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Portrayal Of The Indian Woman And Discrimination Of Gender In Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terror

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Shashi Deshpande draws a canvas of the women who are portrayed in a sensitive manner. Her novels present a social world of intricate relationships and age old traditions that creates gaps and disturbances within the family fold. She pays attention to the dilemma of women who struggle to overcome constricting social norms and attempt to redefine their status. The Dark Holds No Terrors reveals the torturing nature of gender discrimination which is inflicted on the girl child who is a conditioned product of the society, entailed by the social problems. This paper tries to analyze the discrimination of a girl that she undergoes in a family.


Shashi Deshpande, a major Indian English novelist draws a canvas of the women who are portrayed in a sensitive manner. Her main focus of attention is about the world of women and their struggle in the Modern Indian society. Among the feminist writers of the present day, Shashi Deshpande, an award winning Indian novelist, published her first collection of short stories in 1978 and her first novel “The Dark Holds no Terrors” in 1980. Her novels present to the readers a social world of many intricate relationships and the age old traditions, thereby creating unforeseen gaps and disturbances within the family fold.

Portrayal of the Indian Women

Shashi Deshpande deals with the internal world of the Indian women in her novels. She pens the variance between tradition and modernity in relation to women in the middle class life. There is also the theme of the pursuit for a female identity, where women in particular struggle for identity but Indian women struggle all the more with other female members within the families for their identity as matriarchy is one of the major problems that persist in every household. Being unable to fully confront traditional, patriarchal norms of the society, these women characters make an attempt to realize and preserve their identity not only as women but also as human beings.

Her works ardently pays attention to the dilemma of women who have to struggle to overcome constricting social norms and make an attempt to redefine their status. She captures the nerves of the typical tradition Indian women and delves deep into the feminist issues in her novels like marital suffocation, rape, in and outside the marriage, sexiest discrimination issues of working women spinsters, etc. Being caged in this woman’s world of experience, Deshpande hopes to rise as a kind of female Tolstoy who can create real, rounded characters and not merely women characters created for men. As Sarla Palkar say’s “For a long time, woman has existed as a gap, as an absence in literature...this is not only true of the fiction created by men, but also by women, who have mostly confined themselves to writing love stories or dealing with the experiences of women in a superficial manner. Which represses the truth about the majority of their sisters and their lives?”

Discrimination of Gender

Deshpande’s novels reveal the man-made patriarchal traditions and the uneasiness of the modern Indian women in being a part of them. Though her novels are set in a limited environment of the Indian society, the heightened sensibility of her protagonists help them in their attempts to carve a niche, however small for themselves. Gendered interpretation of literacy texts enables us to examine man-woman relationship as an axis of prevalent social inequality. Gender identity is a compulsory phase of our cognition - individual as well as collective. Internationalization of general identities conditions one’s own cognitive and behavioral patterns. Cultural internationalization of gendered conduct intensifies at places of learning, work and social interaction.

Her first novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors, reveals the torturing nature of gender discrimination which is inflicted on the girl child - mothers, who themselves are a conditioned product of society, entailed by the social problems. Freedom that is routinely given to a boy is denied to the girls. Deshpande sketches how this gender preference develops mortification, revolution and even insurgence among the girls. The Dark Holds No Terrors is a script of a marriage that is on the rocks. Sarita, the central character, who is a successful doctor, gets married to a lower-caste Manohar, against the wishes of her parents’ and walks out of her house. Sarita, who is a successful doctor during the day time, is terrified at night and is an ensnared animal in the hands of her husband, Manohar who is an English teacher in a small college.

Women as viewed in the Family

The novel’s initial pages begin with Saru coming back to her parental house after a gap of fifteen years. She promises never to return. But, she makes a u-turn to seek refuge using her mother’s death as an excuse. She goes back home hoping to find solace away from her husband’s frightening and inexplicable sadism. Deshpande’s characters withdraw not into a world of fantasy but into a world away from the suffocating circumstances of their life. The protagonist, Sarita is able to analyse her future more positively only after delving into her past, relieving past experiences and rethinking past ideas and attitudes. Sarita puts it succinctly and says: “and to do that I must get away. Yes, that’s why I’m going to get away from this house, this paradise of matching curtains and handloom bed spreads, the hell of savagery and submission.”

It is only when Sarita withdraws from her immediate family, her husband and children that she is able to overcome her sense of guilt which has been propelled upon her by societal norms and the expectations of others. Her mother repeats it and after that Sarita begins to believe herself responsible for her brother Dhruva’s death. Much later when her father says “I never blamed you”. Sarita is able to see the untruth of the accusation. She now realizes that she has not failed as a daughter because she had not walked out on her parents. In fact it is her mother who had shut her out of her affections and even cursed her after Dhruva’s death. “She has many psychological knots woven into her personality, and is ingrained with a why didn’t you die? Why are you alive when he’s dead?”

