Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Book Review: The Dark Holds No Terror

A Book is a journey. The process is important, and not the end! It takes you to a different world, a different myriad of emotions unfold; and you are left with the feeling that it was not a mere book after all, but an experience for a lifetime. Perhaps for this reason only, every voracious reader would vouch for the experience and importance of books. In fact, it is a blessing that we have something called books, which gives us pseudo-understanding of situations and experiences. But all these things hold true only for good books. As also I recollect from somewhere that when you read a book, and if you do not like it, it motivates you to write something worthwhile, which would improve the value of the book. But personally, when I read a good book, it motivates me to write something as good, and as true to us. It is a characteristic of a good writer that when a reader reads it, he would feel one with the characters. The characters would be real, who think like us and feel like us. Additionally, a writer’s work is complete when a reader reads it. That is when the process gets completed.
Coming back to the book, a book can give you the joys of achievement, the anguish of failures, the pain of unending struggle, the longing of love, the pleasure of companionship, and every colour of life.

Selection of Book

I have been a reader (would not say a voracious reader), all of my life as far as I remember. I started reading novels from the time I was in Class 6. I started with Famous Five series, Hardy Boys’ series, Nancy Drew series, St. Anne’s series, and the likes; then I moved to Agatha Christie, then to Sidney Sheldon and meanwhile I was heavily into Mills & Boon series (read more than 100). But in the last two years, I experimented a lot of other authors because I suddenly realized that I am still an illiterate as far as literature is concerned. It is almost unlimited. In fact, the whole life is also not enough to read all of the literature of my interest only, leave all of them! So from that time, I am on a pursuit to read as much as I can. Some people say that Sidney Sheldon, etc, is totally crap. But I think that all of them definitely say something—either about the characters, the context, or at least about the writer. So in the last two years, I read Shashi Deshpande, John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robin Cook, Anurag Mathur, Sandipan Deb, and am yet to read Khushwant Singh, Gurucharan Das, Shashi Tharoor, Vikram Seth, V.S. Naipaul, and the list can just go on.
So when I chanced upon Shashi Deshopande’s novels in my library, I tried The Binding Vine. I found it awesome. Then I read Intrusion and Other Stories; it was remarkable. Then I read The Dark Holds No Terror. I look forward to opportunity to read her other books.
When it came to writing a review and the reflections of Indian Society in any book, the obvious choice had to be one of the books by Shashi Deshpande.

About the Author

Shashi Deshpande, daughter of the renowned Kannada dramatist and Sanskrit scholar Shriranga, was born in Dharwad. At the age of fifteen she went to Mumbai, graduated in economics, then moved to Bangalore, where she gained a degree in law. Her writing career began in earnest only in 1970, initially with short stories, of which several volumes have been published. She is the author of four children's books and seven previous novels, the best known of which are 'The Dark Holds No Terror', 'That Long Silence', which won the Sahitya Akademi award, and 'Small Remedies'.
The best thing about her is that her characters are real and alive. They are not cut boards in black and white; they are grey characters that behave differently in different situations. She creates a world of characters and situations that are identifiable, and experience emotions that are at once complex and cathartic. There is so much detailing in her novels that you cannot but feel the joy and pathos of the characters inside you. They appear as mere description of your own feelings. She leaves back such imprints on the mind of her readers that they cannot let go the experience for a long long time.
Her books are about families, real families, the bondages, the bindings and the confinements of relationships. She has been quietly writing for the last thirty years, without fanfare, without ceremony, about the human predicament, playing out the lives of ordinary people who we might encounter on the streets, bringing into sharp focus the meaning of life itself. She started her literary career in England by writing short pieces on her stay there, moved on to writing short stories, which were published in leading Indian magazines. In 1978, The Legacy, the first collection of short stories was published in India. Since then, she has brought out four other collections of short stories, has written six novels, two crime novels, and four books for children. Her work has been translated into various Indian and European languages.
Whether she writes short stories or novels, Deshpande writes mainly about "everyday India, a society in which we breathe, a culture to which we belong. Her major concerns emerge from our own environment, from our immediate world, holding up mirrors to our own lives

