The Depiction Of Women In Socialite Evenings By Shobha De
Shobha has pictured the woman not only as protagonist but also as motivating factors in society. Karuna’s marriage is a failure since it is loveless, joyless and bridgeless. She hates the stand-offish and cruel behaviour of the husbands who often kept themselves busy in drab monotonous activities like reading the business pages of a newspaper. Karuna, the main character and narrator of Shobha De’s Socialite Evenings is not concerned with the lot of women. But here that concern changes to ‘I am the good thing’ and even this ‘I’ does not stand for any commitment to spiritual and moral values but it is a good quality because it can be dressed up and presented as an extremely marketable product over the media. Karuna’s obsession with ‘I’ and ‘the good thing is me’ becomes clear when the journalist of a foreign magazine comes up with a proposal to make a documentary with Karuna’s experiences as the focal point of such a film.
Even during the period when she has been divorced by her husband and has to move from one place to another in search of a job, her solo concern during this stage, too, is how she can shake off her middle-class background. Karuna’s husband is inadequate and incomplete since he lacks the traits of an ideal husband. Karuna’s imaginary craving for the fulfilment of her physical desires finds reflection in her fantasies. Anjali’s fancy place in Malabar Hill where Karuna usually goes is symbolically the projection of her fancy, her dream which is reality. Karuna faced all difficulties but she did not protest but obeyed her husband dutifully. Her husband is not a cruel person and he even throws away all her sins, like her affair with Girish. Later also when she leaves her husband’s house and starts living with Anjali the idea of keeping the baby does not sink into her system firmly. Once again the consideration is she-whether her parents would accept her with the child. She gives an inkling of her thoughts after her husband has talked to her at length about the settlement. But the moment her friend Anjali hears of such an ‘idea’ germinating in Karuna’s mind, she decides to nip it in the bud. She tells Karuna, “Don’t be crazy.
A baby is a life-long responsibility. ”Women in Shobha’s novels symbolize the overpowering materialism and the lack of spirituality that characterizes modern age. With the crumbling of moral and ethical values there is an inner conflict which drives the modern Indian women to take shelter in different identities for momentary solace. Girish, the great art filmmaker, exhorts Karuna to take life more seriously and commit herself to some serious thing like cinema. What Girish implies is that Karuna should take her role of Shakuntala in his film more seriously. Even her intellectual pursuits suggest that she is capable of involving herself in anything serious, for her preoccupation is with only cross-word puzzles and newspaper-chess. It appears that Karuna has just a formal relationship with her husband. Intimacy between the husband and the wife is lacking for Karuna who never calls her husband by his name but derogatorily as Black Label. Anjali throws off the traditional conventions of moral values. She enacts a marriage of her choice with Abe. Karuna too discards conventions and she had extra-marital relationship with Krish. Even she dares to restrain her husband from a week long sexual orgy with Krish Kukherjee in Rome. When Karuna’s husband comes out with a package deal containing an assured income and all the luxuries which she had until now been enjoying, her only remark is the package sounds sweet. Similar is the case with Anjali, her second marriage to the homosexual Kumar is nothing but an exchange for the Porches, emeralds, holidays and so on. Despite these facets of a woman’s personality, Socialite Evenings is a success story. Karuna fights her way up after divorce, gets recognition in advertising and television productions and becomes financially independent.
In a writer who describes herself as a ‘traditional’ mother to her six children, who is saddened by the breakdown of family and customs of India under economic pressures in times of social change, who flatly refuses to accede to writing made-for-the-West books, the easy irreverence with which Shobhaa De bulldozes all conventional taboos to concoct lusty, shocking sensual scenes to sell her novels arouses a profound sense of awe and askance. It really needs a lot of courage in a conservative society like India to confidently write on erotic extra-marital affairs as she does time and again. Her books put an unflinching gaze on upper middleclass India that from a woman’s point of view which has never been done before. And in this process she reveals those threatening aspects of India’s two thousand year old culture that form most likely ingredients of a commercial novel. In fact, De’s reputation precedes her: either she has been the most over-hyped or under-estimated Indian English woman writer today. Since the days she turned personal lives of Bollywood cine-stars into the front pages of Stardust, ripping through their personal lives, gossiping about their off-reel lives to promote its sale, and today when her novels have featured extensively in university courses in India and abroad, De has become a much a controversial figure in literary and critical establishments. However, while giving a new definition to the mass market best seller with her bold and highly individualistic style, De has all along been an important social commentator on the changing faces of middleclass Indian women of our times. Her writing is bold, pragmatic and provocative, tells her story like the way she wants to and never appears apologetic; and she comes across less as a feminist but more as a well-rounded, progressive woman, who knows where her priorities lie. “Two hundred and fifty three terrible reviews [of Socialite Evenings],” reveals De in a candid revelation in The Hindu, “failed to dampen my spirit…. I feel all writings have to be subversive and break the rules. My Socialite Evening was suggestive and I was castigated because I had written that women would walk out of relationships if they were bored of their spouse. ”This intimately personal comment speaks volumes on the tone Nand temper of her major writings fiction or otherwise where she brings to the fore the libidinal fantasies of the middleclass Indian women who often face life in all its crudest Realities abuses of dowry and family violence at in-laws’ house, sexual harassment and frustration at workplace, and increasing eve-teasing, rape, and abomination in society.
