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A Book Review: Ships that Pass by Shashi Deshpande


Be ready for an intense emotional, literary upheaval as you get more and more involved in this story. Let me warn you, the story is slow paced. The story line is simple: it takes you through the life and emotions of Radhika who surprises her family by declaring (much to their disappointment) that she is done with studying and that she wants them to find a suitable groom for her. She feels disappointed by their lukewarm reaction and is in a hurry to get married, probably because she feels bored and has nothing special she wants to do in life and marriage, as the society often points out, seems like a perfect solution.   



Except that when she meets Ghanashyam, the ‘suitable’ groom, she is not too comfortable with the way they act their roles and try to be individuals they aren’t with each other. She behaves artificially with him and it makes her wonder whether two strangers who are playacting with one another can possibly make a marriage work in a spirit of love and understanding.  

During the time this confusion sets in her mind and she begins questioning herself on the very purpose of getting married, she receives a letter from her brother in law Shaan whom she is closer to than her beautiful, near perfect older sister, Tara. The letter disturbs her as it urgently asks her to come and stay with them for a few days as Tara is apparently not well and not communicating even to Shaan.

So, a determined younger sister packs her things and comes to stay with her older sister whom she hardly knew, liked or understood while they were growing up. What she discovers in her sister’s near perfect life devastates her. She begins to think seriously and questions emerge in her mind:

  1. So called ‘perfect’ couples as perceived by the society – does anyone even have a clue what their real, pain filled lives are like? What is the point of creating an illusion like that and living it for the rest of one’s lives?
  2. Is marriage a riddle that others can never understand? Why?
  3. What creates a perfect marriage?

At the time she is staying with her sister, she meets Ram Mohan, her sister’s old friend and loyal admirer. She is irritated by his adoration and close friendship with her beautiful sister but she also believes he is extremely kind, compassionate and sincere. Gradually, she begins to trust him and in certain moments of distress, she finds herself turning to him and relying on his judgement than that of any others.

As she grapples with the crumbling relationship between her brother in law and her sister, she finds herself becoming closer to her sister, whom she had always been envious of. Closer up, she realizes her sister’s life had been far from easy and completely different from what every one else had expected or anticipated it to be. From outside, her sister’s marriage looked perfect. Except that from inside, there was nothing left, not even anger, bitterness or indifference. It was like an empty box.

In moments of despair, Radhika turns to Ram Mohan who is older and wiser by several years.

One of his profound statements underlies the core of this novel and this reads:

“Marriage is a very strange thing. It’s a very public institution, it’s meant to tell the world that two people are going to live together, to declare that their children will be legal, that these children can inherit their property. It’s meant for social living, to ensure that some rules are observed so that men and women don’t cross the lines that are drawn for them. At the same time, marriage is an intensely personal affair. No outsider will ever know the state of some one else’s marriage. It’s a closed room, a locked room.”

This book is beautifully written, emotionally provocative and is a perfect read for those who enjoy literary fiction. Best of all, this is a book that questions all your beliefs, myths and details that populate the institution of marriage as it happens among Indians.

It makes you reflect, contemplate and ask, “What makes a marriage perfect? Will it work for me? If so, how can I be so sure?”

You won’t regret reading this book though it’s priced higher at Rs. 295 and spans 136 pages.

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