Anita Desai | Critical Review by Rosemary Dinnage

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 683 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Rosemary Dinnage

SOURCE: "Exiles," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, June 1, 1989, pp. 34, 36.

In the following excerpt, Dinnage comments on the "relentlessly dark" tone of Baumgartner's Bombay, calling it "the most pessimistic, but perhaps the most powerful" of Desai's works.

Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay … deals with expatriation and the distant consequence of genocide;… [the] horror takes place off stage and the central character is a second-generation victim. Desai is half-Indian, half-German; in her books,… many of the characters live with a sense of unease and displacement. Deven, in In Custody, struggles for his literary ideals against small-town academia and an accusing wife; Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain has retreated from all commitments to an isolated hill station; in Clear Light of Day a fragmented family is followed over the years, caught between an Anglicized literary culture and a background of decay and dust and inertia. Threatening her characters is always this sense of entrapment and paralysis, and some of them defy it; but Baumgartner's Bombay is relentlessly dark.

Baumgartner is a more thoroughly displaced person than Anglicized Indians, and more solitary, for Desai's Indian characters are still tied to family and community, however irksomely. She has drawn on her dual nationality to write on a subject new, I think, to English fiction—the experience of Jewish refugees in Indian. Hugo Baumgartner grows up in prewar Berlin, only child of a distant father and frightened mother. From the start he knows he is different, his parents are different. His father's business begins to dwindle; one night the word JUDE is a scrawled in red paint across his shop window. Then he is picked up by men in brown shirts, and, released after a fortnight in Dachau, cannot speak or stop shaking. Mother and child come back one day to find him with his head in the gas oven.

Hugo is sent away to India, to learn the timber business and prepare a home for his mother. He writes back of snake charmers and tropical flowers, not bewilderment and overcrowding and malaria. When war breaks out, just before he is taken to a British internment camp as an enemy alien, his last letter to her returns, stamped Adresse Unbekannt. The odd wartime world of the camp, in which both Jews and Nazis are herded together, is made more bizarre by the juxtaposition of Indian poverty glimpsed through the barbed wire.

But the camp at least imposes some kind of order; afterward, Baumgartner is released into the chaos of rioting Calcutta. Waiting for him is his mail, a bunch of postcards signed "Mutti"; the last is dated February 1941. Over the postwar years, Baumgartner gradually drifts down through Indian society to settle, like sediment, somewhere near the bottom, in a dark room invaded by the sounds of radios, quarreling voices, machinery. He begs scraps for his cats and visits his one friend, Lotte, a fellow survivor who has been showgirl and mistress to an Indian businessman.

In the end Baumgartner is defeated by a German, by a new kind of evil. Out of kindness and nostalgia he befriends a stupefied blond hippie. The boy has burned corpses in Benares, eaten human flesh, sold cannabis on the steps of a mosque, been robbed by a homosexual Nepalese, lashed himself raw in religious processions, smuggled opium on camelback, lived with lepers on a rubbish tip, and fought with stray dogs for scraps. Everything menacing and degraded in Indian life has moved into the empty drugged spaces of his brain; he is a true descendant of those who destroyed Baumgartner's family. And Baumgartner still has in his room dusty silver trophies won on the Bombay racecourse, valuable enough to buy drugs with, worth killing for. After his murder all Lotte finds of his possessions is the pile of postcards from Germany, each stamped with its camp number. Moving to and fro over the years, Desai evokes a European sickness and an Indian sickness, until they combine like toxic chemicals;… [Baumgartner's Bombay] is the most pessimistic, but perhaps the most powerful, of Desai's [works].

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This section contains 683 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rosemary Dinnage