Anita Desai’s (born 24 June 1937) novels reveal certain recurring patterns in plots, settings, and characterizations. The plots of her novels fuse two opposing propensities—one toward the gothic mystery and the other toward the philosophical novel. The gothic orientation, which Desai probably derived from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), is evident in varying degrees in all her novels. Fire on the Mountain, the novel that comes closest to being purely a psychological thriller, ends with a half-insane, reptilelike child setting fire to the forest surrounding her house; in Cry, the Peacock, Maya, the neurotic heroine, kills her husband, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of an albino sorcerer; in Voices in the City, Monisha, an unsettled, manic-depressive housewife, pours kerosene over herself and burns herself to death. On the other hand, most of Desai’s novels also contain a deep-rooted, philosophical concern about the meaning of life. From Maya to Matteo, most of Desai’s protagonists, dissatisfied with their routine existence, search for a more meaningful life. Such a spiritual orientation is reminiscent of similar concerns in novels such as E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941).
Desai’s novels also evolve a typical setting or “world” of their own. Most are set in the city, which comes to represent the undesirable, unimaginative reality; most also have a romantic counterpoint to the city in a hill station or an island that seems to represent the remote, romantic, ideal but is revealed to be an unreal or unsatisfying delusion. At the hearts of the novels are usually big, old houses with several verandas, green shutters, gardens, servants, and pets. The garden is extremely important in Desai’s world because her characters show an unusual sensitivity to it. Trees, creepers, tendrils, flowers, fruits, seasons, pets—the concerns of the so-called woman’s world—are more vividly perceived in Desai’s novels than anywhere else in Indian English fiction. Also part of Desai’s world is a brooding, Faulknerian obsession with the past; the present is usually seen by the characters as a decadent remnant, a husk of a glamorous past. Finally, the characters are all members of the upper class who belong to once-affluent, now-decaying families. The city, the hill station, the big house with a garden, a decadent family, an obsession with the past—these make up the typical world of a Desai novel.
Desai’s protagonists can be divided into essentially two types: One type possesses a neurotic, hypersensitive, artistic sensibility; the other is cynical, tough, and acerbic. Maya, Monisha, Sarah, Sita, Tara, and Matteo belong to the first category, while Nirode, Amla, Dev, Nanda, Bim, and Sophie belong to the second. In addition to these are two types of supporting characters: the old, ugly, sterile crone, who has been a failure, and the mysterious, insulated character, intriguing but ultimately inscrutable. The best example of the former is Ila Das of Fire on the Mountain; of the latter, Dharma of Voices in the City. The rest of the characters are the common crowd against whom the protagonist defines himor herself: They have given up trying to make their lives meaningful and have accepted the full mediocrity of a futile existence. Against such a backdrop, Desai’s protagonists struggle to come to terms with their lives. They are usually in a state of conflict, either with themselves or with their environment. The results of this basic conflict are murder, insanity, suicide, compromise, death, or, in the rare instance of Desai’s best novel, Clear Light of Day, balance, reconciliation, rich acceptance of reality, and a resolution of the conflict.
In the mid-1980’s, Desai started to look more closely at the lives of the less privileged. In Custody is an ironic story told with humor about literary traditions and academic illusions in a world dominated by men. The central characters are Nur, an Urhi poet, who has fallen on hard times, and Deven, a professor of Hindi. In Baumgartner’s Bombay, Desai goes back to her parental heritage as she zeroes in on a German Jew who seeks refuge in India. Journey to Ithaca is much like Baumgartner’s Bombay in that it also approaches India through Europeans who are attracted to the mystic India.
Desai’s novels since the mid-1990’s have continued to explore a concern with imagery built on places, cities that affect her characters who are uprooted or alienated, living away from their homelands and disturbed by their own inner conflicts. In Fasting, Feasting, Desai contrasts the American and Indian cultures as well as male and female roles, as Arun leaves India to study in Massachusetts while his sister Uma lives in a small provincial city in India. In The Zigzag Way, Desai departs from her familiar territories, setting her story of self-discovery in twentieth century Mexico.
