The Binding Vine by Shashi Deshpande is a hard-hitting novel about the concepts that surround women. Set in a patriarchal world, it is a narration of the protagonist, Urmila, and the women in her life, some of whom she happens to encounter by chance. They come from various strata of society and bind themselves together with the narrator.
Showing the multi-faceted-ness of the central character, the story begins with a miserable Urmi, mourning the death of her beloved infant daughter Anu. Caught in an unhappy marriage where her husband is away on the sea most of the time, Urmi finds it difficult to cope with this loss. She struggles to accept the reality, both relating to her marriage with Kishore and Anu’s death. She starts feeling emotionally detached to Kishore and also shuns her mother Inni’s and friend-cum-sister-in-law Vanaa’s attempts to help her, which makes it harder for her to deal with life at the moment. She also knows she ought to give attention to her son, realizing her accountability towards him who longs for her love and affection. Urmi, herself in her childhood, was sent away to live with her grandmother Baiaji to whom she was closer to than her own mother while her brother continued to live with their parents. She knows she shouldn’t be keeping her son away, the way her mother did to her.
While overcoming her grief, Urmi crosses path with three women; Mira, her dead mother-in-law, Kalpana, a brutal rape survivor, and her impoverished mother, Shakutai. As their story unfolds, so does their strength and courage blossoms.
Urmi comes across Mira’s journals locked away in a dusty trunk when she visits her Biaji’s home when she dies. Curiosity gets the better of her and she opens it to find Mira’s handwritten notes, her poetries, most of which spoke about her torturous arranged marriage to Kishore’s father and the life she desired. Married off to a man who fell in love with her beauty at a social function, Mira becomes a victim of domestic violence and marital rape. She conceived as a result and died during the delivery of her son and was ultimately emancipated from her miseries. But before that, being a gifted writer she was, penned down her beautiful poems, which years later capture Urmi’s attention who finds an escape in them. Urmi makes it her aim to get the poems published in the honor of the woman, who was forcefully made a wife and the mother, who wanted to love her child but couldn’t, irrespective of the way in which he was put into her.
Urmi meets Shakutai at a local hospital where she has come with her friend Bhaskar. On seeing the woman upset and crying, she enquires and finds that her daughter Kalpana has been raped and is fighting for her life. Urmi sympathizes with her and to some extent identifies, since both the women are at a loss of their respective daughters. Urmi forms a mutual comfort with Shakutai, visits her room in the chawl where she tells her how her Kalpana would fight with her; her young, fierce energy oozing confidence. Urmi suggests lodging police but Shakutai refuses because she fears that no one would marry her girl. In fact, she should be worrying about her lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, instead, she regrets not forcing her to marry her lecherous uncle, the husband of her childless sister Sulu, who preferred Kalpana over some other woman to bear her husband a child. Blaming Kalpana for her situation, Shakutai curses her for being so forward, thinking that she could be spared of the fate that awaits a woman. It is eventually found by Sulu that it was her husband who had avenged Kalpana as a punishment for refusing to marry him. Sulu, in shame, commits suicide but not before exposing her criminal husband. While Shakutai still couldn’t deal with her daughter’s loss, she is pushed into mourning her sister as well.
The central characters of this novel are women, some weak, some strong, all bound by a vine called Urmi, reaping it with love, concern, comfort, and courage to each other. Each one of them has its own challenges and is trying best to deal with them. The author uses the themes of death, marriage, rape, loneliness, and loss to highlight the plight of these women.
All the women have/had challenging marriages, Mira was exploited by her husband, Inni and Vanaa supposedly were too submissive to their respective partners, sisters Shakutai and Sulu were abandoned, one literally, the other emotionally and Urmi had second thoughts about her relationship with Kishore. They are lonely despite having (had) a life partner each. Is it so important for a woman to get married?
Rape is another violation that brings them closer, Mira and Kalpana both were victims, a generation apart, one married, and another unmarried. Yet it is the women who get the blame for being a catalyst for her own horrific plight. Is it really the victim’s disgrace and not the criminal’s?
Death is a truth of life that none will ever understand. It is eminent yet we are unable to accept it. Women of this novel are compelled to face it, both Urmi and Shakutai grieve the deaths of their beloved daughters. While Urmi also grieves her grandmother, Shakutai has Sulu to blame who leaves her in her time of need. Will we ever understand that death spares no one, timely or untimely?
All the women are looking for their place in the patriarchal world. Being defined by her father or husband is not her only identity. She can be independent of them and make her own place if she manages to gather enough courage. When a woman can bring a new life into the world, she definitely can take care of herself. It is a question of being true to oneself. Urmi decides to publish Mira’s poems while Shakutai decides to go public with Kalpana’s violator. This sense of being liberated from a cage, to get their voices heard, truly is their victory.