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BOOK REVIEW / Time for a good whine: 'The Binding Vine' - Shashi Deshpande: Virago Press, 5.99 pounds

THE NOVEL in India has often been an arena for the brandishing of causes and breaking of taboos. Untouchability, the dowry system, village sanitation: novelists (men, mostly, inspired by Gandhi) have had their say on all kinds of social issue. Now it seems to be feminists like Shashi Deshpande who are carrying on the polemical tradition. Deshpande's last novel, That Long Silence, was an intimate portrait of an Indian woman's life, which broke new ground with its honest discussion of sex. It was a gloomy novel, but The Binding Vine is gloomier still.

It is about rape, and the shame of rape. Urmila, the narrator, has befriended the mother of a rape victim and taken up the young girl's case. The girl herself lies 'not dead, not alive' in hospital while her story and her photograph, at Urmila's instigation, are splashed on the front pages of the Bombay papers. Ultimately 'noisy scenes' in parliament force the police to open their file on the case. A success, in other words, for the feminists. But for the family the publicity is a devastating exposure of their shame, and it's their daughter, the victim, who gets the blame. 'We can never wipe off this blot' cries the mother: 'It's all her fault, all her fault.'

From the opening words of this novel we can tell we're going places. 'We all of us grow up with an idea of ourselves and spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to it,' confides our bold narrator. Never mind that the idea itself is not fully explored: our attention is caught. Urmila's moral dilemma of how far to press her concern for the rape victim's family is an absorbing drama; and her own distress (a lost child, uncaring parents, a husband at sea) provides a suitably morose counterpoint. But parallel to this runs another story which is less sparkily told. Urmila finds a trunk-full of 'notebooks of an earlier era'; translates them, and makes a shocking discovery. Her mother-in-law had been raped throughout her marriage by her own husband; her life had been a living hell. Secretly we'd hoped this story might provide a bit of light relief. But in this novel life is not like that that.

The scope for anguish in all this is considerable, and at first Urmila's effusive expressions of pain are no more than you'd expect. Soon, though, we're beginning to question our narrator's self-control. Urmila's 'emptiness within', the 'million cruelly sharp pieces' of her shattered dreams acquire, sad to say, a numbing familiarity. In a novel with a message it's not surprising to find the narrator pushing herself out front and urging us like this onto the paths of right thinking. But readers don't like being shepherded, and too much editorial prodding risks their sympathy. Urmila is in many ways an excellently imagined character - a true combination of the irritating and charming - but she needs to learn some narratorial manners.

'What terrible things we do in the process of surviving,' she sighs, and there's ample evidence here that she's right. During the course of this novel three young children die; a grandfather hangs himself; a mother dies in childbirth; and an entire family is run over on the pavement. Why? Perhaps it all goes to illustrate the 'unbearable burden of belonging to the human race.' This is the novel's big question: Why, faced with such a burden, do we carry on? Why bequeath the misery to our children? The reason is, we're told, that we are tied to life by love, the 'binding vine' of the title. But I'm not convinced. No kind of love could ever hope to compensate for the hell these characters go through.