Myth of the Ideal Feminine in Shashi Deshpande
In a country where the scriptures, as well as the age-old traditions, have historically circumscribed women, the latter have for centuries been forced into servitude that is akin to enslavement. Shashi Deshpande critiques through her novels the embeddedness of such traditional stereotypes, rituals, customs and myths that endow a collective meaning to the Indian consciousness and to their conceptualization of womanhood. With an engaged reading of Deshpande’s novels, this paper reveals how her women protagonists partake in complex socio-cultural experiences that have the notion of the ideal feminine at its core.
Keywords: feminisms, stereotype, femininity, male domination, myth, ideal feminine
Shashi Deshpande is one of those few writers to have literary allusions, myth and folklore, seamlessly meshed in their novels that help to address the question of selfhood with its myriad ramifications. The importance of these myths and folktales, their embeddedness in everyday Indian life, cannot be overstated. They constitute crucial sites of local knowledge in mass culture and are powerful containment strategies used by the dominant (male, upper-caste) groups to maintain power.
One of India’s notable novelists in English, Shashi Deshpande, was born in Karnataka, educated in Bombay (she has degrees in Law and English Literature), and has been living and writing in Bangalore since 1975. Publishing largely in the 1980s and 1990s, and at a slower rate to this very day, she has written more than ten novels, many short stories, and a few children’s books. In addition to her fiction, she has also written works of literary criticism and has worked briefly as a screenwriter and journalist. Her works have been published by India’s leading presses as well as abroad, garnering numerous prizes — including India’s most prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1990 — and has been translated into other Indian and European languages. The daughter of a well-known Karnataka writer who specialized in Sanskrit texts, Shashi Deshpande is not only well versed on religious texts like the Vedas, the epics, the Puranas and the Upanishads, but also understands the constitutive nature of myths in everyday Indian life, which mirrors the philosophies expressed in these sacred texts. Remarking on the pervasive way in which iconic figures from such scriptures populate the Indian landscape, she writes:
A Ram or a Sita, a Krishna or an Arjuna, a Draupadi or a Savitri– these are not just characters in stories to us, they are as real as the people around us. Loving brothers are still Ram-Lakshman, an ideal couple even today a Ram-Sita or a Lakshmi-Narayan. (Deshpande, Writing from the Margin 86)
Myth constitutes one of the integral components of human life in every culture and, as Deshpande asserts, in India it becomes perhaps one of the most powerful aspects in the lives of her people through which they shape ideas of themselves. As narrated by Peter Heehs: “We may define it as a set of propositions, often stated in narrative form, that is accepted uncritically by a culture of speech community and that serves to found or affirm its self -conception.”
Sharing a similar viewpoint as that of Heehs, Shashi Deshpande delineates in her narratives how myths and legends permeate the lives of people and seep into their collective consciousness. Thus characters like Sita, Draupadi, Rama and Krishna no longer remain mythical figures but act as operative forces in the minds of Indians who seek to emulate them in their daily lives and try to conform to the pattern of life that has been displayed in the myths. It is significant that their application in Deshpande’s novels do not merely remain within the confines of information and embellishment of the plots, rather Deshpande seems to echo Jasbir Jain’s observation: “Myth marginalizes women…the structuring of most religious myths is dominated by the concepts of dharma and karma, concepts which govern the behaviour of gods as much as they do of men. And both karma and dharma subordinate women to men.” Shashi Deshpande provides an examination of these traditions, practices and religious myths with an aim to reveal the cultural politics at play which intends to legitimize and justify the inherent imbalances and inequities that are prevalent in the Indian society. Given this gender specific nature of some myths, she sets forth to re-examine them in search of “meaningful and creative re-interpretation…looking for a fresh knowledge of ourselves…trying to discover what is relevant to our lives today. We don’t reject the ideals, but we know we can’t approximate to these pictures of ideal womanhood”(Deshpande, Writing 100).
In portraying these women’s confusion and search fora non-monolithic, non-traditional definition of Hindu female identity, Deshpande examines gendered binary oppositions and their cultural determinants, thus opening up spaces for a multiplicity of submerged women’s voices to emerge. Strikingly, Shashi Deshpande not only speaks of liberation (though still within the framework of marriage and motherhood), but attempts to trace the actual processes by which women are “womanized”. She does so by astutely foregrounding how ideologies, stereotypes and limited choices restrict women in both overt and covert ways.