Cry, the Peacock
Cry, the Peacock, Desai’s first novel, is divided into three sections: a short introduction and conclusion in objective, third-person narrative, and a long subjective middle section narrated by the neurotic heroine, Maya. In Maya’s narrative, Desai employs stream of consciousness to fill in details of Maya’s past and to chronicle the progressive deterioration of both Maya’s relationship with her husband, Gautama, and her own mental poise and sanity. In the climax, Maya, a slave to the fate she has feared, kills Gautama in accordance with the prophecy of an astrologer. The novel ends with her total mental collapse.
Maya is the sensitive, poetic, intuitive, and unstable type of personality that appears consistently in Desai’s fiction. She is extremely sensitive to the beauty around her—the flowers and fruits in the garden, the trees and plants, the sky and the seasons, her pets and other animals— in brief, the whole gamut of nature. Gautama, her husband, is her opposite: He is insensitive to transient beauty; a pure rationalist, he is concerned only with absolutes. The characters’ names themselves epitomize their irreconcilability: Maya means “illusion,” and Gautama is the name of the Buddha, who was able to rend the veil of maya. Thus, while Maya revels in the world of the senses, Gautama rejects it entirely. According to the astrologer’s prophecy, one of them must die. Maya decides to kill Gautama because, in her view, he has rejected all that makes life worth living; hence, to her, he is already “dead.” Unable to resolve her conflict with Gautama, Maya pushes him from a terrace, thereby terminating her struggle.
Voices in the City
Desai’s second novel, Voices in the City, is more ambitious than her first but also noticeably flawed. The narrative centers on the effect of Calcutta on Nirode and his two sisters, Monisha and Amla. The novel is divided into three sections: “Nirode,” “Monisha,” and “Amla.” Nirode is the first of Desai’s tough, cynical protagonists, a type that finds fruition in Bim, the heroine of Clear Light of Day, fifteen years later. Nirode, realizing that his uncreative job at a respectable newspaper will never allow him to live meaningfully, quits. He refuses support from his rich, widowed mother, who lives in the hills; instead, he sinks from failure to failure, cynically awaiting the bottom. He starts a magazine that fails after a brief run; his subsequent attempts to be a writer fail, too, when his brutally honest play is rejected by a theater group. Nirode envisions himself as fighting Calcutta, the city of Kali, the city that destroys all that is worthwhile in its denizens. Surrounded by quitters, he refuses to compromise, to succumb to an existence he despises.
Monisha, Nirode’s elder sister, is the sensitive, neurotic type, like Maya in Cry, the Peacock. Married into a traditional Bengali family, she has, to all appearances, accepted the compromise of a routine existence. In fact, however, Monisha leads a secretive inner life that is inviolate despite the ugliness of her surroundings. For example, her inability to bear a child symbolizes her refusal to allow another life into what is, to her, a meaningless and loathsome world. Her section of the novel—a sort of compressed version of Maya’s long narrative in Cry, the Peacock—takes the form of a diary. Amla, the youngest sibling, is a muted version of Nirode. Beneath the surface, all three characters struggle against Calcutta, fighting to preserve their inner integrity. Of the three, Amla seems the most likely to succeed because she has neither the excessive cynicism of Nirode nor the neurosis of Monisha.
An interesting minor character is Dharma (“righteousness”), the unflappable painter who has left Calcutta but who, upon discovering an ideal model in Amla, returns, following a drastic revolution in his painting. Though Dharma is shown to be the only character who has survived against Calcutta, his inscrutability renders him incomprehensible to Nirode and Amla, as well as to the reader.
The novel has a sensational climax and a somewhat contrived ending. Monisha triumphs by burning herself to death in her bathroom. Her death brings her mother down to Calcutta from the hills. Nirode has a vision of his mother as Kali, the preserver and the destroyer; apparently, his conflict is thus resolved. Nirode, therefore, becomes the initiate, and Amla’s more promising efforts at wisdom are sidestepped. In fact, Amla is the only character out of the three whose spiritual growth is utterly convincing; after her encounter with Dharma, she becomes more reconciled to Calcutta. Disregarding the triviality of her job in an advertising agency, she manages to do something that truly satisfies her—making sketches for Professor Bose’s translations from the Panchatantra. Amla’s progress, however, is not allowed fruition; it is neglected in favor of the more artificial vision of Nirode. Part of the problem lies in Desai’s definition of the central conflict in the novel; by pitting three individuals against an entire city, the novelist, in effect, disallows the possibility of a single creative, balanced, and happy person in the whole city. Such an opposition is precarious because the reader questions the stance of the protagonists instead of accepting the destructiveness of their environment. Thus, when Nirode’s very ordinary mother, who has retreated to the hills, is suddenly revealed to be the goddess Kali, Nirode’s vision and the novel’s resolution seem to be mere impositions of the novelist.
