Name: Shobhaa De
Born: January 7, 1948 (in Satara, Maharashtra)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Adult, Elite Fiction, Women-centric
Famous Books: Speedpost, Second Thoughts, Socialite Evenings
Who does not know Shobhaa De? Well, that might be a clear case of exaggeration because there must be many! However, all those in the literary circles must know that Shobhaa De is an Indian author who writes about socialities. In her writings, all her life, she has been portraying metropolitan life and the ideal audience for her works is only those who live in big cities in the country. It would be wrong to say that like most of the contemporary Indian English fiction writers, her works are full of erotic romance and sex scenes. This is because Shobhaa De has been doing for a long what the young authors have begun doing now. In many ways, she may be the person credited for the rise of the novelists like Durjoy Datta and Nikita Singh today. She brought fiction from the grips of likes of Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai to a place where people began peeping into the bedrooms of aristocratic women and girls. Into the Bollywood vanity vans and the notorious casting couches, Shobhaa De has many things to her credit! Apart from the explicit presence of sex and the humdrum of confusion in ‘high-life’, Shobhaa’s novels are known for grim realism, out worldly feminism and a few other things.
Shobhaa De was born on 7th January 1948 in Maharastra. She must have seen the Indian constitution in action and its eventual growth, its chirharan during the emergency and also the rape of our constitution when the Rajiv government turned the order of the Supreme Court that could have ended the menace women have been suffering in Islam. She was brought up in Mumbai and did her schooling there. She is a graduate of Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She started her career as a model and later turned out to be a journalist. She has founded three major magazines Stardust, Society and Celebrity. She is a regular columnist with many magazines and newspapers. She started her writing career with her debut book ‘Socialite Evenings’, a novel that tries to explore the lives of women in elite societies. She has written many books till now and more or less themes of the books are the same with variations in the plots offered.
Shobhaa De is a writer in her class. She did not follow anyone who was popular when she began writing. She could easily have stood in the queue and copied famous novelists like Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Bharati Mukherjee and many others. However, Shobhaa had thought of something different for herself and she rather created a special branch of Indian English Fiction. She has brought something new to Indian English fiction and most of the contemporary authors are following her ideas of her in many different variations. Think – can Shobhaa be regarded as the ‘mother’ of pulp fiction in English in India?
In her writings, she tries to explore the conditions of elite housewives trapped within the boundaries of custom and society. Just because they form a part of the elite society that people see with high regard, many things for them become untouchable, most of the time. They cannot enjoy the street food other women enjoy; they cannot dance in the rain as others can do; they cannot go to public places and do whatever they want as other women from common households can do; they cannot collect in the street and enjoy gossiping as other women can do every day. However, beyond these important or unimportant things about elite women, Shobhaa fixed her eyes on the ‘most burning’ and ever-untouched topic. She zoomed in inside their hearts and slide down a little and then a little more and reached the point where she could fathom what they ‘missed’ the most or she decided them to miss the most. Shobhaa De writes in her novels that the inner sexual desires and hidden affairs of the elite women have to undergo unparallel circumstances and in the shadow of that fear, they often leave those ignored and muzzled. Neither do they get love from their husbands nor they can enjoy the ‘right or freedom’ to get it from ‘outside’. This conflict of thought is repeatedly presented in her works from start to end. If you ask me for my honest opinion about her writings then certainly it starts with a desire for sex and ends at too much sex. In between, the readers are confused with the too intellectualised sets of discourse that they cannot fathom and thus they think that Shobhaa has presented many things that become ‘feminist’ by default.
You can call her writings superficial. However, you cannot ignore it altogether. Her imagination may be stretched beyond the imagination but whatever she presents in her novels does hold ground to an extent. If not a 100% truth, her novels do represent a bigger part of that truth she seeks in her works. It was Shobhaa who introduced many concepts in her novels about the lifestyle of elite women that became a popular part of common household talks later on. Kitty Parties, elite gossip, lesbian relationships, male escorts, illicit affairs, and so on… However, beyond her contribution at this level, not all other parts of her literary whole can be considered serious enough or as serious as her first part. It won’t be wrong to assume that Shobhaa De, surprisingly, believes in crafting her entire fiction just on the basis of a few sketchy ideas about elite women or ‘women suppression’ without thinking of a subtle body for her fiction and jumps into writing. Figuratively, she has the same recipe each time she goes into the kitchen; nevertheless, she can adjust the quantity of salt to make it taste different every time. However, is that even possible to think? When it was new, the readers did enjoy her novels but these days, modern readers of fiction have burnt their eyes reading casual fiction with physical excursions too much! However, this section must conclude on a note that she has tried to cover the uncovered and hitherto hidden truths about rich and elite classes and gave a voice to one of the most talked about things in India thereafter.
