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Shashi Deshpande’s Strangers to Ourselves is a contemplative novel about a woman trying to come to terms with her own potency and contradictions.
Do we really think we can comprehend other people, or is it that we know nothing, even about ourselves? Are we strangers to ourselves? Shashi Deshpande’s profound novel sets out to investigate this through the reflections and thoughts of Aparna, a successful, self-sustaining oncologist who has made peace with her solitary life following the breakup of her marriage.
At a recital where Aparna lands up quite unexpectedly, she is introduced to Shree Hari, a classically trained singer and a virtuoso of sorts. She soaks in the magic of his music that transcends barriers and enters straight into her soul and immediately knows that he is exceptional. She is impressed by the great, unobtrusive sense of humility of the maestro. A few meetings later, a fast and solemn love connection ensues, and they begin to seep into each other’s lives and homes as though by osmosis.
But as their connection deepens, Aparna begins to view love as an exchange of power. Though she wants to love and be loved, to support and be supported by Hari, she flinches from intimacy. After her first marriage ended, the mere thought of living out the rest of her life with another individual made her deeply uneasy. Despite being immersed in her love for Shree Hari, she trembles at the thought of getting married to him and having to succumb to the gender roles expected of her.
Aparna is also disillusioned by the failed marriage of her parents, Gavi and Sulu; after all, in her eyes they seemed to be the ideal happily-ever-after couple. The ease with which people could shed human relations alarmed her; once her parents had severed their bond, they didn’t even seem to want to exist in each others’ lives, even in the periphery.
By using unassuming language, Deshpande stitches together multiple subplots around the central thread of the love story of Aparna and Shree Hari, accentuating her themes by a weaving of past and present as Aparna tumbles through conflicting feelings.
One subplot comprises Aparna’s meaningful friendship with a woman who is her cancer patient, Jyothi. She and her family reach out to Aparna as if to a life raft, clinging on to her as Jyothi hurtles towards death. Through her association with Aparna, Jyothi gets an opportunity of a lifetime to translate into English a mysterious novella written out in Marathi that Aparna discovers amongst her father’s stash of journals. This novella, based on a woman named Ahalya, forms a parallel plot to Aparna’s narrative. The endeavor gives a new meaning and purpose to Jyothi’s life as she takes refuge in the fact that her writing will live on after her death, and she will be able to leave her everlasting stamp in the world.
The author illuminates the strife that hardworking artists from humble middle-class milieu have to face in the city of Mumbai through the characters of Hari, and Gavi, Aparna’s father and an illustrious theatre artiste. On one hand, as Aparna spirals in never-ending episodes of guilt towards her father, who thought of himself as the failed theater artiste, she is equally unsettled that she could only appreciate the mellifluous music of Hari like most other listeners, but couldn’t ever begin to fathom the depth of his art in its entirety. A confused Aparna constantly hides her tangled thoughts and feelings from Hari, interfering with the possibility of attaining true intimacy with him.
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The real tragedy is that all these characters, while desiring to understand and be understood, more often than not hurt one another by withholding their inner fears, secrets, and insecurities from each other.
Will the intense affection between Aparna and Hari make them soar to exalted heights or will it turn out to be their undoing? Shashi Deshpande strives hard to put the lifeline of her characters under the lens and bring out the emotional grammar of their life’s narratives as they plough through various experiences and emerge from it.
However, the novel occasionally does buckle under the weight of its own aspirations. It is not sufficiently clear from the narrative though, as to why Shree Hari, who holds fast to old-fashioned notions of a family and that of a woman, chases after a refined and liberated lady like Aparna. It is disappointing that his character seems to lack an understanding of what Aparna truly is, and what motivates her actions.
And Aparna’s own reticence and internal ruminations don’t help forge their bond either. Her meditations over the nature of true intimacy, on how to define it, and how to achieve a true connection with another human, when in fact, we seem to be strangers to ourselves, are capable of evoking a slew of mirrored sentiments and epiphanies in the reader. Her wound is about the impossibility of being equal when in love with another human, of coming to terms about being left out from her loved one’s life in some way.
Thus, though together in love, she has to contend that their souls cannot truly fuse and in that sense, they will remain forever separated. It is Aparna’s spirit of obsessive reflection and self-inquiry that animates the novel, giving it the backbone of philosophical underpinnings that make the novel well worth a read.
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Image source: thoughtful young woman by Shutterstock.
I'm a language editor who enjoys reading literary fiction.
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