The central character of this novel is Sarita, and most of the issues she has, is related to the patriarchical society. Thus we might tend to believe that The Dark Holds No Terrors is a feminist novel. But this is not a story of an oppressed woman, or abusive marriage or monstrous men - the usual fare of feminist agenda among Indian writers! There are places where she takes a few digs at the patriarchy but it is essentially about a human being who has suffered terribly all her life and then finds the courage to take control of her life. She tries to analyse her life, what she has and what she has not, the experiences from the past, which haunt her, her current predicament. Thus essentially, this novel is about an individual and her dilemmas. She gets an upbringing typical of that time—the importance given to male child, the reminders of her identity as a girl, importance given to people placed at high places in the society (for example, doctors), sanctity of marriage as an institution, etc. All these experiences make the person she becomes eventually—as all of us do!
'The Dark Holds No Terrors' is a very intense book. The book is full of sentences which one would remember for a long time, which one would love to quote many times.


Shashi Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terrors is so strikingly real; you need to touch it, to feel it. It is the story of you, I, some friend or just anybody from the faceless crowd. It dwells into the human predicament, playing out the lives of ordinary people who we might encounter on the streets, bringing into sharp focus the meaning of life itself. There is intense interiority in this novel, and the use of the first person by the writer, for her female protagonist weave a web of intimacy around the reader, an effect that is enhanced by her near total focus on the domestic - the almost mundane. It is so easy to lose one’s own identity to the protagonist’s.
This is the story of Saru who feels like a trapped animal, trapped by her own guilty feelings. The story that unfolds is the guilt she bears for her brother Dhruva's death, along with guilt of abandoning her parents, guilt about her mother's death which she learns about accidentally, which in turn permeates her entire life, her feelings about herself, her career as a physician, her marriage, her feelings towards her husband Manu and the kids. Throughout her life she remains trapped by her need to succeed at any cost. By the prize she has paid to succeed in life. By the reason behind her ambition to succeed. By her need to find somebody who would care for her. The futility of her search becomes obvious to her when she hears what her mother had commented on listening to the end of the war in Mahabharata. The mother had said, on listening to how Dhuryodhana leaves the battlefield and goes into a lake waiting for the Pandavas to come and kill him, "… that's what all of us have to face at the end. That we are alone. We have to be alone."
This kind of utter loneliness a human being faces in life stands at the core of 'The Dark Holds no Terrors.' Saru is lonely because she has not received any love all through her life. As a child, as a young girl, she felt rejected by her mother, who preferred Dhruva, her younger brother. She felt rightly that her mother blamed her for the death of Dhruva, who died by drowning when he was just seven. Everyone has failed her. She lived her life with the guilt, which was inflicted on her not by her on conscience, but her mother. Later when she begins to think that she had found someone in Manu, who would cherish her forever; she goes through traumatic experience when he rapes her. Suddenly, she is alone again.
Perhaps it is not the story only of Saru; most of the women live their lives in loneliness, in one form or the other.
At one point of time, the writer writes about women… “ going on with their tasks, and destroying themselves in the bargain, for nothing but a meaningless modesty” Womanhood has always been made a source of great shame. There is promiscuity in the affairs of a girl. She is made ashamed of her body and she ends up hating oneself, for no reason or fault of hers. Obviously, this does wonders to her self-image!
This leads me to one of my own experiences with one of my relatives. She is my mother’s sister-in-law. She has 6 sisters in her family, and adding her, they are 7 sisters. Thus she did not have much affinity towards a girl. Her first child has been a girl, but after the second child, a boy, came; she started abusing her daughter by saying several things to her. Her daughter was a premature baby and extremely weak, who had to be kept in an incubator in the hospital for 6 months. Thus she is weak by birth and hence not too bright in her studies. Instead of motivating her to do well in her studies, my aunt keeps harping to her that—you are dumb. You cannot do anything in life. You are totally useless. You do not have way of doing things. Day by day her academic performance is deteriorating. Initially she was with the best Convent school in her town, but when she failed, my uncle admitted her to some other English medium school; and with promotion to the higher class. She failed again; he transferred her to a Hindi medium school, and again with promotion. Obviously she is doing worse in her studies, and it is understandable that this would not improve. I really feel that if a mother cannot empathise with her own child then who would the child turns to? Was it her fault that she was a weak baby? Was it her fault that she was born to a mother who already had 6 sisters? To top it all, the future of this girl is quite apparent. She would be married off as soon as she does her graduation, if at all she does it. Then she would spend the rest of her life with that low self-esteem, a sense of incapability and incompetence. Why women are so alone whatever role they are in? Everyone says and signs off that it is very difficult to understand women, and that nobody can. And she remains lonely.