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Her mother continues to curse as Prof. Kulkarni recounts to Sarita her mother’s words: “daughter? I didn’t have any daughter. I had a son and he died. Now I am childless.” and later “I will pray for her unhappiness. Let her know more sorrow than she has given me.” Sarita now sees that her mother has closed the doors on her forever. Sarita is at eternal war with her mother who can never forgive her for being alive when her brother is dead. Growing up in this environment of hatred and hostility, she begins to nurture seeds of rebellion within her. The words continue to hit her for days, months, years and right through her life. Anyone can understand a mother’s preferences among her children, but Sarita finds it rather incredible that she should live and die with curses on her lips for being a female child, especially in the Indian contest.

Society always has preferences when it comes to children. It treats the male-child, as the final solution to all the problems. Whereas a girl-child, is always considered as an unwanted burden, because she cannot fulfill the parental needs or ungratified ambitions without the given social undue gender discrimination of mothers inflicted on their girl-child. In this story, the mother’s casual attitude towards Saru makes her believe that her birth was an appalling experience for her mother and after her brother’s death the family slides into continuous mourning and thereafter no celebrations take place in the house.

Saru does not get any sympathy from her father and this guilt smothers her and she is made to live perpetually with the guilt that she is the cause for the death. Apart from this guilt, Saru is treated with gender based discrimination that is very common to the Indian middle class society. The society, which enforces unjust gender discrimination, is never questioned by Saru’s mother. She has been told and taught to bring up a girl in a particular fashion and she does it with implicit faith right from the beginning. Saru is drilled and made to understand that she is a girl and she is in every way inferior to her brother. “And Dhruva? He’s different. He’s a boy. Don’t go out in the sun you’ll get even darker. Who cares? We have to care if you don’t: we have to get you married; I don’t want you to get married. Will you live with us all your life?”

These words carry the desire for a boy child which reflects the position that men enjoy in society. Even the mother - daughter relationship is based on gender bias. Saru’s defiance towards her mother awakens her characteristic ambitions. As a sign of rebellion Saru takes up medicine as her career, her mother doesn’t like Sarita becoming a doctor. She just wanted to get her married and send her away. But education is the tool that can help break the platen of gender discrimination and bring lasting change for women in developing countries.

In spite of their attempt to fight gender roles, the fact of their being a female is dinned into Deshpande’s protagonist’s right from their childhood with marriage being projected as the final goal in life. The fairy tale ending of a man falling in love with her and marrying her is given great importance by Sarita during her childhood to look beautifully and have soft hands that can be caressed by men which are stressed upon as essential goals in a woman’s life. “Everything in a girl’s life...was shaped to that single purpose of pleasing a male.”


The influence of societal norms shapes even a woman’s dreams. Sarita recalls her adolescent days: “I was female and dreamt of being the adored and chosen of a superior super human male. That was glory enough to be chosen by that wonderful man. I saw myself humbly adoring, worshipping and being given the father-lover kind of love that was protective, condescending yet all-encompassing and satisfying.”

After meeting Manohar, she continues to have the “age-old dream of a superior conquering male for whom she was always subordinating myself (herself) so completely...that I (she) was nothing without him”

These dreams are soon shattered when marriage does not provide the sought after happiness. The suave Manohar of the college days gradually grows into an uninteresting, unsuccessful lecturer in a second rate college while Sarita provides both the bread and butter for the family. So steeped in the traditional concept of a limited space and the role for a woman, Sarita considers herself responsible for his sadism, “it’s not what I have done to him.”

It is only towards the end of the novel that Sarita is able to free herself of this feeling of guilt and break away from the hold of social norms, after a total, honest self-appraisal. Saru’s character can be truly understood only in the light of psychological precepts. This gender sensitivity remains a significant factor in the Indian social set up. From the traditional roles of a daughter, sister, wife and mother, Deshpande’s protagonists emerge as individuals in their own right and they achieve this not by being feminists but by a gradual process of introspection and self-realization.


  1. Deshpande Shashi, The Dark Holds No Terrors (New Delhi: Penguin, 1980)
  2. Palkar Sarla, “Breaking the Silence: That Long Silence, Indian Women Novelists” edited by R.K.Dhawan, Vol.5 (New Delhi: Prestige)
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Portrayal Of The Indian Woman And Discrimination Of Gender In Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terror. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
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Portrayal Of The Indian Woman And Discrimination Of Gender In Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terror. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Portrayal Of The Indian Woman And Discrimination Of Gender In Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terror [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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