Shashi Deshpande’s Shadow Play casts a terrible spell on its reader: You can’t bear to stop reading it, while at the same time can’t bear to go on reading for fear of finishing it too soon—and paradoxically—for fear that something terrible is about to happen to its characters.
The cast of characters is large—as large as any Indian family—and for the impatient reader—initially a little difficult to keep track of. But by the end, you feel as though these are people you have known in real life—they have become acquaintances and friends—people you do care about. That’s because Shashi Deshpande has given her characters time and space and depth to be themselves; to come forth as real people, with emotions, points of view and attitudes you can easily identify with.
The book starts off with the wedding of Aru and Rohit who are the characters around which the novel revolves and goes on from there, occasionally back-tracking into the past which hangs shadow-like over the present. There’s Aru’s family—her father Gopal (and his friend, Kasturi), her tragically deceased (and deserted) mother, Sumi, her sisters, Charu and Seema, her grandmother Kalyani, and her aunts—and Aru’s life is as intricately involved in theirs as theirs is with hers. There is tragedy—the death of Aru’s beloved mother and grandfather in an accident, the long-ago, but never forgotten loss of a mentally challenged son (Aru’s brother) at a railway station—that scar the characters and their relationship with each other. There is silent hostility, there is the agonising over children—given up or rebellious—and of the heartbreak of childlessness, there is love—inside and outside marriage, young and not so young (!), alcoholism, domestic violence, and even terrorism and rape. A cocktail for a potboiler, you might imagine, but this is so skillfully and sensitively served up that it appears all too appallingly possible and close to the surface; yes, such things happen in families and to ordinary people and they can (and have) happen(ed) to you and me. There is drama, but no gung-ho melodrama, just horrific cold reality, the necessity to deal with crisis and get on with life.
The motive force—and possibly most contentious issue—of the book is Aru’s childlessness. She, a grave, modern, deep thinking young woman (a practising lawyer) cannot have a baby—and desperately wants one. She envies young mothers in parks, and the matter becomes as sensitive and painful as a blister on the heart. This is a point that many young women today may have issues with: what is the ultimate meaning of marriage? Is it only having children? The problem, of course, is there’s no way of finding out without actually having one, and once you do, “rewind” is not a realistic option! (Also, babies hold an amount of power completely disproportionate to their size!) Aru agonises over adoption—to the extent of wondering what the biological mother of a baby would be feeling while surrendering her baby. She wonders if she would be able to treat (and love) an adopted baby in the same manner as she would her own.
The story is narrated in part, in the first person by Gopal (Aru’s father) and by the author in the third person. Deshpande is never an intrusive storyteller, the writing is clear and austere, the events described matter-of-factly, characters sculpted holistically and with an eye for depth and detail.
It is a book whose characters will stay with (and be remembered by) you for a long, long time, because inevitably there will be facets which will have struck the chords of your own life.