The illogical and absurd traditions, ironically followed by women, are bondages on her growth as an individual—pain, sufferings and compromises—the great essence of woman. She has just remained a ‘thing’ to be passed on from parents to husband.
Even in the novel, all through her life one passion rules Saru's actions, to show her mother, to make her realise that she is also a person, a living and breathing person, a person with her own will, ambitions, and rights; to succeed in life is to be the panacea for Saru's maladies. The only way for her to avoid being bothered by her mother's words, "Why didn't you die? Why are you alive and he (Dhruva) dead?" Years on, Sarita still remembers her mother's bitter words uttered when as a little girl she was unable to save her younger brother from drowning. Now her mother is dead and Sarita returns to the family home, ostensibly to take care of her father, but in reality to escape the nightmarish brutality her husband inflicts on her every night.
To 'show her mother, to make her realise', Saru works hard as a student. Only her school and her books exist for her. It is like revenge against her mother because she makes her believe that it was she who let her brother die. Her mother trivializes her being by saying that she should have died instead of her brother, as if her life did not have any meaning. Just like happens in households. Men always have a superior position in Indian household. All of us must have seen at least once in our lives how women of the house serve the food first to the men. In those houses where the means are limited, even there, the women are supposed to live in scarcity; the men most of the times get what they want. Why men are considered superior to women? Why this inequality?
Saru’s life is unconsciously oriented towards proving something to her mother. Her burning ambition to study medicine is rewarded when she gets a first class in the finals at the school. That is the one time her father supports her, against her mother. Saru moves to Bombay, joins medicine, meets once again Manohar whom she had known long ago as a dashing young poet, the heartthrob of most of the college females. This meeting culminates in the two of them falling in love. Marriage follows soon. Against the wishes of Saru's parents. During the time they spend in a chawl with a toilet they had to share with others, she tells herself "…if there is a heaven on earth it is this…" It is the only time in her life that Saru experiences what it means to be wanted, needed, loved, and to love without any kind of reserve.
But soon Saru's confidence in Manu's literary capabilities evaporates. To succeed professionally is the one goal of her life, and she does not allow any sort of scruple to come in the way. Saru has no respect left for Manu who does not question her ways but takes revenge on her by behaving sadistically towards her in the nights, turning the darkness, once more, in a terrifying experience. She says,”… the esteem with which I was surrounded made me inches taller. But perhaps, the same thing that made me inches taller, made him inches shorter”.
Saru explains her predicament gruesomely. “The hands continued their quest for new areas of pain. Now the horror of what was happening to me was lost in a fierce desire to end it. I could not, would not, bear it.” To think of it, they had a love marriage but the perhaps the idea of success is nice, not a successful wife! Her husband actually rapes her every night to show his contempt towards her. She is stuck in a marriage where things have turned sour. She had taken up every opportunity to stand against her mother—be it education or be it marriage—so standing at this threshold, she is afraid to accept it even to herself that she wants a way out. The first thing is that she would be proved wrong in her decision.
It is when Saru is almost at the end of her sanity, not knowing how to deal with such a sadistic husband, that she accidentally hears of her mother's death. Suddenly she is shaken out of her obsession in life till that point of time—revenge! Throughout her life, she wanted to prove something to her mother but suddenly when she discovers that her mother is no more, the reality dawns her that she actually neglected her mother in that period of time, and now she is no more. There is no more opportunity to make things even, to make things right. This instigates a sense of guilt in Saru.
The 'rape' she endures every night with her husband, is the way she punishes herself, again brought on with a lot of guilt from her past and now combined with her doubts about her love for Manu, even her being ashamed of him
