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A Matter of Time, by Sashi Deshpande.

October 22, 2015

A Matter of Time, by Shashi Deshpande.  Feminist Press, 1999.  Afterword by Ritu Menon.  First published by Penquin India, 1996.

4 stars

A novel about an extended Indian family sorting out the stories each member brings from their shared past, by an acclaimed Indian woman writer.

When Summi’s husband, Gopal, leaves, she and her three adolescent daughters retreat into her parents’ home. In the crisis, they and their relatives explore their own identities and struggle to find a path ahead.  In the process, their past bleeds into the present and shapes the future. Relationships between spouses, as well as between siblings and between parents and children, gradually reveal hidden pains and joys. Change happens, like it or not, but memories provide continuity.

In some ways, A Matter of Time is a woman’s novel. It takes place in a domestic setting and a web of women characters provide insight into a wide range of women’s experiences as daughters, mothers, sisters, and wives. Mother-daughter bonds, both positive and negative, are central in their lives. Yet men are also key to the narrative, influencing the women’s lives by their absences as well as their presence. Gopal, Summi’s husband, provides a connecting thread in the book with his first-person account of what is happening. He feels his importance as a father as well as a husband, although he also sees how both roles change over time. Primarily through his eyes, readers encounter universal themes about the role of time and of life and death.

Sashi Deshpande is major Indian author who has written several novels and received various prizes. Her ability to create and hold together such a diffuse plot is testimony to her talent. She is not afraid to probe unanswerable questions about the degree to which events are determined by destiny or freely chosen. As an historian, I loved her attention to issues of why and how the past matters and what changes over time.

Deshpande writes in English, but her focus is capturing the lives of women in India, not on gaining an international audience. I respect how her novel is rooted in the myths and traditions of India. I must admit, however, that I often found myself struggling to understand what she was saying. Illusions to gods and goddesses and to traditional Indian stories left me blank. I even had trouble with the names and complicated relationships of the members of the extended family. A glossary and chart of characters would have helped me focus on the narrative itself.

None the less, A Matter of Time is an excellent book, important in understanding a variety of roles and expectations of Indian women. I recommend it heartily, especially for those readers who know something of Indian traditions and those who are curious about them. Most of all, Despande writes knowingly about the changing and interrelated lives that women live.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2015 4:08 pm

    I’ve added this one to my wishlist-India at Goodreads – and reminded myself that I really must get round to reading the foundation Indian myths. As Indian Lit becomes more prominent, it’s becoming a bit like not having read the Bible, not to know about their stories, IMO.
    (Oh dear, so much to read!!)

  2. October 28, 2015 12:47 pm

    Yes. If you have a recommendation for a translation or adaptation of them, I share your desire to know more about them whenever I read Indian Lit.

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