Exemplifying her mythical state, the female protagonist of Shashi Deshpande’s novel That Long Silence, Jaya, feels that Mohan’s decision on behalf of his wife and himself to shift to their flat at Dadar is actually a reflection of the patriarchal set-up of the society that has its hegemonic tendencies wherein the woman as an individual has very few options to choose from. She reminiscences:
I remember now that he had assumed I would accompany him, had taken for granted my acquiescence in his plans. So had I, Sita following her husband into exile, Savitri dogging death to reclaim her husband, Draupadi stoically sharing her husband’s travails. (Deshpande, Silence 11)
Such cultural injunctions that thrive in the form of these images are significant in as much as they provide an ideal upon which the “self” in Indian context is based. “To be as pure as Sita, as loyal as Draupadi…as dogged in devotion as Savitri…these have become the ultimate role models for women”(Deshpande, Writing 89) and these models are so internalized that the ultimate conditioning of the woman is achieved and she moulds herself to another being who echoes and reflects the diktats of the operating ideology, losing her real “self” in the process. Jaya’s evocation of the image of Gandhari from the Mahabharata enables her to achieve parity with the mythical past in her attempt to attain ideal wife-hood: “If Gandhari, who bandaged her eyes to become blind like her husband, could be called an ideal wife, I was an ideal wife too. I bandaged my eyes tightly” (Deshpande, Silence 61). However, this attempt to conform to the mythical notion of conjugal life leaves her with no sense of fulfillment and deprives her of her “selfhood.” Indian sociocultural life hence promotes a male-oriented worldview through the myths, and as Deshpande remarks, “all the women in myths have been created by men for fulfilling their various needs”(Deshpande, Writing 90). Shashi Deshpande shows how women internalise the patriarchal definitions and feel guilty when transgressing those. Jaya blames herself for worrying about conventionality (how will it look if she is found in his flat?), rather than reporting her friend Kamat’s death.
Countries with a history of colonialism are often seen to conform to a nationalistic construction of women. During the anti-colonial struggle in India, writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Anandamath, 1882) and Rabindranath Tagore (The Home and the World, 1919) portrayed the woman as an icon of Indian tradition. This iconography has always imagined some attributes － such as love, devotion, sacrifice － as the virtues of women. Though these qualities are worthy of admiration, by essentializing these particularly to be feminine, such narratives decide and restrict the activities and space of women.
In such postcolonial states, women’s quest for liberation, self-identity and fulfilment is often seen as transgressive and treacherous; a betrayal that will inevitably lead to the breakdown of traditional codes of practice and belief. Men, irrespective of race, caste and creed, have always shared certain attitudes towards women, producing ambivalent female stereotypes in life and literature, myths and scriptures. In India, to be specific, Hindu scriptures and ancient legal codes both deify and circumscribe women. Those who live up to the feminine “ideal” as encoded there, are considered divine; those who deviate are “fallen.” The Bhagavad-Gitadeclares women, like the people of lower castes, to be baser forms of life with little right to transcendence and eternity. On the other side of the coin is the image of woman as an object of worship; the “good” woman in India is the mother first and the mother last, an incarnation of divinity. Sita of the Ramayan － chaste, selfless an utterly devoted to her husband － is still regarded as the ideal wife. Thus, it is seen that even when the woman is elevated to the position of a deity, it is a deity whose functions are predetermined and limited to those of healer and nurturer. Although the ancient codes have long been replaced by modern social/legal strictures, the sentiments underlying those codes persist to this day, giving rise to new forms of gender politics.