Saru returns to her parent's home, in the pretext of comforting her father, but actually seeking comfort herself by getting away from a marriage, which has become a farce. The novel in fact opens with Saru's coming back home. The eventlessness of the life there, the affectionate but undemanding relationship between Madhav, a young student who lives at this home, and the old father act as soothing balm to Saru's deep wounds. She is content to be part of this quiet life, to forget her profession, her young children, her life till then. Just to drift along in life. Asking nothing of the days, expecting nothing from them. Still she feels acutely lonely till she finally opens her mind to her father. It is this seemingly colourless person who advises her to let go of the dead people - of Dhruva, of her mother - and, not to turn her back on things again, to turn around and look at them, to talk to Manu. It is not only these words of his, but also his listening to her voicing her innermost wounds, and acknowledging readily that he really cannot do anything for her that heal Saru. She knows that like Dhuryodhana she also is alone and she is ready to bear, finally, the responsibility for her life. She tells herself, "All right, so I'm alone. But so's everyone else. Human beings … they're going to fail you. But because there's just us, because there's no one else, we have to go on trying. If we can't believe in ourselves, we're sunk."
It is when Saru understands that mere darkness of which Dhruva was scared, during which she was terrorised by her husband's behaviour, in which she was troubled by her nightmares, does not really hold any terror. Rather such terrors are harboured within herself. Only she can exorcise these demons. She faces the fact that in the end it is SHE who has lost her love for Manu, and it is SHE who needs to make the decision about her life and marriage on her own. No one to blame, no one to give her easy answers, no absolutions.
The nightmares that Saru has in the dark reflect the terror that Dhruva felt of the dark and the reason why he would beg to sleep with her as a little boy. She carries this image with her whenever she thinks of him. It is not the dark that holds the terror but what is in her own tormented mind. The physician who thought the body is the 'ultimate reality' realizes the real control that the mind has over matter and finally learns to heal herself.
When she thinks about her family, images of her children come alive, the interactions she has with them. In the initial part of the novel she says about her family--“A family the right size. The right kind. Like the ads. A happy family…With the skeleton locked firmly in the cupboard.” It reflects the dichotomy of most of the Indian families. We feel pride in the number of successful marriages. But when we look deeper into the real cause of this ‘success’, we would find that even the definition of successful marriage is far from real. In India, a marriage is successful until the time the couple live together, or if they are not separated. No matter that the man beats up his wife daily, no matter that the children are not looked after well, no matter that there is no love left in the marriage. The problem in India is that historically women have been dependent on men financially. Thus till the time they came of age for marriage, they have been properties of their fathers, and later, after marriage, they were considered properties of their husbands. Once married they were supposed to be at their in-laws’ place; and no matter what happens, they have to bear all injustice and compromise to make their marriage ‘work’. There has never been any support structure for women who have divorced their husbands. They have rarely been taken back. Thus a woman tries her best to cope with the situation till her last breath. Even today, no matter how much liberated women have become, culturally they are still the same. Divorce and separation do not list there. From outside it might seem like a successful marriage, as Saru says, but it might not be so really, like her own! But her case is not only a case of Marital Rape but there is complexity in understanding the psyche of Saru. The 'rape' she endures every night with her husband, is the way she punishes herself, again brought on with a lot of guilt from her past and now combined with her doubts about her love for Manu, even her being ashamed of him. Coming home, getting into the routines that her mother did, transforming herself into her mother, young Madhav's presence in the house and him calling her Saruthai as Dhruva did, all these are mechanisms that help her towards healing herself. The last conversation she has with her father is very telling. She faces the fact that in the end it is SHE who has lost her love for Manu, and it is SHE who needs to make the decision about her life and marriage on her own. No one to blame, no one to give her easy answers, no absolutions.
The nightmares that Saru has in the dark reflect the terror that Dhruva felt of the dark and the reason why he would beg to sleep with her as a little boy. She carries this image with her whenever she thinks of him. It is not the dark that holds the terror but what is in her own tormented mind. The physician who thought the body is the 'ultimate reality' realizes the real control that the mind has over matter and finally learns to heal herself.

