Gender discrimination in Shashi Deshpande’s The Dark Holds no Terror

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Paper by Dr. P. Saradha
Published in Vol. III, Issue. XXXIV, November 2017




The women predetermined as the second sex from time immemorial has faithfully adhered to male hegemonic order. Women from the ancient times have been seen to strictly play their role in upholding the traditions of the family. Women are kept under the control of the man to bring them out from the sufferings. There has been a struggle to emancipate women from male oppression. Many women writers come out to articulate anxieties and consents focusing on the feelings of marginality and expressing their revolt against the masculine world. Many women writers come out to articulate anxieties and consents focusing on the feelings of marginality and expressing their revolt against the masculine world. These women writers took a major concern in literature to highlight the dilemma of women their increasing problems, physical, financial and emotional exploitations. Among all these writers Shashi Deshpande took an earnest step in exposing the submissive women through her fiction. Deshpande’s creative talent and accomplishment have established her credential as a worthy successor and contemporary to the writers. This paper explores the gender discrimination of the protagonist Sarita in Shashi Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terrors. The novel portrays the struggle of a girl in an Indian family where a male child is preferred to a female child.

Key words: Gender, Protagonist, oppression, Marginality.




India is regarded traditionally as a male-dominated society where individual rights are subordinated to groups of social role expectations. In these roles, personality must not dominate the roles assigned in the societal framework. Consequently, in such a setup, a purely social, platonic or intellectual relationship between man and woman becomes nearly impossible. A woman’s individual self-has very little recognition and self-effacement in her normal way of life. Indian woman too, as part of that setup, has accepted it and has been living with it for ages. Oppression and exploitation of women often called a patriarchal society and the same has been the theme in Indian fiction. Indian women novelists, writers and speakers from different vernaculars take a prominent position in dealing the pathetic plight of the deserted women, who suffer from birth to death. The Bible says in The Holy Bible (1977) “Then the Lord God made the man fall into deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him” (5). In the ancient scriptures, the woman is made from man’s ribs. It has been understood that the woman is born out of the man. Then there arise the miserable condition of women. Women are supposed to be an ideal wife, a mother and an excellent home-maker with different roles in the family. As wife and mother, a woman renders her service, sacrifice, submissiveness and tolerance. A woman should always discharge an excessive patience and series of adjustments in her life devotedly and obediently. Her individual self-has very little recognition in the patriarchal society and so self-effacement is her normal way of life. As Mary Ann Fergusson in Images of Women in Literature (1973) asserts woman as, “…in every age woman has been seen primarily as mother, wife, mistress and as sex object-their roles in relationship to men!”(4-5). Shashi Deshpande occupies an important place among the contemporary women novelists who boldly expresses the problems of women and their quest for identity. Deshpande’s creative talent and accomplishment have established her credential as a worthy successor and contemporary to the writers. Her protagonists are modern, educated young women, crushed under the weight of a male-dominated and tradition-bound society. In The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980) the protagonist Sarita’s sense of reasoning and questioning develops, she feels she is unable to tolerate the preference showed towards her brother. She feels jealous of her brother when he gets all the parental care and attention. Sarita’s mother, who believes a girl to be a liability and a boy an asset, instils a sense of insecurity in her daughter’s mind. Shashi Deshpande exposes the traditional method of preferring a boy instead of a girl. Even the mother is dejected when she begets a female child. The parents think that the boy will take care when the parents become aged whereas the girl expects dowry and leaves the parents after her marriage. In the same way, Sarita is rejected in every opportunity by her parents. Shashi Deshpande has emerged as an eminent writer possessing deep insight into the female psyche. Deshpande’s novels reveal the man-made patriarchal traditions and uneasiness of the modern Indian woman in being part of them. Shashi Deshpande uses this point of view of present social reality as it is experienced by women. To present the world of mothers, daughters and wives are also to present indirectly the fathers, sons and husbands the relation between men and women and between women themselves. The word which is associated with what we consider to be the concept of an ideal woman is self-denial, sacrifice, patience, devotion and silent suffering.