Shashi Deshpande has critiqued the society and culture that denies woman the ability of self-contemplation, and has instead, taught her to be ashamed of her own body. In The Dark Holds No Terrors, arita, the doctor-protagonist, articulates Deshpande’s criticism:
Backache, headache, leucorrhea, menorrhagea, dysmenorrhea, loss of appetite, burning feet, an itch “there”…all the indignities of a woman’s life, borne silently and as long as possible, because “how do you tell anyone about these things?” Everything kept secret, their very womanhood a source of deep shame to them. Stupid, silly martyrs, she thought, idiotic heroines. (Deshpande, Dark 107)
These thoughts are ironic, because Sarita, a successful professional woman, cannot speak of her own trauma － repeated rape by her husband － to anyone. It is perhaps the lack of a rational approach on the part of Sarita’s husband, Manohar, that creates problems as he cannot come to terms with the fact that his wife Sarita is not only earning butter but bread as well for his family, that it is Sarita who is sought by the people in the society and that he is recognized as the lady doctor’s husband. This happens because Sarita, in her desire to grow and attain self-sufficiency, treads the public space which has been traditionally the male domain and has deviated from the socio-cultural standards set for women by the society. The commonly accepted myth of the male as the primary bread-winner in an Indian family is subverted when Manohar is shown in an inferior light with respect to his earnings for his family which eventually creates in him a sense of insecurity regarding his given patriarchal position within the familial framework. Amrita Bhalla’s observations appear particularly relevant when she views the symbiotic man-woman relationship as:
cast in strict stereotypical boundaries of dominance and subservience. Any change in the dynamics of power balance, a change both encouraged by the evolving economic, social framework of India and discouraged by tradition, myth and legend informing that framework, destroys the relationship.
In many instances therefore, a deviation from these predetermined ways instills a sense of guilt in the mind of the woman who is compelled into thinking that her deviation must have adversely affected the familial framework. Sarita feels that in stepping beyond the traditionally allocated space she has hindered the growth of her husband, as she points out that her growing “inches taller” had made Manohar “inches shorter.” It is the mythical concept of the “Lakshman-rekha” that looms large behind individual consciousness, “the line dividing the private from the public, always warning that the line should not be crossed”(Deshpande, Writing 185).
The Hindu worldview seems loaded with images of the idealized life led by these mythical women, the stereotypical “pativratas” who continue to be reference points in the lives of women living in India, particularly in the middle class even today. In the very beginning of the novel therefore, we hear Saru speaking sarcastically about the “tulsi” having served its purpose, the tulsi being a sacred plant which is revered by the Hindu wives who pray for the longevity of their husbands. Saru says of her mother: “She had died before her husband. Wasn’t that what all women prayed to the tulsi for” (Deshpande, Dark 15)? The underlying philosophy behind such martyrdom is perhaps the image of the ideal “in a society which equates the virtuous women with sacrifice and martyrdom, and in which self-effacement is seen as a primary female attribute”(Deshpande, Writing 57). Citing illiteracy and material dependence that still make Indian women connive at this mythological idealization, Deshpande seeks to explain their complicity in their servitude. Nevertheless, it is through characters like Sarita that she presents a critique of the “unquestioning acceptance of the collective consciousness and the blind submission to generations of conditioning”(Deshpande, Writing 60). Deshpande advocates how the women, instead of accepting their lot fatalistically, may resist patriarchal hegemony by devising new strategies that would help them to survive and carve out a niche for themselves. This certainly is no radical feminism, but simple rendering of resistance and self-assurance that may ultimately help women realize their actual potential, long repressed by traditional gender structures.
Deshpande situates the patriarchal practices of Indian Hindu society to contest them from within and then brings in alternative, empowering images of Indian femininity to celebrate the transformations in female consciousness. She not only uses alternative myths to create new paradigms but recasts old attitudes into new motifs to achieve her liberalist purpose. Through a writer protagonist like Jaya, Shashi Deshpande offers re-readings of various “given” ideas that possess mythical contours, as she once again makes Jaya take recourse to myth to make sense of her predicament. Jaya emerges a self-empowered individual in the sense that she eventually becomes able to find an answer to her present problem concerning herself, in a telling statement from the Bhagavad Gita: “Yathecchasitathakuru…final words of Krishna’s long sermon to Arjuna. ‘Do as you desire’…And if there is anything [she] now know[s] it is this: life has always to be made possible” (Deshpande, Silence 192-93). Critics like Shalmalee Palekar question the use of the citation “Do as you desire” from a patriarchal text like the Gita as a vehicle for affirming a woman’s independence. It is, no doubt, ironic that Jaya’s epiphany about the future path she must take as a “liberated” woman, comes from an essentially patriarchal religious text. Nevertheless, in her final acceptance of her fate through her writings, Jaya seems to reiterate Deshpande’s belief in the necessity and importance of myths in our lives. But more importantly what is revealed to the reader through Jaya’s understanding is that the ideals propagated in them cannot be approximated, that an inner urge to unveil the truth is what is significant and possible for us as human beings; it is this realization of selfhood that would liberate one from the confines of cultural injunctions delivered in the form of myths and idealized narrations for generations together.
