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Book Review: Small Remedies, by Shashi Deshpande

An intergenerational soap opera on the surface, it's really about the stages of grief, memory as an unreliable narrator, and coping.


Small Remedies

Penguin Books, 2000, 324 pages



Shashi Deshpande's latest novel explores the lives of two women, one obsessed with music and the other a passionate believer in Communism, who break away from their families to seek fulfilment in public life. Savitribai Indorekar, born into an orthodox Hindu family, elopes with her Muslim lover and accompanist, Ghulaam Saab, to pursue a career in music. Gentle, strong-willed Leela, on the other hand, gives her life to the Party, and to working with the factory workers of Bombay.

Fifty years after these events have been set in motion, Madhu, Leela's niece, travels to Bhavanipur, Savitribai's home in her last years, to write a biography of Bai. Caught in her own despair over the loss of her only son, Aditya, Madhu tries to make sense of the lives of Bai and those around her, and in doing so, seeks to find a way out of her own grief.


Cross-posted to 1001books.



I had never heard of Shashi Deshpande, and if this poll is any indication, neither has anyone else, at least outside of India. She is apparently quite a prolific and award-winning English-language author, but all of her books are published by Penguin Books India, and the copy I obtained had to be shipped to me from the UK.

I always reach for a good, concise description of the "type" of novel a book is, as opposed to the genre, and Small Remedies, I think, fits into the category of "finely crafted." Deshpande's prose is elegant but not fancy, conveying copious details in spare language. The book is very literary, owing to its interconnected narrative threads, and it's also very much a piece of women's fiction of the sort V.S. Naipaul would probably mock, because he's a great big literary troglodyte.


I've often wondered at parents who write of their dead children, of their illness, their suffering and death, making, I've thought, a sob story of it for public consumption. It has seemed distasteful to me, a kind of exhibitionism, this public display of private sorrow. Now I am beginning to understand. It's not just living children who need to be free, the dead clamour for release as well.


The first-person narrator is Madhu, who was raised by a widower father in a small village and as a child played with a girl named Munni, whose mother, Savitribai, was to become a renowned classical vocalist. Savitribai, an upper-class Brahmin woman, had left her husband to take up with her Muslim accompanist, causing a terrible mother-daughter rift between herself and Munni that is never healed. Munni invents a father and a personal history more to her liking, and eventually, rejects her own name and mother.

Years later, Munni is dead, and Madhu, her childhood friend, now a writer, travels to the home of the aging, famous Savitribai to write a biography of her life. But Small Remedies is really the biography of Madhu's life, starting from her childhood, with an indulgent physician father, a stern male nanny, and the unreliable Munni as her best friend, and moving through her adolescence and college years, raised by a kind aunt named Leela after her father died. Leela was a communist party worker and trade union activist.

All of this is revisited in Madhu's memories as she tries to extract the truth from Savitribai's redacted account of her own life's story, and draws parallels between herself and Savitribai. Because like Savitribai, Madhu lost a child: her own son was killed in a bus bombing, an event she has still not come to terms with.

The narrative is a braid of past and present, going back fifty years to Savitribai's youth as a trail-blazing singer daring to enter venues that women simply did not enter in those days, and hopping forward to the present and Madhu's attempts to get Savitribai to acknowledge her own daughter, a child she erased from her accounts in preference to a happier and less troubled personal history, and finally, the revelations that fractured Madhu's relationship with her husband Som even before the death of their son.


Startled, his eyes fly to my face. There's a puzzled look in them. And then he laughs and draws me close, he holds me tight. But for a moment before he does this, I see a look of regret on his face. It comes back to me now, when it's too late, telling me what I should have understood about Som: to him, I was chaste, I was untouched. I should have remembered that look, I should have kept it intact in my mind. But these things are lost in the trivia of daily living. And so, when I spoke to him, years later, on the night of my terrible dream, I was unconscious of anything but the need to unburden myself. Now I know that with my revelations I destroyed the girl he had married. Suddenly I became a stranger to Som, a woman he didn't know. And then it was he who changed. From a genial, easy-going man, he turned savage, destructive, hating me, hating himself.


Small Remedies is very much a work of Indian fiction, yet completely approachable to the Western reader. What it doesn't do — what non-Indians or Indians writing for a Western audience do, when writing about India — is explain all the Indian cultural notes, or drop Indian "flavor" into the text. The text is Indian-flavored through and through, because Deshpande assumes the reader is Indian and knows what shalwar kameezes and pithla bhakri and bhajans and ragas are. Self-evidently, this makes it a far more authentic and believable story than one exoticized with obligatory mentions of elephants, Ghandi, and Hindu gods. There are no elephants in this book. I think Ghandi is mentioned once. Hinduism plays a role, because of Muslim-Hindu tensions which are a pervasive undercurrent beneath parts of the story, but nobody blathers about Kali or Vishnu. Also, there's not a single white person in the book. This may explain why it's practically unread outside of India.

I enjoyed this book, because Deshpande's writing is smooth and has a pleasant, clear cadence, and while there isn't much "plot" to the story, you are drawn into it because you know there must be revelations and closure before it can end. The handful of central characters are all compellingly real and the gradual unveiling of their life stories and how they relate to one another and how all the themes tie together in the end becomes obviously the work of a master writer.


I can understand what she's saying, even if I don't know all the words. Obediently the boy lets himself down in a namaskar at my feet, the skinny body straight as an arrow, the scapular bones, like two wings on either side, slanted like those of a bird in flight, the newly-shaved head giving him the look of a fledgling bird. He gets up swiftly in almost the same movement. I touch him on the head.

What do I say? Ayushman bhava? Chirayu bhava?

May you live long. But what blessing can contend against our mortality? Mustard seeds to protect us from evil, blessings to confer long life — nothing works. And yet we go on. Simple remedies? No, they're desperate remedies and we go on with them because, in truth, there is nothing else.




Verdict: I haven't read much Indian fiction, but I enjoyed the language and execution of Small Remedies with a writer's appreciation for craft, even though the story itself isn't something that would normally interest me much. Almost a perfect book in terms of accomplishing what the author intended, I would say it deserves a place on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die at least as much as many of the more famous entries do.




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