In Desai’s third novel, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, the action shifts to England. The novel, like the two earlier works, has a tripartite structure: arrival, “Discovery and Recognition,” and “Departure.” The three main characters are Dev, who has recently arrived in London from India when the novel begins, his friend Adit, with whom he is staying, and Adit’s British wife, Sarah. All three characters are in conflict with their environment. Sarah is an unstable wife (in the tradition of Maya and Monisha) who finds herself playing two roles, that of an Indian at home and that of a Britisher outside; all the while, she questions who she really is. Dev and Adit are, in a sense, doubles like Nirode and Amla. Dev is the more cynical and aggressive of the two, while Adit, though essentially the same, is muted at the beginning. The novel follows a pattern like that of Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903): Adit, who thought he had felt at home in England, returns to India, while Dev, the militant cynic who has reviled Adit for staying, takes Adit’s place after his departure, accepting a job in Adit’s firm and moving to Adit’s apartment.
Bye-Bye, Blackbird is a satisfying novel partly because Desai builds an inevitability into the narrative; characters are subordinated to pattern and rhythm. Dev’s and Adit’s decisions, hence, do not have to be fully explained. Their conflicts are not resolved so much as exchanged; the pleasure at the end is as much formal as it is emotional.
Where Shall We Go This Summer?
In Desai’s fourth novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer?, all of her pervasive themes return: the neurotic heroine, the dissatisfaction with the here and now, the obsessive search for the meaning of existence. Sita, the wife of an industrialist, is disgusted with her indifferent husband, her meaningless life in their Bombay flat, and her selfish, uncaring children. Her memory of an idyllic childhood with her father on a nearby island, Manori, keeps haunting her as a reminder of what life can be. After becoming pregnant with a fifth child, she decides not to continue the charade; she visits the island again to regain the secret magic of life that she had experienced as a child. To her dismay, she realizes that her father, instead of being the great leader she has thought him to be, was really a charlatan. She has glamorized the past, and she now realizes that her memory has deceived her. Completely disillusioned, she waits for her drab husband to take her back to Bombay.
Toward the close of the novel, Sita’s conflict appears to have found its solution when she recalls a verse from D. H. Lawrence that has eluded her for a long time. With the recollection, she feels she knows all the answers and can explain everything to her husband. This euphoria, however, is short-lived, ending with her realization that she cannot connect psychologically with her husband. The novel thus ends with a compromise after a false resolution; Sita is back where she began. Commenting that if she had been younger when she wrote the novel she might have ended it with Sita’s suicide, Desai has explained that her less melodramatic conclusion is more in keeping with the realities of middle age. Hence, although Sita continues living, her conflict is not resolved; instead, she accepts defeat and compromise.
Fire on the Mountain
In Fire on the Mountain Desai reverts to the psychological thriller form exemplified by her first novel. In this work the narrative builds to a superb pitch of suspense and tension, only to end in sensational melodrama: the rape and murder of an old, ugly woman and a forest fire started by a demented child. Embittered by the indifference and infidelity of her husband, worn out from the rearing of several children and grandchildren, and now abandoned by her relatives, Nanda Kaul lives alone in her mountaintop cottage in Kasauli, surrounded by a pine forest. She tries to conceal her bitterness and loneliness behind a facade of cold, cynical aloofness, pretending that she does not need anyone, that she is living in Kasauli out of choice, and that she is in happy retirement after a rich and fulfilling life. When Raka, her greatgranddaughter, comes to live with her, Nanda’s craving for contact is revived. She tries to win the child by various devices, telling her wild stories, going for walks with her, and bribing her with food. Raka, who is as inscrutable and self-sufficient as a reptile, rebuffs the old woman. Into this situation steps Ila Das, Nanda’s childhood friend, a complete failure, a pathetic harridan who has descended into desperate poverty after the ruin of her once-rich, decadent family. It is only when Ila is raped and murdered that Nanda is willing to acknowledge the lie at the core of her life; just then, Raka, the strange, half-crazy child, informs her that she has set the forest on fire.
