Anita Desai | Critical Essay by K. Chellappan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 2,907 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by K. Chellappan

SOURCE: "Being and Becoming in Anita Desai's Where Shall We Go This Summer?," in Subjects Worthy Fame: Essays on Commonwealth Literature: In Honour of H. H. Anniah Gowda, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1989, pp. 10-16.

In the following essay, Chellappan examines existential themes of "being and becoming" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, contrasting the work to The Ramayana and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

Meena Belliappa's claim that the novels of Anita Desai clearly indicate the "new direction that Indian fiction is taking in the hands of the third generation of urban centres … a deliberate growing away from a debased tradition, of fiction as romance, to a more meaningful wrestle with reality" is only partially true: they are certainly not romances; their very form turns romance inside out, as most of the novels only question the romantic view of life; but they are not based entirely on social reality either, as they are explorations into the basic metaphysical questions, such as the relationship between being and becoming; and in this process they deal with such contraries as light and darkness, illusion and reality, sky and sea, to which the male-female dichotomy provides the primary symbol. The purpose of this paper is to trace this pattern in Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), Anita Desai's fourth novel, which occupies a central place in her oeuvre—free from the domination of the inner rhythms of the earlier novels and the externality of the later ones.

Where Shall We Go This Summer?, like its great prototypes, one ancient and the other modern (The Ramayana and [Virginia Woolf's] To the Lighthouse, respectively) is built around the metaphor of journey. Its very title evokes Virginia Woolf's novel: it seems to be asking the question to which Virginia Woolf has given the answer. The title brings together an adverbial of time and an adverbial of place, and in "this" there is a fusion of time and space.

The novel begins with the arrival of Sita and two of her children on an island during the 1967 monsoon. Strangely enough, we are told, "She had come here in order not to give birth", and then the chapter enacts the past that led to her coming here, to a once-magic island, to find the past all burnt to white ashes. This was done to escape from the routine life of the mainland, and it is a return to the island of her childhood. Part II reenacts the past and goes back to winter 1947, when Sita and her father were like herself and her children; but she feels the difference in the situation: Rama later came there to her as a deliverer. In the final part, the cycle is complete: we are back in the 1967 monsoon season, and now Sita begins to feel the need to accept life and growth in relation to the seafish and the children; and when they leave the world of magic for the world of reality, Moses and his friends perpetuate the magic, like Pegeen in The Playboy of the Western World.

The novel is built on several contraries, such as the sea and the sky, the mainland and the island, illusion and reality, winter and monsoon, and it ends with an almost Keatsian uncertainty, like the one at the end of the "Ode to a Nightingale" about which was true and which was false ("Was it a vision, or a walking dream? / Do I wake or sleep?"). As Desai puts it:

But was she sure it was not the other way round after all? Had not her married years, her dulled years, been the false life, the life of presence and performance and only the escape back to the past, to the island, been the one sincere and truthful act of her life, the only one not false and staged? How could she tell, how decide? Which half of her life was real and which unreal? Which of her selves was true, which false?

The reality-unreality dichotomy pervades the entire novel. Right at the beginning there is uncertainty about the seaweed: "'Snakes!' the woman scoffed in exasperation—the child's imagination was perverse and pessimistic, she thought. 'Why, don't you see it is only weeds?'" The island, which had seemed a small, dark boat of foreign matter while they were rowing across to it, seemed flat on the strip of sea, related to the muddy monsoon sea rather than to the sky as soon as they had arrived: and they find again the brilliance of their magic island burnt to white ashes.

Sita had come seeking refuge from the world of Bombay, which she had felt to be so unreal. But after some time she could not completely believe that life in that world was truly unreal: "Very soon the kitchen odours and kitchen sounds thickened and swelled till they became indubitably real."

The sea, which she had expected to come surging up and wash the city away, carried very little away and brought much to those rocks on which it ceaselessly spilled, littering them with the rotten carcasses of fish, with "stinking seaweed and with less explicable objects like a ring of green plastic, rubber shoe, bones and frayed tins." The sea was a source of life, and it could involve you in life as well as bring redemption. And parallel to this is the loss of distinction between the creative and the destructive in her consciousness, so that then she does not feel like having a child. And when Raman suggests escape to her, she readily responds, "Manori." This signifies a return to the island buried in her consciousness, and out of fear of which she left earlier, preferring the solidity of streets and the security of houses on the mainland. But now she "would turn, go back, and find the island once more."