Shashi Deshpande represents her heroine as an embryonic woman of the present industrial age, who yearns to achieve individuality and the real self- identity without changing the cultural and traditional conventions of the society. Sarita, the central character in The Dark Hold No Terrors Sarita is humble and modest, very sensitive but lacking in self-confidence. As a middle-class woman, she longs to break away from the rigid traditional norms and adopts to be an anti matriarch who yearns for a new environment where the mother cannot thrust her will on her. She hates her parental home and her quest leads her to discover the hidden strength in the human being which shapes life to a pleasant and possible one. Sarita undergoes trauma, confronts reality and at the end, realizes that the dark no longer holds any terror to her. She survives in a male-dominated world which offers no easy outs to women. She neither surrenders to nor escapes from the problems but with great strength accepts the challenge of her own dependent. Sarita as a child on the odd occasion speaks to her father and to Dhruva, her brother. Her father used to take Dhruva out for a ride.  He used to sit on the small seat specially fixed on the bar of the cycle giving rise to the impression that “daughters are their mother’s business” (DHNT, 105). Sarita is always considered a burden to be eased, or a problem to be solved or a responsibility to be dispensed with. As a typical Indian mother instils the root of depression in her own daughter. The birth of a girl is considered as an ill omen. Sarita’s mother does not consider Sarita as her daughter and explains that Sarita was born amidst a heavy rain. Sarita recollects her depression as, but of my birth, my mother had said to me once …

Birthdays were not then the tremendous occasions they are made out to be now; but the excitement of having one, of being the centre of attraction never palled. It was always a fascinating though-‘I was born’. But of my birth, my mother had said to me once. . . “It rained heavily the day you were born. It was terrible.” And somehow, it seemed to me that it was my birth that was terrible for her, not the rain (DHNT, 169).

The rains are considered to be an auspicious sign. It has been a mythical belief that the rains bring new hope, new life and a new future. Here when the mother utters, it rained heavily and it was ‘terrible,’ it exhibits her fixed attitude of a girl child to be an ill omen which she is ready to equate it to the rains too. Her mother’s aversion to Sarita and preference for her brother, Dhruva is clearly expressed from her actions. This generates a gap between the mother and daughter and forces Sarita to walk on the path of rebellion. This discrimination is so deeply imprinted in the mind of Sarita and all her future actions get ultimately blemished. Her brother Dhruva’s birthdays was celebrated with a puja. Birthdays and other religious rituals related to him are given top priority and celebrated with much pomp while her birthdays are scarcely acknowledged. This inequality of treatment makes her think that her birthday is only a matter of displeasure for the mother. Many such scenes are imprinted in her mind and the Indian view of the girl as a liability and the boy an asset are firmly implanted in the minds of Sarita. Ragini Ramachandra in however feels that this aspect of the story does not ring true. Ragini Ramachandra in Rev. of The Dark Holds No Terrors, The Literary Criterion, (1986) asserts,

the portrayal of Sarita’s mother who adored the son and neglected the daughter seems to be a weak point in the story. While one accepts a mother’s preferences amongst her children, it seems rather incredible that she should live and die with curses on her lips for her female child, especially in the Indian context the mother’s monstrosity seems to serve as a rallying point for the novelist to bring her grind ideas together. Hence the nagging feeling that the book has an axe to grind. (120)

The reasons for such preferences are not difficult to understand. They are inextricably linked to the Indian psyche. It would be too simplistic to say that boys are preferred over girls because of the dowry they bring in at the time of marriage. The reasons are rooted in our tradition-bound society which demands the mandatory presence of the male child is important in rituals. Our patriarchal society also considers only the male offspring as worthy enough to carry on the family line. As Sarabjit Sandhu in The Dark Holds No Terrors Image of Woman in the Novels of Shashi Deshpande (1991) observes,

The mother is very attached to her son. Her attitude is a typical one, all he is a male child and therefore one who will propagate the family lineage. In another sense also, the male child is considered more important than a girl, because he is qualified to give ‘agni’ to his dead parents. The soul of dead parents would otherwise wander in ferment. (DHNT, 20)

Sarita finds her mother’s preference towards her brother Dhruva and an indifferent attitude towards her as humiliating because they were invalidating her survival as a human being in the family. She also remembers the sense of enthusiasm which pervaded their house on the occasion of his naming ceremony.

