Rohit wonders whether the shadow had been patiently waiting all this while, wanting to reenter the house make its presence felt all over again. Not the shadow of a lost child this time, but the shadow of a child who is not yet born, who will, perhaps, never be born.’
Award winning author Shashi Deshpande’s most recent novel is written from the realm of shadows, between being and disintegrating, that relationships inhabit. It is the story of Arundhuti (Aru) and Rohit trying to rise above a past imperfect and an uncertain future to create a life together. It is the story of her sister Charu and her husband Hrishi, looking to find their place in a foreign society. And Seema, their other sister, and the price society demands of her for doing what she enjoys doing.
Covering three generations, Shadow Play is also about Aru’s parents, Gopal and Sumi, and Gopal’s undefined bond with Kasturi after Sumi’s death. It is the journey of Kasturi, from pain to finding the self. It is the story of Sumi’s mother Kalyani and the world of silence she is banished to by her an uncaring and unforgiving husband. And the difficult relationship Kalyani’s other daughter, Premi, has with her son. In between, Deshpande weaves in to the narration glimpses of other lives and the burden of their respective shadows, Rohit’s parents and brother, Charu’s aunt and mother-in-law,
Devaki, Aru’s colleagues, Surekha and Nagma and Tressa (who dies in a blast leaving behind her daughter Gracy and husband Ramu) and Rao, of Mira, her mother Belinda and husband Ranjan. Deshpande offers a bouquet of relationships and the hope and bitterness that accompanies each. Almost like another character is the house that Aru and her sisters inherit, the house that had belonged to Kalyani and her parents before that.
The back and forth narration and the overlapping lives make it difficult to give the story of Shadow Play in a nutshell, without losing the flavor of the tale. Aru and her two sisters have had much to cope with, their mother and grandfather’s deaths and the desertion by their father, Gopal, before that. When Aru and Rohit get married therefore, Kalyani who is battling cancer, wants Aru to enjoy her new life, without worrying about the family. Gopal comes back to be with Kalyani and his youngest daughter Seema, living in the same house with Aru, but hovering somewhere on the periphery of her life, awaiting her permission to become a part of it again.
But happiness continues to elude Aru. She is too serious to have the easy satisfaction of Charu or the self-contentedness of Seema. She is happy with Rohit, but is devastated at not being able to have a child, and such is her character, that she finds it difficult to share her pain with even her sisters or Rohit. When her colleague Tressa dies in an accident and Aru has to bring home her daughter Gracy for two days, her pain at Gracy’s loss is intensified by the vacuum in her own life. And then Seema is raped, and it seems her cousin Nikhil might have had a hand in it and the family is torn asunder by grief, doubt and suspicion.
Deshpande introduces in the plot themes like terror, the September 2011 attack in US and the resultant societal changes and blasts at home, crimes against women, feminism and gender equality and quality of media content. But the lilting beauty of the book, that stays like a lingering glow with the reader, comes from the author’s expert understanding and presentation of human emotions – difficult to express, impossible to understand or define and quietly controlling and changing the equations between two people.