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The Confined Contours of Femininity in the Narratives of Shashi Despande

By Silpi Maitra

Amidst all the female-centred narratives, what essentially dominates their stories is the perspective of his story. The projected viewpoint of a male that dominates throughout the narratives changing the viewpoint from female-centric to male-centred domain begins from the context of gender. The pandemic that resulted worldwide during 2020 and 2021 has reconstructed the idea of gender. Contextually and thematically ‘gender’ has been analysed in every narrative but the concept of gender sensitivity gained momentum within the context of the lockdown. The pandemic in recent days has become a global crisis amidst the socio-political-cultural complications that every nation has been battling individually. Amidst the assorted polarizations that exist regarding its origin or the forceful implementation of the virus into our systems, we need to look at the bifurcated conditions of human beings. The existence, in general, has been demolished and has been demarcated with several norms or rules. Although everyone irrespective of gender is suffering from innumerable problematic features along with the debilitating pain of suffering and death, it is the womenfolk who are going through excruciating pain and affliction. The lockdown has been intensely agonizing for women as they have been subjected to diverse forms of savagery, brutality and atrocity.

Apart from every form of domestic violence, both physical and psychic, psychosexual sadism has grappled with the consciousness of people recently. Marital rape is one such trauma that has crippled and victimised the subalterns. Being confined or locked down (both figuratively and literally) amidst the scarcity of economic resources that are needed for sustenance, the ravaging spree of masculinity has transformed the female bodies as the sites of violence. Although a culturally sensitive issue, how can marital rapes get justice when rapes,  in general,  get proliferated and are discerned through a diminutive lens? The rape culture becomes dominant to satiate or eulogise the constructed male egotism and falsified sense of hypersexuality. Let us agree to the countenance that the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 was just an eye-opener to the entire ruptured subsistence of women. They have always been marginalised and we as women apprehend that even being positioned in the 21st  century, we are the displaced subalterns because we never really belong anywhere. An analytical review will be generated while attempting this study through the lens of Shashi Despande as the “dark rooms” are present everywhere and in a patriarchal society like us, tales of marital rapes don’t even feature as significant events, as the bodies of the married women don’t belong to them anymore.

Women have always been marginalised and we as women apprehend that even being positioned in this 21st century, we have been afflicted souls. The gruesome outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in the loss of employment for males has inversely affected their tolerance which has seen a steady spike in the cases of domestic violence, not only in India but across the world. The number of cases and complaints that have been lodged and registered to the Women’s Commission amidst the lockdown has shown how volatile women’s situation is as they still fall prey to violence. The curse of the pandemic has deliberated on the fact that women are still the subalterns and are essentially voiceless. No matter how progressive we might sound on the issues and aspects of Gender Equality, it is the women and the transgender who are subjected to any and every form of vehement torture in this androcentric world. This article consciously tries to generate gender awareness amidst the diverse levels of connotations and denotations that society strictly imposes on our subjective selves. Theoretically, an attempt has been made to develop certain issues on gender sensitisation and coalesce the present-day events that have been generated recently. Interestingly enough, after the pandemic, the crucial need to be sensitive and aware of gender equality has become predominant. Most prominently, the need and the vehement urge to be aware of the socio-political-economical power relations between men and women apart from the radical perspective has been contextualised. 

Some pertinent questions that surface on this embryonic topic:

  • The Shadowy realms of existence: A normative approach to Feminism: Feminism has always been a broader spectrum of study, and the agonising pain of being locked up both psychically and physically has enhanced every level of comorbidity. One of the key questions that can be raised is what happens to the narratorial voices that are gauged by the density of their inebriated void.
  • Reconstituting the contextualised identities: Identities are never fixed; they are framed and reframed according to the fluctuating and volatile manifestations of the patriarchal norms. Does the postmodern world succeed or fail to offer an anodyne to the diseased femininity?
  • The paraphernalia of those trapped souls narrates a diverse tale of claustrophobia that the pandemic has generated. The schism that dilutes and convolutes the systematic phases of the female acquired selves, how can their subjected beings be a matter of pandemic discourse?
  • How is the deconstruction of the supreme ego of manhood possible during the diseased era of the pandemic?

