For a confessional poet, it is difficult to maintain an air of mystery. Like her predecessor Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande bared it all in her autobiographical poems and stories: experiences of womanhood, tensions and frustrations with men, and strained relationships with her own children.
Although she wrote about the mundane, Deshpande had a distinctive voice which was strongly feminist. She tackled themes of love, abandonment and loneliness with a curious mix of self-critical humour and lyricism.
Born to the illustrious anthropologist Iravati Karve and the granddaughter of the social reformer D.K. Karve, Gauri Deshpande (1942 – 2003) had big shoes to fill. Unlike her family members, however, she chose the medium of literary expression and excelled as a Marathi and English poet, writer and translator. She also taught at Fergusson College and later at the then University of Pune.
Her most famous poem ‘The Female of the Species’ offers great insight into her style.
The Female of the Species
Sometimes you want to talk
about love and despair
and the ungratefulness of children.
A man is no use whatever then.
You want then your mother
or the girl with whom you
went through school,
and your first love, and her
first child – a girl –
and your second.
You sit with them and talk.
She sews and you sit and sip
and speak of the rate of rice
and the price of tea
and the scarcity of kerosene.
You know both that you’ve spoken
of love and despair and ungrateful
Through the ordinary concerns in the lives of women, she explores the unique bonds of joy and sorrow that characterize female friendships.
Often, she turns her gaze inwards to examine her own lived realities and conception of self. This prodding and unraveling comes at a great personal cost – the bitterness and regret that we see in poems such as the one below:
If I peel away, layer by layer
at memories, deposits of habits
residues of virtues, I find
Myself an onion
A little flavor
and whorls of indigestion and bad taste in its wake.
(From Beyond the Slaughterhouse)
But even amidst this sorrow and regret, Deshpande finds ways and means of sustenance, even of happiness. In ‘Small Joys’, she zooms in on the “wars” of everyday life that give us meaning and hope.
Engaged in domestic tasks severally
we talk desultorily: last week’s party
rumours of a political marriage
where to put unexpected guests
elder’s worrisome shenanigans
younger’s temper, hasty and uncertain;
conversations which are continually disrupted
by the day’s unending demands then end
in a long walk, visit with friends
dinner on leftovers. . . .
Before turning out the light on tired faces
like passionate warriors weary of wars
embattled lovers rejoicing in rest—
wasn’t that one of the good weekends!
Deshpande died in Pune in 2003 due to complications arising from alcohol abuse, an unfortunate end for a warrior who found and provided courage through her words.