Fire on the Mountain is superbly narrated but does not aim at being much more than a thriller. Nanda’s quest for a meaningful life is subordinated to the demands of the plot. The novel is interesting, however, for at least two reasons. First, the hill station, usually the romantic contrast to the anticreative life of the city, here becomes a horrifying place of ghosts, mad dogs, demented women, impoverished hags, lonely great-grandmothers living in illusions, and demented children; the fantasy has turned into a nightmare. To the Kasauli of Fire on the Mountain, even the Calcutta of Voices in the City seems preferable. Second, Ila and Raka are two of Desai’s most disturbing characters: Both are consistently sketched in animal and reptile imagery, and both are, in a sense, unhinged. They represent the extremes of the fondness for the bizarre that lurks in all of Desai’s fiction.
Clear Light of Day
Clear Light of Day is one of Desai’s most accomplished novels. In it, the typical elements of her art merge to create a unique artistic triumph. The plot, for example, is a fine blend of the gothic and the philosophical, each strengthening the other. The mysterious well in the back, the drowned cow, Mira Masi’s alcoholic disintegration, Tara’s fear that her mother was murdered by her father, Baba’s idiocy—all these contribute to the final resolution of the novel. One by one, these events are put into their place by the two heroines, Bim and Tara; the mystery, horror, or shame enveloping these events is slowly peeled away, and the past emerges in a new light of clarity and understanding.
The setting of Clear Light of Day has the typical Desai elements—the ugly city, the large house with verandas, the garden, the servants’ quarters, upper-class characters, and decadent families. These elements, however, are augmented by acute social observation and particularity of place and time. Not only the inner life of the characters but also their milieu is fully developed. Perhaps no other English novel so successfully immortalizes mid-twentieth century Delhi and its locales—Civil Lines, the old Delhi convent school, the Jamuna, Connaught Circus, Hindu College, Darya Ganj, Chandni Chowk, the Ridge, and the Lodi Gardens. Clear Light of Day is thus also valuable as a sociohistorical document, a feat rare in Desai’s canon.
Desai’s main concern, of course, remains with the characters and their conflicts. Bim is the tough, cynical heroine, the one who refuses to compromise. Tara is her softer, more sensitive, counterpart. Raja, the deserter, their brother, is Bim’s double. Mira Masi and the sisters next door are the hags. Bakul, Tara’s husband, is a shallower, stupider version of Gautama. Bim, Tara, and Raja share the same determination to live meaningfully, without compromise. At the beginning of the novel, when Tara returns to the old house, both sisters are equally distant from resolving their conflicts: While Tara is too weak, Bim is too harsh, too bitter. Both are uncertain about their past, about their relationships to each other and Raja, about the meaningfulness of their lives. Together, they slowly relive their entire past, which leads to a marvelous reconciliation in the last few pages of the novel. Bim, to her astonishment, realizes that Tara— despite her marriage to Bakul and several mundane years as the wife of a diplomat—whom she has always despised, is just like her, and that Tara, too, has managed to preserve her integrity. Tara and Bim reach a new understanding for the first time; through Tara, Bim at last relinquishes her grudge against Raja, reconciling herself to him again.
After Tara’s departure, Bim and Baba listen to Mulk and his Guru; Mulk is not after all merely a slothful drunkard as Bim has thought—he can sing, he is an artiste. Bim realizes that she does not have to degenerate into another Mira Masi; she fathoms the truth of T. S. Eliot’s line from Four Quartets (1943): “Time the destroyer is also time the preserver.” Bim’s conflict ceases, dissolves; she transcends her duality and her contradictions. She can face reality without bitterness or neurosis. Her fancy ceases to cheat her; her imagination no longer makes her despise the reality around her. Instead, she realizes that ordinary life has its moments of fulfillment too. Clear Light of Day thus ends in balance, harmony, reconciliation, and resolution, not in murder, suicide, death, insanity, or compromise, as do all of Desai’s earlier novels and as does Baumgartner’s Bombay.