The modern-day apocalypse has created a shuddering impact in the mindsets of the people because it is not a simple seasonal threat that enshrouds the lives of the people frequently. The present pandemic aspect has dilapidated the entire existing system and every persona is threatened by the context of ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’. The binaries of life and death have always marked our lives. As readers of English Literature, from time immemorial, we have always relished and inhaled exorbitantly the dark aspects of the times and fantasied every gruelling tale of dystopia voraciously. Then why is this sudden gripping fear that terrorises us with a sullen form of extermination? Right from the days of Defoe who created an endemic tale in his A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, we have glided past every text that tried to notify us about a pandemic that has occurred or might occur in near future. The question that surface is why is this traumatic behaviour towards this pandemic. Aren’t we diseased enough to combat the deadly consequences of it? Probably we are more caught up by the suddenness of it and the frightful appeal establishes the fact that this time it is real and goes beyond every metaphorical level. We, the readers, cannot be imbued within the surreal effects or the impacts of the literary works. This cannot be easily subsided because it is tangible in reality.

Just like a sudden volcanic eruption that demolishes everything, the present scenario has led our life to a standstill. Albert Camus in his existential mode had created the metaphysical dimension of plague in the mind of the readers who gasped at the angst and the void created by the absurdist framework. Yet the reading mind ponders on the helplessness of human beings in the face of a fiendish force. The sudden metamorphosis or transmogrification has changed our entire concept of survival. We are no less than Gregor Samsa, disfigured, disembodied and dismantled in both soul and body. The dark atmosphere that we have been thrust into feels like an absurd universe where our fate and destiny are managed by an omnipotent force. It seems that we have no other choice other than submitting gleefully to the durant fate. We are living with a constant fear that let us not be swept aside like the remnants of Samsa’s body as he refused to coexist with his morbidity. It is something that goes beyond every form of phantasmagoria. The fictional universe which depicted the parallel world seems to be a more natural world than the present one in which we are living.

Amidst all the discourses relating to gender and pandemic, the forcibly intrusive violence on women has been recorded and pen portrayed even before the pandemic got featured in literary narratives. Shashi Despande in her wonderful narrations has simultaneously dealt with the concept of marital rape even when it was a taboo aspect. Shashi Despande in her realistic way has presented the complicated psychological dilemmas into which they have been thrust. Every tale of violence that resembles the pandemic turbulence reveals the tryst with destiny. The problematic notion of identity crisis and existential angst have proliferated the view that a woman’s major quest is to locate her authentic self. The tussle between the centre and the margin became a highlighted form of reading as the male and female disparity accelerated beyond imagination. The major questions that surface is: what were the reasons behind the domestic violence and femicide which accelerated during this period? The psychological viewpoints adhere to the crisis as the severe financial crisis, and unemployment led to a disheartening form of frustration. According to the shared data of the National Women’s Commission of India, women reported boundless forms of violence including physical, emotional and economic. Apart from this, dowry deaths, denial of food, and shelter were also accommodated along with the violent form of sexual abuse. Although hunger and starvation although considered to be a basic form of need, the ferocious nature of sexual urge has also been implied. Hunger, starvation and gratification are almost forced and women almost choose to become self-abnegated beings.

Scripted long before the actual pandemic, Despande’s tales have desperately focused on the ‘other’, her narratives have been addressed to those selves who have been trying hard to retrieve their identities amidst the forged societal ones. Her characters strive to achieve wholeness and completeness that would rather help them to assert their selves. The silent suffering of the female which is socio-psychic is associated towards a constructed selfhood. The present tragic predicament of the females during the Pandemic goes back to the patriarchial narrowness and hegemonizing of their existence altogether. Possibly the accountability of being confined in a limited space spurred a form of insecurity that led to the form of a disastrous obligation of belonging. Time and space have a liminal form of relationship with people. Women, when bound by space and time, suffer from claustrophobic associations. Selfhood and freedom themselves become utopian entities. Women subjected to violence and torture start questioning their views, ideals, perspectives and priorities. What does it feel to be a woman in a crisis-ridden society which is diseased both by its physical and mental contours? Women suddenly became a form of liability during that critical juncture and became a subject to the gnashing male rage and crippling egotism. Shashi Despande in her narratives has questioned the authenticity and complications regarding marriage and motherhood. She has proclaimed the supreme imposition of the neglected self and has chosen a literary canvas where she can relativise the realities of a woman’s life. The pandemic has taught that a safeguard to this authentic, distinct and concrete self is needed and women during those precarious moments craved a breakthrough which they would negotiate with the familial ties that were stifling their existence. Some women who suffered the ravages of domestic violence were wives or mothers. Women who registered complaints of marital and sexual abuse belonged to different strata of society, starting from the underprivileged to the high upper-middle-class families.