Part II enacts a regressive movement to the past, and it starts with Sita's father reaching the island with Sita and her sister by boat several years ago, which is parallel to or prefigures her arrival now with her own two children. The house, Jeevan Ashram, which belongs to her father, is an image of the whole island. Even there she had the tendency to withdraw herself into the island chrysalid of childhood, for which the island seems to provide an image. The technique of contrast is used here also to bring out the truth, which is neither here nor there, and the contrast is between the glory of the island and the shadow of the mainland, one standing for childhood or the primordial reality and the other standing for the adult consciousness or the routine life. Both the images of the mirror and of light and shadow are Platonic, in the sense that there is a glorification of the white radiance of eternity as opposed to the shadows on the many-coloured dome of life. But the island itself is not free from shadows: it took her some time to notice that "this magic, too, cast shadows." The shadow-radiance opposition is again mentioned when she contrasts the dead but divine love of a Muslim woman with her own life.

The island was magical but unreal, as opposed to the familiar urban social life. The world of her father was both magical and frozen (they used to say that Babaji did magic), and this is again both parallel to and contrasted with the children's game of burial on the beach. To Anita Desai, as to Wordsworth (particularly in his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," with which the novel has a number of affinities), "The child is father of the man"—in the sense that childhood has all the potentials of adulthood, including the sense of death, which also it determines; and though it is close to heaven, it also requires growth. The visionary gleam soon fades, and Sita is noticeably unhappy over her father's attitude towards her elder sister and children as well as over his "miraculous" cures. The "ghost" of her mother, who had disappeared in Benares, added to the magic as well as the horror of her childhood, or "island life". Then came the mystery of the father himself in his last phase, when the men kept away from him and women came steadily for remedies. Now "he was rarely seen on the beach or, as in the beginning, out in the fields or on the village road. Increasingly invisible, he grew increasingly mysterious, already a legend that dwelt in the grey, no longer white, room above the trees." Finally, she chose to discard him and she found her redeemer in Rama, Deedar's son, when he "came to cremate her father, shut the house, fetch her away, send her to college, install her in a college hostel, and finally—out of pity, out of lust, out of sudden will for adventure, and because it was inevitable—married her." She then preferred the sunlight of the ordinary, the everyday, the empty, to the ruined theatre of the island life. But now, after twenty years, she prefers to return to that illusion, and now that that everyday world has grown so insufferable, she can think only of the magic island as a means of redemption. "If the sea was so dark, so cruel, then it was better to swim back into the net. If reality were not to be borne, then illusion was the only alternative. She saw that island illusion as a refuge, a protection. It would hold her baby safely unborn, by magic." The sustained metaphor is significant. If the island is the illusion as well as the glory of childhood, the sea is the source as well as the destroyer of the frenzies of life and the children are linked with the tides and the groves of trees.

The island has thus two dimensions: That which appeared to be a source of escape has itself now become a place to be escaped from; what appeared to be a beacon light for sanity is itself a symbol of madness. Now the vision has faded, and strangely enough (and as in Wordsworth's poem) it is the children who see the need for life: they see only the ruined house, and symbolically the children and Sita move in opposite directions round and round the ruined house. They seem to embody the life-urge to get involved in the world of becoming, not to be content with the return to the womb, of which the return to the island and the desire to keep the unborn child safe are images. The magnificent voice of life is heard by her when an old fisherwoman, "with one eye like a white-fish," "placed her basket on the floor, which crawled with shrimps, pink and infantile,… that shouted, 'we live, we are shrimps'."

It is interesting to see how the author has linked nature's "stench" with life. There can be no life unless one muddies one's hands, and Phoolmalaya is another reminder of the inevitability of growing up and growing old. Then comes the event which makes her think of her childhood fear of death and the contrasted attitude of her own child, Menaka, the future scientist, who is not afraid of it. Again, after she demonstrated the process to Karan and watched his pale performance, she thought of Jeevan's play. The final moment of discovery comes when she encounters a jellyfish and finds it, in the end, not so horrifying as sad. It had burst its white head (the colour is significant), risen to the surface of the sea, and surrendered its few moments of momentum to the wash and swell of the waves. That was the moment of revelation and recognition. She could identify it with the foetus stranded between her hips, and this identity was symbolic of her identification with all that lives—very different from Lear's identification with all life in the storm scene.