THEY HAD NAMED him Dhruva. I can even remember even now, vaguely, faintly; a state of joyous excitement that had been his naming day. The smell of flowers, the black grinding stone that I held in my hands … these are the only tangible memories that remain. (DHNT, 168)

Mrinal Pande, the noted Hindi writer in her novel Daughter’s Daughter (1993) explodes a glimpse of the instances in the life of a girl who is regarded inferior because she is a girl. Tinu the narrator of the novel comes to know that boys are preferred than girls after the birth of her baby brother. She gets enough chances to observe the condition of being a daughter’s daughter during her visits to her grandmother’s house Tinu, as a daughter’s daughter her position in her uncle’s house is below from all others. Anu her uncle’s son is given preference to the act according to his wishes. From the childhood, even the boy understands that he is preferred than girls. Anu says “You sit there. You are daughter’s children!  We’ll sleep here near Grandmother” (31). Tinu and her sister find no other way expect to submit Anu’s order. Like Shashi Deshpande Mirnal Pande explores through her novel the gender discrimination prevails in Indian society.

Mother, the embodiment of love and affection imparts only the darker side towards the girl. Sarita instead of receiving solace from her mother she always receives tortures and ill-treatment. For any girl, the mother relationship should be pleasant. For Sarita it is cruel. The fear, the panic,  and the helplessness are all there in her life and the thought of one’s own self-disowning one’s own mother is the question. In the novel The Dark Holds No Terrors, the mother-daughter relationship is based on gender-bias and lovelessness. Sarita’s mother was the dominating character. Sarita is a girl and she is dark. Her mother dislikes Sarita’s first for being a girl and next for being dark. In Indian tradition, the dark complexioned girls are valued less at the time of her marriage. If a girl is dark the parents should give more dowries. Sarita’s mother restricts her not to be exposed in the sun. Sarita had also to put up with constant reminders from her mother that she was dark complexioned and should not step into the sun lest it should worsen her colouring. Sarita recollects her conversation with her mother,

Don’t go out in the sun. You’ll get darker.

Who cares?

We have to care if you don’t .we have to get you married.

I don’t want to get married.

Will you live with us all your life?

Why not?

You can’t

And Dhruva?

He’s different. He’s a boy (DHNT, 40).

These words are firmly implanted in Sarita’s mind paving way for her rebellious attitude in future. In this connection, as a typical Indian mother Sarita’s mother sowed the seeds of illtreatment to her own daughter.

            Sarita’s mother’s strong preference for her brother drives her to a sense of agitation and alienation. The partisan attitude of her parents has an overwhelming effect on Sarita. She becomes rebellious in nature.  When her brother dies by drowning in the pond accidentally, she mutely watches the whole scene without rushing to his help.  Since then, she is haunted by the thought that she is responsible for his death. Even her mother finds her guilty.  She points out, “You killed your brother” (146). Premila Paul in The Dark Holds No Terror A Women’s Search for Refuge Indian Women Novelists 1997 asserts, “Dhruva’s demise had always been her subconscious desire and there is very thin demarcation between her wish and its fulfillment”(67).

Further, she thinks that Sarita is their responsibility and they can’t ever evade that responsibility.  Later, when her mother fails to argue with Sarita, she becomes Hysterical and starts accusing her of her brother’s death. ‘….She lets him drown’…. ‘She killed him’. This allegation hurts the tender heart of Sarita who keeps on saying, I didn’t truly I didn’t.  It was an accident. I loved him, my little brother. I tried to save him.  Truly I tried.  But I couldn’t.  And I ran away. Yes, I ran way, I admit that.  But I didn’t kill Him (DHNT, 146).

            At every given opportunity Sarita’s mother snubs her.  This sense of rejection by her mother fills the adolescent Sarita’s mind with a feeling of hatred towards her mother. Shashi Deshpande clearly highlights the gender discrimination by parents towards their own daughters. Deshpande effectively conveys the patriarchal setup in our society and parent’s craving for a male child. Denied parental love made Sarita the victim of her apathy. Sarita rebels her mother for her education. Sarita goes to Bombay to study Medicine in spite of her mother’s opposition. Luckily for her, her father encouraged her. Sarita’s mother doesn’t understand the importance of girl’s education. She hesitantly utters, “But she’s a girl… And don’t forget medicine or no medicine, Doctor or no doctor, you still have to get her married, spend money on her wedding. Can you do both?”(DHNT, 144).    

