- The Ring of Recollection: Transgenerational Haunting in the Novels of Shashi Deshpande
Literary reception of Shashi Deshpande’s works have been largely preoccupied with questions about why the Sahitya Akademi winning author, who is clearly popular in India, is hardly read and discussed in the West, even among scholars of South Asian Literature. Nancy Ellen Batty in The Ring of Recollection interrogates the litany of charges against Deshpande’s work, which include arguments that it purportedly does not foreground politics of imperialism or nationhood and therefore are not regarded significant in postcolonial scholarship in [End Page 360] the West, or that her writing is of a traditional “realist” genre that offers little novelty, or contrarily that her writing suffers from excesses of melodrama with unyielding clues and unresolved plots that would benefit from better editing. Batty contends that it is not the form of Deshpande’s novels that need to be revised but rather the conventional frameworks through which her novels are received. She argues that it would be productive to read these works more as part of the gothic genre than realism. Much as in several nineteenth-century gothic novels, which Deshpande read avidly, her characters become particularly complex through two major tropes: 1) their inability to articulate traumatic experiences that become family secrets, and 2) these secrets become the subject of “transgenerational haunting” of which subsequent generations do not speak for fear of betraying their parents and grandparents (24).
The book’s title, The Ring of Recollection, alludes to a Kalidasa play about Shakuntala who is spurned by her lover, King Dushyanta. In the play, Dushyanta—as a result of a curse—is unable to remember Shakuntala until much later when he comes across a ring that he had given her as a token of his love. Deshpande repeatedly refers to this play in her 1996 novel A Matter of Time, and as Batty notes, this play is an apt point of entry into the author’s other novels is that for a large number of Deshpande’s characters “the operations of memory . . . are rarely limited to the conscious, discursive retrieval of personal experience, but rather, extend to a series of highly mediated and sometimes seemingly irrational associations that produce startling moments of clear insight” (11). According to Batty, Deshpande’s critics assume the conventions of a realist genre and interpret such moments as melodramatic excess. Instead, Batty argues that we should read the text as a gothic novel. This shift yields a greater understanding of the internal structures of memory, secrets, trauma, and shame. Moreover, similar to Kalidasa’s play, while the recovery of memory in the novels is marked with some insight and joy, the stories also carry intense agony and self doubt (12). Accordingly, Batty constructs a triangulated framework for reading the novels: Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s clinical psychological research on memory retrieval, Kalidasa’s play on Shakuntala, and Eve Sedgwick’s work on the production of the self in gothic fiction, specifically the way in which characters are “blocked off from something to which it normally has access” (such as the past, family secrets, or even the outside world) (Sedgwick qtd. in Batty 31).
The book critically unpacks Deshpande’s entire corpus of fiction (barring her children’s books). She begins with some of her early detective fictions, such as If I Die Today (1982) and Come Up and Be Dead (1983), that most Deshpande critics consider failures in [End Page 361] the genre and of less merit than her later works. While Batty agrees that these novels unfortunately flout the rules of successful detective fictions (for instance, readers do not have access to the same clues at the same time as do the amateur detectives), she points out that the conventions of the mystery genre are sacrificed because Deshpande is more interested in exploring social problems, existentialist anxieties, and fears of alienation (45). Through Jasbir Jain, she shows that Deshpande’s early murder fiction was a springboard for more reflective deliberations on the subjects of...