In Baumgartner’s Bombay, the main character is neither Indian nor English—he is a German Jew. The story follows Hugo Baumgartner from childhood in pre- World War II Germany to his death in Bombay, India. The novel, however, starts with the ending (though the reader cannot realize it until the actual end of the book) and then jumps to the middle of the story. Baumgartner’s past is relayed in a series of flashbacks from his time in India.
Baumgartner is forced to leave Germany when the Nazis’ rise to power can no longer be ignored. Indeed, by the time Baumgartner leaves, his father has already committed suicide after being sent to a concentration camp, though he was later released. Interestingly, Desai has said about Baumgartner’s Bombay that she “wasn’t writing about the Nazis. I was writing about random evil.” Baumgartner himself never expresses much feeling about the injustices done to him; about his six years in a British internment camp for German nationals, Baumgartner protests that “they were not such bad days.”
Baumgartner’s escape from Germany takes him to Venice, where he is to catch a boat for India. Venice remains in Baumgartner’s mind as a kind of paradise, despite the troubles he has there and the fact that he is in the city for less than a week. These fabled and probably half-imagined qualities of Venice contrast sharply with the squalor and degradation of Bombay and of Baumgartner’s life there. In fact, he spends most of his time going from restaurant to restaurant trying to find scraps for the multitude of cats with which he shares his dingy little flat. Ironically, Baumgartner does die at the hands of a German, though not a Nazi; rather, a German junkie whom Baumgartner has offered a place to stay kills him for his silver trophies.
Baumgartner’s Bombay marks a return for Desai to the twin themes of hopelessness and despair. Baumgartner, his aging friend Lotte, Julius Roth—all are stranded in India; none can return to Germany because the old Germany is gone forever, and they do not fit into the new Germany. Indeed, it is the new Germany that becomes the death of Baumgartner in the shape of the brutal junkie. Desai’s picture of foreigners, or firanghi, as the Indians label these outcasts, is that they can never fit into Indian society no matter how hard they try. It is Desai’s great talent, however, to be able to make these characters compelling despite their obvious fate, which is to be forgotten. They leave no mark or memory when they die, though Desai ensures that they remain with the reader long past the end of the novel.
Journey to Ithaca
Desai’s ninth novel, Journey to Ithaca, continues certain structures and themes of the earlier novels. It, too, has three parts: prologue, text (divided into chapters), and epilogue. The characters’ search for spiritual meaning prompts the action of the story. The title is an allusion to the Greek island home of Homer’s Odysseus, who made one of fiction’s greatest journeys.
Set in the 1970’s, the story is about Sophie and Matteo, two wealthy Italian young people who travel to India on a lark. Matteo, the more emotionally sensitive of the two, is quickly swept up in the spirituality of India, and eventually the couple find themselves in an ashram run by a spiritual leader called Mother. The conflicts created by the personal nature of a journey to enlightenment are manifest as Sophie and Matteo produce two children. Matteo is drawn into the rhythms and beliefs of Mother’s ashram, but Sophie, the more practical and cynical of the pair, cannot fathom the attraction, let alone the squalor and deprivation she experiences. Upset, she leaves India and returns to Italy with the children.
In time, Sophie is summoned back to India because Matteo is deathly ill; she leaves the children to go to him. Sick as he is, Matteo is an unrepentant follower of Mother and wishes only to continue his spiritual studies. Shocked and angered, Sophie begins her own journey to understand him. She literally traverses the world to learn who Mother is and how she came to command such devotion. She discovers that Mother was once a young Egyptian girl named Laila and that even as a child Laila sought deeper meaning in life. While attending school in Paris, Laila encountered a troupe of Indian dancers and was taken into the group by the charismatic male lead dancer, Krishna. Through the troupe she learned to employ her dance as a means to spirituality. The story of Laila and her ultimate arrival in India is interwoven with Sophie’s search for her, and it introduces the third journey in the novel.
