Once again, Deshpande depicts the middle class Indian women (usually Kannada speakers) who seek an identity beyond that of the familial one, who seek a role outside of the culturally prescribed one, and this protagonist is no different, except that she is one of Deshpande?s most quietly radical protagonists to date.
Devayani is a self proclaimed spinster, intellectual, well read, devoted to family, well respected, reserved and introspective. She is also uncharacteristically an adultress. Early in the storyline, Devayani falls in deeply and earnestly in love with a police district superintendent, who is a married man with a daughter. She begins an affair with him with the clear eyed knowledge that she is wronging others -- but she argues her lover is wronging them even more, as their husband and father -- and carries on the affair also with a clear understanding that it has no future. The word affair seems wrong in this context even if technically accurate, because the way Deshpande writes about it and presents it, 'affair' is far too sordid a term for such genuine feelings. Deshpande wins sympathy for her protagonist despite her being in the role of the mistress, the other woman, the adultress, by keeping her protagonist very down to earth, unsparing of herself, someone who does not fantasise and is entirely realistic, who is basically decent and high principled.
Devayani has the love and support of her close family members -- her sister, brother in law, aunt and uncle, cousins. There are no South Asian clichés here of emotional families tearing at their hair and beating their breasts and wailing that the girl has brought dishonour on all of them. Nothing remotely in that vein. Deshpande does not play to the gallery, she does not exoticise, she does not stereotype. Her cast of characters act with sincerity and natural feeling, they are dismayed but still loving when they discover Devayani's affair, they worry about her being hurt, they advise gently against it, they show respect for her autonomy, they are chagrined, anxious, bewildered, upset, even distressed, but they do not denounce her in Bollywood fashion nor are there melodramatic and histrionic scenes.
Devayani's quiet and solitary lifestyle changes when she is befriended by Rani, a glamorous, worldly, beautiful actress who is a new neighbour in Rajnur, the small town which is Devayani's family home. Through Rani, Devayani meets Ashok, her lover, who courts her determinedly in a most unusual style -- via regular phonecalls in the night, very brief exchanges, little apparently said, but with much understanding passing between the two. The mutual connection between Ashok and Divayani is understated but powerful, seemingly instant and yet in perfect synchrony. Thus too does Deshpande signal the 'rightness' of this otherwise socially wrong relationship. The book is aptly named, because once embarked on this connection, and then the relationship, and then in turn, the 'affair', Devayani moves beyond her normal landscape and into a 'country of deceit'. Her life which had been an open book to date, has to contain secret escapades and stolen hours/days.
There are many letters from Devayani's relatives interspersed in the narrative, which otherwise is mostly in the voice of the first person narrator. Those letters bring in other voices, which chime into Devayani's life and which are woven into her reality and worldview. There is a fascinating glimpse of a character called Sindhu, an aunt of Devayani's, and a most unusual and original character, again, one which defies stereotypes of Indian women. Deshpande's central women characters are typically strong personalities, of original mind, who perfectly understand convention and for most part conform, but who keep a kernel of integrity and autonomy within themselves, which they learn to reconcile with the wider society, with grace and calm compromise.
Deshpande's writing continues subtle and understated, as has always been her style. She weaves her tapestry with quiet coloured threads, but the picture which emerges is vivid, beautifully detailed, entirely realistic. This is essentially a tragic love story -- true love which cannot flourish, lovers who have met at the wrong times in their lives, love which must be sacrificed for principle and duty -- and yet, Deshpande removes the dramatic element of the tragedy, leaving only the quiet sorrow and resilient emotional tenacity of the protagonist.
Book Description: Devayani chooses to live alone in the small town of Rajnur after her parents' death, ignoring the gently voiced disapproval of her family and friends. Teaching English, creating a garden and making friends with Rani, a former actress who settles in the town with her husband and three children, Devayani's life is tranquil, imbued with a hard-won independence. Then she meets Ashok Chinappa, Rajnur's new District Superintendent of Police, and they fall in love despite the fact that Ashok is much older, married, and'as both painfully acknowledge from the very beginning'it is a relationship without a future. Deshpande's unflinching gaze tracks the suffering, evasions and lies that overtake those caught in the web of subterfuge. There are no hostages taken in the country of deceit; no victors; only scarred lives. This understated yet compassionate examination of the nature of love, loyalty and deception establishes yet again Deshpande's position as one of India's most formidable writers of fiction.
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