These odds notwithstanding, De’s female protagonists are never apologetic about being victims or door-mats, rather they eventually make quick amends, take charge of their ‘situation’ and avenge upon abominable wrongs done to them on their own terms. They are not at all the demure Sita or Savitri type; on the contrary, they all have a hawkish knavery, who never lose focus of staying on top and subduing men who love to “chew up and spit” them out. And in this process, they try to subvert the mechanisms that express and enforce the relations of power in Indian society. De moulds her story and fictional characters on this idea of metamorphosis in an entertaining format, not doing just getting up and fighting for women’s rights, but more in a sly and subversive manner. Laid-back and casual on one level and a completely label-obsessed on the other, she, like her female protagonists, surveys the images of Mumbai, only to understand that for every truism about the city the opposite is also true: Mumbai is as glamorous a dream as a dingy claustrophobic captivity for its middleclass women who are very much a by-product of the baffling city. De’s first-published novel Socialite Evenings, probes into the circumstance that calls upon her upper- middleclass women to act the way they do, and seeks to see through the peephole the novelist’s ideological cohabitation with the provocative and the propagandist. Indian English novelists, right from beginning of the genre, have depicted women and their experiences from behind the hood of a patriarchal society with deep sympathetic perception.
Although reformers like Raja Rao have provided an early model of the ‘Vedic woman’ as the preserver of home and protector of culture, which has entered our popular consciousness, the ghastly social reality still persists and women here do suffer, struggle, and bleed. R. K. Narayan’s Rosy, Daisy and Savitri, Nayantara Shegal’s Rashmi and Smriti have shown in some ways their non-acceptance of the system. The female protagonists of Anita Desai and Shashi Despande also have revealed the ongoing crises of the inner psyche that accounts for their unconventional behaviour. However, writers like Manju Kapur and Shobhaa De have successfully introduced the emergence of the New Indian Women; they often try to reflect on concurrent urban women’s challenges, predicaments, values and lifestyles from within the complex structures of feminine consciousness. De, in particular, depicts their sufferings, dilemmas, marital conflicts and shows a paradigm shift from the traditional image of Indian women being enduring, self-suffering to a more complex, fragmented, conflicted category in search of identity and meaning in life. Shobhaa De completely identifies herself with the concerns of women and urges for the removal of all forms of subjugation so that they could live in a milieu of freedom, dignity and equality with their male counterpart. She urges her readers in her 1997 self-help book for Indian women Surviving Men: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Staying on Top3 to shrug off the typical docile and obedient image of Indian women and, to thrive on subversion, stealth, and secrecy which could not only install in them a tremendous sense of security and satisfaction but could also turn the table on the male chauvinists. To a self-styled moralist or a conventionalist this harangue may sound provocative, if not blasphemous. Socialite Evenings, in fact, picks up these threads and begins from where Surviving Men ends: the female characters of the high middleclass Mumbai society in the novel play a facsimile role to dump their male counterparts in style. They buy and sell their way through a world of extraordinary luxury and moral decay, and eventually they find their way to the top; they win.
The novel is a truthful representation of a certain segment of Mumbai society with its underlying hypocrisies, which is not a very pretty face of the magnetic city. It takes readers through the first person narrative of its protagonist Karuna who, determined to decry the road much-travelled-by, escapes from her drab middleclass life into the upper reaches of wealth and celebrity and achieves a considerable measure of fame and pride as an active socialite. But with her upward climb come many lows: a loveless marriage, an unhappy divorce, and a series of extramarital affairs that leaves her bruised and battered. As the story of her life unfolds, Karuna breaks through the fake veneers of Mumbai’s elite society, exposes its world of pretension and deceit. But while doing so, she discovers a new brand of Indian women who get swept away by it all and lose everything to have it all. Battered but not beaten, she seeks to heal her soul by writing her memoir, offering a rare glimpse at an all-consuming world of power and greed. Although a novel, Socialite Evenings is filled with under-current autobiographical glimpses of the author that closely parallel De’s own rise to fame and celebrity. She hails from a Maharashtrian Saraswat Brahmin family just as her fictional protagonist Karuna does and breaks the shackles of a conservative community to shoot into the galaxy of stardom as a model. She earns recognition as a freelance writer and columnist for several news papers and magazines and, now an established novelist; she proves that women can make it even if they choose to take the path less travelled by. It is really amazing to think about how the orthodox Indian society and more so her community might have been, and what dogged resistance De might have overcome to make a foray into the world of modelling when she decided to do it some half century ago. Her father, like that of the fictional protagonist’s, vehemently opposed the idea of entering the modelling world. He had expected her to follow a well-charted path of academics and become a bureaucrat or a government secretary.