Moreover, there is one more thing for which one has to admire Shobhaa De as a novelist. She did not, since the beginning of her career as a novelist, hide behind the veils of being a feminist or a social warrior or blah blah blah. She was quite candid about her motive. She has declared her intentions in many of her author interviews, quite frankly. Even now, she declares in public that she writes about the suppressed sexual desires of elite women. Unlike modern novelists like Chetan Bhagat who hide behind the half paints of feminism and write in detail how someone goes down, between the thighs, to give pleasure to someone in the name of feminism. He has no guts to declare what he does and Shobhaa, even being a woman, has shoulders to carry the weight of her writings with frank admission! This is a good thing in her that she does not hide behind any curtain of romantic novels and presents adult fiction before the readers.
Shobhaa has also been active as a columnist for a long time now. She writes for many newspapers and often features with her articles in ‘reputed’ Indian magazines. However, most of her non-fiction writings, in the form of newspaper articles or otherwise, have been invested in criticising a certain political ideology and party. Her allusions have become stale now. It seems that she is shuffling the same cards in her deck each time her columns appear in the newspapers on Sundays or online, any day.
Though the relationship between Shobhaa and controversies is not new, she has once landed into a grave controversy that still goes on unresolved. In August 2019, in an interview, the former Pakistan high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit claimed that it was he who influenced Shobhaa De to write an article against India and call for a plebiscite in Kashmir post the death of a terrorist in an army operation in Kashmir. Shobhaa, however, denied the charges made by Basit but could not come up with something concrete and the Pak counterpart remained undeterred on his stand. Shobhaa is a habitual ideological offender when it comes to the present regime of Narendra Modi in the centre. To counter the government’s decision, it is evident, that she has gone to deplorable levels and it does not seem new by her standards. She could have returned the awards that she got for her writings had she received any of those!
Analysing it deeply, one may come out with a conclusion that Shobhaa has been in several controversies for her remarks on different issues rather than her books. Though it may not be surprising for her standards, it certainly punctures her claims that Indians are intolerant when it comes to fathoming and digesting creative freedom. Indians have digested works like The Palace of Illusions and Asura: Tale of the Vanquished! Coming to another major controversy, Shobhaa has been vocal about the separation of Mumbai from Maharastra and creating a separate state and thus, inventing arguments against her on a massive scale. She has also and rightly been criticised for her remarks about Indian athletes participating in the 2016 Olympic games. She argued that athletes are there to take selfies and spend the government’s money. She is a regular opinion maker and writes for several newspapers that’s why she has been in controversies where she exceeds the limit.
- Socialite Evening – 1989
- Starry Nights – 1989 (Read review – Starry Nights by Shobha De)
- Sisters – 1992
- Sultry Days- 1994
- Shooting from the Hip – 1994
- Small Betrayals – 1995
- Second Thoughts – 1996
- Selective Memory – 1998
- Surviving Men – 1998
- Speedpost – 1999
- Spouse – 2005
- Sandhya’s Secret – 2009
- Shobhaa at Sixty – 2010
- Shethji – 2012
- Shobhaa: Never a Dull De – 2013
This section is still empty as she has not received any major awards.
Shobhaa De is an adult fiction writer who has been successful in bringing a new trend in Indian English writing. Her novels have paved the way for the likes of Chetan Bhagat and his followers by giving them the liberty to indulge in physical hanky-panky in their works without any second thought. Shobhaa’s serious contribution to Indian English literature, and eventually Indian literature at large, should be remembered for her candidness as she dared to bring the literary discourse to a level where novelists could go below the belt and frankly opine about the sex life of male and female. Though it may not have seemed proper and justifiable at the time she wrote such things, we can see the revolution in our writing industry now. It certainly prepared the readers for the days to come and a new genre, under the garb of romantic fiction, has emerged that frankly voices about sexual pleasure and sexual dissatisfaction of the characters. De’s writing has been limited to certain readers because she did not think about the commoners. She wrote for the elite class, mentioning elite characters and nourishing elite desires. Her ideological sons and daughters have brought that discourse down to an even playground where everyone has the right to think about sex, pleasure, physical desires, love, lust and everything else, even going one or two steps ahead of Shobhaa’s wisdom. On the whole, judging Shobhaa De’s writing is not very easy. There may be takers for both sides of the line where Shobhaa’s contributions are left for the able judgement of book critics and literary scholars. One side may argue in favour of creativity and newness and another side may argue that she was too limited and that all her novels put together could not exceed the margin she decided for herself. I think that only after 4-5 decades from now it would be possible to judge the writings of this lady novelist when the country should have moved ahead considerably in terms of openness in thoughts and life. Meanwhile, enjoy the writings of this novelist, the critics’ arguments for and against her, students seeking English literature notes on her works and a whole frenzy around her personality and her writings. Her writings have become a subject of research by many scholars and this is not a very small achievement in any way of interpretation. She deserves the credit where it’s due and she deserves the outright criticism where that’s demanded.
Amit Mishra for The Indian Authors, a platform to know about Indian writers and their biographies and books