Issues related to Indian Society reflected in the book

Preference of male child
Preference of male child is inherent in our patriarchical society. Many a times it leads to sibling jealousy, as also evident in the novel. But more than that it has led to angst for her mother. The truth is that the desire for a boy is so inherent in our culture, that no matter how much people claim that girls are as desirable as boys; once in a while the fact is definitely spilled out. Earlier the difference in their upbringing was too stark, but now although there is no real difference between the upbringing of a girl and a boy (in urban India), the difference still becomes apparent when she cannot go out unchaparoned, when her education is a tool to get her a good husband, when the idea that a boy stays to take care of his parents, is too overwhelming.
In the novel, when Saru informs her mother that her brother was drowned, her mother instinctively says why did not she drown in his place? There were other instances also when she was reminded by her mother again and again that she has to be married off.
Female foeticide is a product of this obsession with the male child. It is assumed that since girls are married off, and the boys stay with their parents, thus parents would depend on them later in their old age for their care. But there have been numerous cases against this assumption. Another thing is Dowry. The tentacles of the vice called dowry is so deep that even after such a large population has been educated, it has stayed. When a girl is born in a household, it is considered that she is a debt, a liability; while when a boy is born, he is an asset, who would earn and take care of his parents later on. Thus any expenditure for a boy does not seem much, but when it comes to girls, there is always this thought at the back of their mind that they have to pay a huge sum of money as dowry for the girl, so why spend more on her! Perhaps relationship as pure as a parent’s and a child’s also driven by what do I get, and what do I lose!

Male ego
In a patriarchical society, it is neither accepted by the man himself, nor by the society that women should hold a better position than men. In a marriage, if the wife earns more than the husband, the separation is almost imminent. No matter how much love the man claims for his wife, when it comes to difference in earnings and status, he always expects that he has to be superior to her. Over the years, women have accepted this without question, but now that she is a little more liberated, she questions this. As even Saru says at one point of time that had it been the time when women were chained to their husbands, and liked it that way, it would have been better for her marriage, but the idea of liberation and equality has brought turmoil in our lives because women’s expectations have grown but men have not accepted it yet.
Saru and Manu had been in love deeply. They married against the wishes of her parents. But later when Saru becomes more successful and respected, it creates a rift between the two, which was forever. It is really a matter of wonder that a man who claims complete love and devotion for his wife, suddenly starts to think her as his competitor.
In a movie called Arth by Mahesh Bhatt, the story is about an extra-marital affair. The wife is completely ignorant till the reality actually hits her, that her husband is being disloyal to her. She is left to wonder about her own incapacities, faults and reasons why that happened to her, when theirs was also a love marriage! She begins a journey of self-realisation, begins to discover life single-handedly. Later, when the husband wants to get back to her, she asks him only one question,” Had it been her, who had been disloyal and went away leaving him behind, for some other man; would he accept her back?” He said,” No” And she leaves without a word. It is an excellent portrayal of the truth of the society how men are easily forgiven for their deeds, and how women have to carry the burden of mistake for the rest of their lives. In fact, even men think that it is quite acceptable for them to commit mistakes, because they know that it would not be remembered for much time. This attitude of society has developed this male ego, and pampered it over the years; that is why it does not and cannot go so easily.

Marital violence
Over the years, men have used violence to express their dislike and hatred. There have been cases of violence against women in various forms—domestic violence, female foeticide, dowry deaths, etc—but for too long, the existence of marital rape had remained unacknowledged.

Female—the inferior sex?
There were several instances, including the one when Saru’s mother asks her why she did not die instead of her brother, which reflect the orientation of the society itself.
“You’re growing up,’ she would say. And there was something unpleasant in the way she looked at me, so that I longed to run away, to hide whatever part of me she was staring at. ‘You should be careful now about how you behave. Don’t come out in your petticoat like that. Not even when it’s only your father who’s around.” This conversation is not an isolated case. I am sure most of the girls have heard this during their growing up years. Why is it done so? Perhaps all mothers have done this to their daughters since time immemorial. But they have never tried to cure the problem, by instilling the right kind of values in the men folk she can approach, at least her son. She is the first school where he learns the trades of this world. A mother might think as her duty to teach her daughter that she is vulnerable, but could not it be better that she rather taught her son that women are to be respected. If a man errs, the blame is still on woman because the man gets off as he is expected to behave errantly. But never a woman. After all, a woman should be responsible for herself.

Final word
Perhaps there is some fault in our system, in our society. The women are liberated, supposedly, but the minds of men as well as the women are not liberated yet. So we have miles to go.


  1. itz useful... thank u..

  2. Anonymous12:04 PM

    its conflict of sarus life

  3. Anonymous7:10 AM

    Good though, u need not say about your experience inbetween..which probably confuses the fresh readers.

    1. Thank you for taking time to go through this, and for sharing your thoughts.

  4. its useful n notable information about the book...thanks

  5. It was a wonderful reading experience. Keep it up.
    SP Bhardwaj

    1. Thank you for reading this. I wrote it for a project really long time back.