Journey to Ithaca relates the experiences of three people seeking enlightenment. Desai’s contribution to this type of literature is that she illustrates the consequences of a spiritual journey, which by its very nature must be personal if not solitary. For the seeker, the arduousness of the search is a reward in itself. Moments of illumination, large or small, are worth striving for. On the journey, however, others are excluded. Matteo’s devotion to Mother leaves no room for his family. Sophie at one point recognizes that she has abandoned her children in an obsessive search to discover the truth about Mother. Mother steps on the careers of others and abandons Krishna to seek God in the Himalayas. The journey to Ithaca is a difficult and sorrowful one.
The novel’s construction emulates a journey to spiritual enlightenment; it does not follow a simple chronological pattern. The story begins when Sophie has been summoned back to India because Matteo is sick. It then returns to their children, Isabel and Giacomo, in Italy. Then it reverts to Matteo’s childhood, his marriage to Sophie, and their trip to India. Next, the action returns to Italy, then back to India, followed by Sophie’s pursuit of Mother, retracing her history from Egypt to Europe to the United States and finally back to India. The path to spirituality is a jagged one, sometimes moving forward, sometimes moving backward or even sideways.
Desai’s tenth novel, Fasting, Feasting, deals with themes of suppression and escape. It also deals with oppression and the objectification of women in a sensitive and thoughtful way. The story contrasts the cultures of the United States and India, particularly male and female roles in the two countries. The parents of the two main characters do not consider the possibility that their children have their own lives to live; daughter Uma is a victim of patriarchy, and son Arun is trapped in the education meant to liberate him. The title Fasting, Feasting signifies deprivation and abundance, whether of food or of emotional sustenance. Uma is deprived of attention, and Arun is deprived of his freedom of choice. Feasting can be identified in the excesses and opulence in the American lifestyle to which Arun is exposed.
The story depicts the struggles of Arun and his older sister Uma as the siblings attempt to strike a balance between their parents’ expectations and their own. Arun studies in Massachusetts while Uma lives in a small provincial Indian city with their parents, to whom she refers collectively as “MamaPapa.” Structured in two parts, the story is told first from Uma’s point of view, then from Arun’s. The first part takes place in India and tells the story of Uma, the eldest daughter of an educated Indian family; the father is a lawyer, but he is provincial and traditional at heart. Uma is not necessarily ugly but she is awkward; her younger sister, Aruna, is the pretty and vivacious one who makes a successful marriage. Uma’s celebrated younger brother, Arun, makes it to the United States to study. Meanwhile, Uma stays at home to serve their parents, embarrassed by one failed attempt after another to marry her off; Uma’s every chance to find some freedom and space is thwarted by her possessive parents. Even if Uma is not smart, she has a kind heart and a strong willpower, and she grows immensely in spirit throughout the life-changing events in her life, so that by the end of the novel she finds a place for herself in Indian society where she can show her individuality.
The second part of the book focuses on Arun, Uma’s younger brother who is attending college in Massachusetts. During the summer, when school is out, he stays with a local family, the Pattons. This section of the book comments on American society through the Patton family, particularly the diminishment of the family structure in the United States and the American obsession with materialism. It also touches on the issue of eating disorders. Arun’s childhood was one of oppression—he has been constantly coached and pushed by a domineering father, and initially when he was sent to the United States, his life was still farmed out to family friends through an arrangement made back in India. Arun changes and grows through his experiences in the United States, however. At the American university, Arun finds himself isolated in every way from his peers and from his culture, even others from India. His isolation is more or less his own choice; after his oppressive upbringing, he wants space and freedom. His isolation echoes Uma’s as she escapes to the privacy of her room in India—the siblings are in different cultures, but they are equally sad.
Short fiction: Games at Twilight, and Other Stories, 1978; Diamond Dust: Stories, 2000.
Screenplay: In Custody, 1993 (adaptation of her novel; with Shahrukh Husain).
Children’s literature: The Peacock Garden, 1974; Cat on a Houseboat, 1976; The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story, 1982.
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