Shakutais; we also have our Urmilas. (Qtd. By Dhawan 66).
The Binding Vine has such thematic dimensions and facets of consciousness in the handling of women characters that force a reader not to accept Deshpande’s persistent rejection of the label ‘feminist’. If a writer gives such a sensitive and thought-provoking handling of women’s rights with regard to their bodies, he or she is bound to be called a feminist writer. The label should not be taken as a derogatory term. In her essay, ‘The Newly Born Woman’, Helen Cixous says that women should win back their bodies and it should be independent of male sexual urges. The Binding Vine has some such thematic foci because Shashi Deshpande probes rape within and outside marriage. Very few women writers have written about these sensitive issues. The novel, therefore, is an improvement upon her earlier novels as far as feminist ideology is concerned.
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