Next she rebels to marry a man out of her caste. Sarita’s confrontation with her mother reaches its peak when she decides to marry Manu. Her choice of boy from a lower caste is a sign of her rejecting the traditional ways and values her orthodox mother adheres to. She recalls the conversation with her mother when she confronts her with her intention of marrying Manu.

What caste is he?

I don’t know

A Brahmin?

Of course not.

Then, cruelly… his father keeps a cycle shop

“Oh, so they are low caste people, are they? (DHNT, 96)   

Her mother’s disapproval of the match because of Manu belonging to a lower caste, brings back to Sarita’s life the obstructions laid by tradition.

 The words uttered by Sarita’s mother implants disgust and distress in Sarita’s mind. By hearing the treacherous words of her mother Sarita becomes enraged. Usha Bande. Mother, Daughter and Daughter’s Daughter. A Study of Shashi Deshpande. Jalandhar (1994) says, ‘The little rebel of yore who used to resent her mother’s gender-bias mutely becomes overtly defiant…’(136). After her marriage, Sarita is hurt to hear from a mutual acquaintance that her mother has said, “Let her know more sorrow that she has given me”. (DHNT, 197) Sarita thinks at one point that she is ‘unhappy and destroyed’ in her marital life because her mother has cursed her. The problems between Sarita and Manu start arising when she is recognized as a doctor. The man who considers superior does not allow a woman to become famous. Likewise, Manu starts his venture of discrimination when Sarita excels herself as a doctor.  Her economic independence makes Manu feel thoroughly insecure and this casts a shadow on their married life. His ego is hurt by her success, he feels inferior and this sense of inferiority makes him brutal in his behaviour. Though he is normal during the day, he turns a treacherous rapist at night and tries to assert his masculinity through sexual assaults upon Sarita. She is prepared to sacrifice her lucrative profession. Sarita gathers up all her courage and tells Manu, “I want to stop working.  I want to give it all up…. My practice, the hospital, everything” (DHNT, 79). Manu disapproves of Sarita’s idea of leaving her job. When Manu asks her to go on with her responsibilities, Sarita feels that it is “sheer necessity” that holds them together. The situation of an Indian woman is to satisfy the man, her husband both physically and financially. She thinks that this woman should not be economically superior and at the same time, he needs money to spend.


Shashi Deshpande through her novel portrays the women, her protagonists as the most oppressed and pathetic embodiment of human suffering.  She feels that a woman, not only in India but also in other countries, is not treated at par with a man in any sphere of human activity. She has  been oppressed,  suppressed and  marginalized in  the matters  of sharing  the available opportunity for fulfilment of her  life.  Sarita undergoes great humiliation and neglect as a child and, after marriage, as a wife.  Deshpande discusses the blatant gender discrimination shown by parents towards their daughters and their desire to have a male child.


Introduction to the Author: 

Dr. P. Saradha is an associate professor at VMKV Engineering College, Salem, Tamil Nadu. Her academic credentials are M.A., M.Phil, B.Ed., and Ph.D.



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  2. Mary Ann, Images of Women in Literature, Houghton Miffin, 1973, 4-5. Print.
  3. Deshpande, Shashi. The Dark Holds No Terrors. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1990. Print
  4. Ragini Ramachandra, Rev. of The Dark Holds No Terrors, The Literary Criterion, Vol, XXI, Nos.1&2,1986, .120.Print.
  5. Sandhu, Sarabji K. The Images of Woman in the novels of ShashiDeshpande New Delhi: Prestige, 1991, 72. Print.
  6. Pande, Mirnal. Daughter’s Daughter. New Delhi: Penguin 1993. 31. Print.
  7. Premila, Paul, “The Dark Holds No Terrors: A Women’s Search for Refuge” Indian Women Novelists. Set I, Vol.5, Ed .R.K. Dhawan,
  8. Bande, Usha. Mother, Daughter and Daughter’s Daughter. A Study of Shashi Deshpande. Jalandhar: ABS Publications, 1994, 136. Print.
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