Now that she is reborn, Rama comes to take her back. Again the boat is the link between the island and the mainland, and their reunion is described with reference to her dress. Though she first wanted to change her dress with the positive cyclone of feminine instinct, she did not change, on purpose, but kept on her oldest and drabbiest sari and left her hair as it was. And Rama did not ask the old question, "Why can't you just be neat and tidy?"; he simply asked her, "How are you?" Probably this signifies her descent to her archetypal Indian role, and that is why she wanted to weep: "My father's dead—look after me." Again she is exasperated when she sees the children's eagerness to return to Bombay. Finally, when they encounter each other on the beach, she unfolds a significant moment from her childhood, when she felt happy watching the tender love of a pale Muslim woman—divine and like a work of art and narrates how she was driven to this island where she was stranded like the jellyfish. But in that very process, by going back, she also acquired the courage to go forward, as she has also travelled through layers of her self to something of her true self—now made free by the sea with the help of Rama. The journey in space and time has been a journey to a self that is both archetypal and modern.

The sea-sky dichotomy is central to the vision of the novel, which enacts the dialectics of being and becoming. The sea, which is an image of eternity, generates the life urge, and this rhythm is enacted by the waves: "Again and again the wave repeated its rush forward, its rush backward." The island and the mainland signify the two levels of reality, the archetypal and the social, as well as being and becoming; and though the sea is explicitly associated with the island, the link with the mainland is also implicit. One is tempted to recall here the lines of Wordsworth:

      Though inland far we be,
      Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
      Which brought us hither,
      Can in a moment travel thither,
      And see the Children sport upon the shore,
      And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
                 —"Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

But here is an inversion of Wordsworth, as of Plato: the child is close to eternity, but it also symbolises the urge to live. Similarly, the sea-sky dichotomy can be resolved if we see them in the right relationship, as Rama does: "He sighed, stopped, and for the first time looked out to the sea that grew every moment more radiant as it reflected the brightening sky in which the clouds were parting to let through shafts of watery light." The sea now reflects the sky, which has absorbed the shafts of watery light. The Platonic imagery throughout the novel is meant to show the world as a shadow—but that also contains reality. The images of mirror and theatre contribute to the same idea: only through perspectives and images can one grasp the imageless truth, and only through becoming can one penetrate the still core of being. In one sense, the island is the illusion, the mainland the reality; in another sense, the mainland is the illusion and the island is the reality. That is why the stage image refers to both. But it is also a question of perspective: the phenomenal and the eternal are involved in an eternal war-embrace: "Neither sea nor sky were separate or contained—they rushed into each other in a rush of light and shade, impossible to disentangle."

If anything, the emphasis seems to be on becoming and the need to accept the world of process as opposed to a frozen permanence or the eternity of art. The island is "unlivable": a life bewitched is life unlived. The reference to the ideal love of the Muslim woman almost recalls Keats's description of love in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "They were like a work of art—so apart from the rest of us. They were like us—they were inhuman, divine."

As I said in the beginning, the novel shows a clear affinity with To the Lighthouse; and though critics starting from K.R. Srinivasa Ayengar have referred to this, there has been no in-depth analysis to show the relationship. The vision of the synthesis of contraries is central to both, and the lighthouse is a symbol of that synthesis. Even in details, such as the use of colour symbolism, one can see this impact. But from my point of view, I would like to emphasize that both seem to accept the flux and the phenomenal and the variety of colours in preference to the white radiance of eternity and death.

Menaka's attitude to her mother is parallel to James's attitude to his father, but in this novel the male protagonist is more sympathetically portrayed than in To the Lighthouse, and he is closer to becoming. In this sense the novel turns the Rama myth inside out also. Here it is Sita who makes the journey and finally feels that there has been no journey at all; in the myth Rama finally does not accept Sita, and one feels that Rama has not been just. Even here the author seems to have overtly felt unhappy over the submission of the child and the mother to the routine. But just as the subtext of The Ramayana suggests a mild protest against the hero, the author in this novel seems to accept the routine world and the role of the hero as redeemer. The wheel has come full cycle.

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This section contains 2,907 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by K. Chellappan from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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