A determined young girl, never overawed by Emotion or fatigue, she became, on the contrary, exactly what she wanted to. The real life narrative of the novelist enters the novel at several vantage points and makes the story of Karuna an enjoyable reading. The weighty word ‘classic’ cannot be appended to a sloppy work like Socialite Evenings, but it was certainly a groundbreaking novel when it came out two decades back. A racy and raunchy work of Jackie Collins’s style, this novel shocked the very foundation of an andocentric establishment by raising questions on its ethical efficacy and intellectual practice on such issues as marriage, sex, child-raising, divorce, and rights of women. But the novel’s immediate commercial success is primarily due to the heat and dust it raises in traditional critical quarters for the way Karuna reveals the increasing acceptance of sexual permissiveness among the city women and own sexual escapades outside the institution of marriage. Many believe that De is dealing in erotic contents with an eye on the pecuniary gains involved rather than any genuine concerns for the metropolitan elite she is writing about; the accusation appears not without sound observations. But it is also true that erotic stuff does excellent business even in India where the purpose of sex was once believed to be ‘procreation’ rather than ‘recreational’, where even now majority women can hardly think of discussing sex matter in the open.
However, there is no such thing as a taboo subject left any more. This attitudinal shift is perhaps one aspect of the growing professionalism in India. “And the biggest change has come,” observes De in Superstar India, “from women, who have suddenly discovered they have a say in this regard. Traditionally women were nothing more than receptacles for sperm. They were told (if they were told anything at all!) that men needed a ‘release’, or ‘Men are men… put up with it…it isn’t all that bad…do it, or he’ll look for it somewhere else. ” The new generation readers, particularly the New Indian Women, however, have found it less objectionable to accept De’s narrative than it could have been a few years back. Now they are much freer to relate to the women in the novel due to an ever increasing economic pressure from the outside world as well as from the inevitable need of preparing themselves to have their say in matters related to money, marriage, and family. Thus Socialite Evenings seems to speak about this paradigm shift the changing relationship to a globalised world and its appeal is not limited to any one city or country. And out of all relationships that Karuna narrates in the novel, the relationship with her once a mentor Anjali attains a special significance: right from their first meeting till she completes her narration the latter holds a metaphorical sweep over her experience and imagination. Anjali seems to sum up De’s brand of feminism when she says: “Men feel terribly threatened by self-sufficient women. They prefer girls like me dependent dolls you should try it see how much more you can get out of him that way. ” (218) She fights tooth and nail virtually all social arrangements and institutions home, marriage, sex, income that man manipulates to continue his dominance for the subordination of woman. She, in more than many ways, has been the epitome of everything that Karuna wants to achieve in life. And even after she attains the social status that she always longed for, Anjali continues her metaphorical presence and moulds the expectations of the reader through the authorial approval she enjoys.
The brief third person epilogue below may be cited as an example:“It has been very hard work, this packaging of her life, and often it had almost seemed impossible to finish the book. But now that it was over she felt certain sadness, autumnal in its intensity…she loved this time of the day and she willed herself to relax. Tomorrow’s anxieties could be dealt with later, today she would rest. (493) And the savoir-faire’s influence seems to have sharpened the character Karuna builds and the decisions she takes later in her life. It also helps her engaged in an empirical and thematic study not just how to thwart male chauvinism but to decry the self-destructing amnesia of the working-class women of Mumbai: And I hate the poverty, this meagre income forced on me. Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to be middle class. For a start, there was the matter of transport. I’d never travelled by bus since my school days. Or waited in queues for anything. Getting into a local train and commuting to town was a major trauma. I could not relate to the women in my compartment. I felt revolted by their small concerns. I’d watch with horror as they squabbled over small change and petty issues. Their conversations depressed me. Their talk on vegetable price and milk strikes. Every problem of theirs seemed trivial and insignificant to me. The quotidian details of their lives – spats with the mother-in-law, a child with mumps, school admissions and donation money, husband’s stalled promotions, office gossip, a crisis at the neighbourhood crèche, an ailing parent, a relative’s hernia operation, sari sales at Kala Niketan, haldi versus cold cream, I hate to be in that environment. (240-241)
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