Hence the modern, independent, educated women in Shashi Deshpande’s narratives are seen to display firm resolve to break through the restrictive confines of the society as gestures of protest against centuries of exploitation that were carried out in the name of undying traditions. Similar to Sarita in The Dark Holds No Terrors, who defies the society’s conservative attitude with regard to women’s education and decides to pursue a career in medicine, Savitri Bai in Small Remedies defies the societal prohibitions to achieve her dream—that of a career in classical music—which in itself was a precarious choice. Given the cultural and social ideological constructs with regard to women, Bai’s life is narrated in a manner that amply illustrates the conflicting position in which she is located and the way she negotiates her way out while inflicting challenges to such a structure. Deshpande objects to such kinds of structures and the limitations they inflict upon women since she believes: “the female of the species has the same right to be born and survive, to fulfill herself and shape her life according to her needs and the potential that lies within her, as the male has” (Deshpande, Writing 83). It is indeed this belief in women not as subordinate beings, but as individuals capable of achieving their own space with their innate potentiality that Deshpande creates characters like Savitri and Sarita. She understands that to internalize the ideal version of womanhood prescribed by society would be to fall prey to its politics of cultural practices.
Roland Barthes provides us with a staggering concept of naturalized myths which makes inequality and dominance a norm rather than injustice in society: “Myth….purifies them[things], it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” The verbal teachings or constant reminders that a woman comes across in the form of myths is perhaps proof enough that the less myths a woman encounters in her culture, the less oppressed she is because “myth has a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”Thus the importance of the hold of tradition and mythology on the Indian subconscious cannot be denied; it affects people’s responses in very crucial ways.
In the Indian society, since respect for myths and tradition is a cherished value, the urge towards individual self-fulfillment can often lead to a clash between modern and traditional values. Women’s “selves” Shashi Deshpande explores in her novels. Yet she does not forget the role that stood behind these women in the form of myth — the traditional role which has conditioned them for years. Such a situation reminds one of Marx’s comments: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but their being that determines their consciousness.”Even though it can be argued that the structure and attitude of “modern” India have changed to a certain extent for the better, one can claim that the topicality of Deshpande’s novels remains unabated as Indian women are still grappling with conservatism that now operates in newer guises. In this context, these women have miles to go before they truly realize their potential on their own terms.
“Cultural identities,” as Stuart Hall informs us, “have histories…But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation… are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power.”Women writers intend to bring forth both the restrictive and the transformative aspects of tradition and cultural identities. They suggest, as we have encountered in the novels of Shashi Deshpande, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee and others, a mixing and merging of roots and cultures rather than a simplified, unitary vision of identity. Therefore, for these writers, depicting the traditional mythical woman is crucial in understanding how far the “new woman” can go in her transition and, if she is not going far, then why not. The transformation of woman to become a fully functioning individual can be understood only in the light of a past that tends to perpetuate itself in society through its myths and traditions.
 Peter Heehs, “Myth, History and Theory,” History and Theory 33.1 (Feb. 1994): 3.
 Jasbir Jain, Writing Women Across Cultures (Jaipur: Rawat, 2002) 11.
 The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita or ’The Song by God’; often referred to as the Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata, dated to the second half of the first millennium BCE and exemplary for the emerging Hindu synthesis. It is considered to be one of the holy scriptures for Hinduism.
 The Lakshman-rekha symbolizes injunctions that are associated with the mythical incident of Sita’s abduction in the Ramayana. The mythical incident has gained wide acceptance through the passage of time within the Hindu cultural set-up and the Lakshman-rekha has now come to signify familial, social and cultural injunctions which aim at restraining female mobility within the familial and social realm.
 Ronald Barthes, “Mythologies,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5thed., edited by John Storey (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009): 122.
 Barthes, 121.
 Qtd in Raman Seldon, et al., eds., A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (Essex: Prentice Hall, 1997): 88.
 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Padmini Mongia (London: Arnold, 1996): 110-21.
Barthes, Ronald. “Mythologies.” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5thed., edited by John Storey, Pearson Longman, 2009, pp. 118- 25.
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Paleker, Shalmalee.“Gender, Feminism and Postcoloniality: A Reading of ShashiDeshpande’s Novels.”Writing Difference: The Novels of Shashi Deshpande, edited by C.K.Naik, Pencraft, 2005, pp. 46-71.
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Date: December 24, 2021