Some failed to extricate themselves from the extreme predicaments and chose to kill themselves. This act of extremism only proliferates the ideal that their act negates their neglected self. The present diseased era of the pandemic has shown how the uncanny male ego works, by blooming in its own savage spree and claiming its masculine flavour or prowess by butchering the female sense of self through nocturnal sexual assaults. The gendered dimensions of being a male and a female in society are fortified only with the locked-down stage of existence. The recent reports have traced the dismantled and distorted personalities of people during the pandemic which had in a way accelerated the reports of separation and divorces. The lack of patience to deal with one’s spouse amidst the crisis questioned the entire social stability regarding marriage. The text of If I die Today by Shashi Despande questions the erratic stance of marriage and motherhood in Indian society. The dismal and alienated plight of Manju discloses the shattered reality of marriage :

A marriage. You start off expecting so many things. And bit by bit, like dead leaves, the expectations fall off. But two people who have shut themselves off in two separate glass jars? Who can see each other but can’t communicate? Is this a marriage? (P-24)


The shabby picturisation of the pandemic and the difficult ordeals faced by women have been recorded and reflected as a form of marital abuse, rape and disharmony in the work of writers from early literary history. A perfect representation of the bruised female psyche has been projected by Despande in her tales who envision creating their free and autonomous selves amidst the gendered catastrophe. As we have glided past those pandemic years, we have learned and unlearned many things simultaneously. Amidst all the extremities, we have analysed the theories of Gender and Performativity and investigated the present scenario as a form of discourse. The rampage that was caused by the onslaught of COVID-19 pointed out the animalistic and carnal behaviour which had wiped out the generous impact of humanity.

The present pandemic has disastrously and in a very drastic manner changed the psyche of human beings. Being trapped in the new normal world, they have probably been robbed of the essence of being human and how it feels to be human again amidst the caged realities. This cataclysm has shown how we have projected our own emotions, feelings and insecurities on others by victimising them in different ways. It shows how furtive the human mind is which cannot grapple with one severe crisis that the entire world is facing. The ecological crisis has shown us that human beings cannot escalate or win against Nature. Nature has its Karmic resonance of retrieving back what it had lost. Here human agents have become the symbol of evil with the Satanic intent of destroying the entire civilization. No matter how bleak the entire situation might be, we shouldn’t accept the fact that doomsday is near or it might be a possible apocalyptic end. The glorious human civilization will fight back and be triumphant as always challenging every horrendous or doomed aspect. More than a solution, literature can be a perfect anodyne that can embalm and soothe the toxic wound of the lacerated world.


Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Kolkata: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. London: George Routledge & Sons,1886.

Deshpande, Shashi. If I Die Today. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. New Delhi: Pocket Classics, 2010.

Liebowitch, Jacques. A Strange Virus of Unknown Origin. U.S.A: Ballantine Books, 1985.

Pathak, R.S. The Fiction of Shashi Despande. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1998.

Dr. Silpi Maitra  is a former student of English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong campus. She completed her M.Phil. degree in English Literature with a specialisation in Partition Literature from EFLU in 2014. Recently, she has obtained a PhD degree from the Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her PhD thesis is entitled The Jatrapala Tradition of West Bengal: A Study in Theatrical Communication.” She has also worked as a Guest Faculty of English Literature at English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong (2016-2019). She had also worked as a Guest faculty of English at Vivekananda College for Women in Kolkata for one year before joining EFLU Shillong as a course instructor in 2016. At present, she is working as the Assistant Professor of English, at Falakata College, Alipurduar, West Bengal. She has to her credit a rich compendium of national and international seminars, conferences, workshops and various research papers which have been published in several books and journals.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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