Anita Desai | Critical Essay by Richard Cronin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 5,896 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Richard Cronin

SOURCE: "The Quiet and the Loud: Anita Desai's India," in Imagining India, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 45-58.

In the essay below, Cronin examines Desai's treatment of India and Indian life and culture in such works as The Village by the Sea, Fire on the Mountain, and Clear Light of Day.

'Quiet writing, like Anita Desai's, can be more impressive than stylistic fireworks', wrote Victoria Glendinning in The Sunday Times. Anita Desai may let fireworks into her stories, but not into her style. At the end of The Village by the Sea, Hari and his sisters celebrate Diwali: 'Hari carried the basket of fireworks onto the grassy knoll in the coconut grove, and, to the sound of Bela's and Kamal's excited shrieks, he set off a rocket into the sky where it exploded with a bang into a shower of coloured sparks'. The rocket bangs, the girls shriek, but the prose stays quiet. In [Salman Rushdie's] Midnight's Children the 'saffron minutes and green seconds' that separate India from its moment of independence tick by. Crowds—'the men in shirts of zafaran hue, the women in saris of lime'—watch a celebratory firework display, 'saffron rockets, green sparkling rain'. There is a part of most English readers that distrusts such flamboyance, and recoils from it with relief to the sober, guilt-free pleasures of Anita Desai's quiet prose. But there remains a nagging worry that it may not be easy at once to conform to English standards of good taste, and be true to the place Anita Desai writes about. India, after all, is not a quiet country.

In The Village by the Sea Anita Desai dispenses with her usual cast of characters. It is Hari's story, and his sister, Lila's. With their drunken father, their sick mother, and two younger sisters, they live a life of wretched poverty in the little fishing village of Thul, not far from Bombay, the full weight of family responsibility thrust prematurely on their young shoulders. As the novel begins Lila performs her morning puja to the sacred rock in the sea. Then she walks home through 'dew that still lay on the rough grass, and made the spider webs glitter'. She sees butterflies, and she sees birds; 'flute-voiced drongoes that cut the air like dazzling knives', and 'pert little magpie robins':

A single cock-pheasant, invisible, called out 'coop-coop-coop' in its deep, bogey-man voice from under a bush and a pigeon's voice gurgled on and on. It was the voice of the village Thul as much as the roar of the waves and the wind in the palms.

Like her friend, Ruth Jhabvala, and like [E. M.] Forster before her, Anita Desai loves Indian birds. Their easy grace in a climate that can be so pitiless to human beings rarely fails to move her. In one of her best short stories, a querulous, asthmatic old man finds his irritability disappear, and his heart lift as dawn brings a cool breeze, and pigeons rise into the sky:

Then, with a swirl and flutter of feathers, a flock of pigeons hurtled upwards and spread out against the dome of the sky opalescent, sunlit, like small pearls. They caught the light as they rose, turned brighter till they turned at last into crystals, into prisms of light. Then they disappeared in the soft, deep blue of the morning. ('Pigeons at Daybreak', Games at Twilight)

A city-bred, middle-class old man might see such a thing and find peace, but would a girl like Lila, a girl born in a village, who is troubled not by asthma but by how to find the wherewithal to keep her family alive, be quite so tremblingly sensitive to a cock-pheasant and a pigeon? Anita Desai insists that The Village by the Sea tells a true story, a story 'based entirely on fact'. But truth in stories cannot be won just by sticking to facts, it must be an achievement of language. Anita Desai recalls in her dedication the 'many holidays' she has spent in Thul, and it is hard not to feel that the cock-pheasant and the pigeon are being looked at by a writer on holiday, not by a peasant girl in debt. All through The Village by the Sea Anita Desai's prose places a barrier between the reader and the characters. Its quietness, its transparency, separates us from them as effectively as the scenic windows in Bombay's modern apartment blocks separate those inside from the squatter's colonies just a hundred yards away—so near and yet so far.

Near the hut where Hari and Lila live is a holiday home owned by a rich Bombay businessman. It is here that Sayyid Ali stays when he comes to Thul to study the nesting habits of baya birds. When Hari's sisters learn what he is up to, they 'burst into uncontrollable giggles'. It is as if Anita Desai has realised that crediting a village girl with a lively interest in bird-song was incongruous, and feels the need to correct her mistake. But it is more than that. The novel assumes as its premise a complicity between Anita Desai's own educated, aesthetic feeling for Thul, and the feeling of those like Hari and Lila, for whom Thul is home, and whose pressing realities are the shortage of food; the high price of medicine; and the cheapness and easy supply of toddy, the fermented coconut milk on which their father drinks himself into a stupor every night. But the story works to show that such complicity is only, can only be, an illusion.

The government plans to make Thul the site of a large industrial complex producing chemical fertiliser. The villagers see the plan as a threat to their livelihood. They sail to Bombay to protest against the decision, and Hari goes with them, fired with indignation against the government, but also intent on staying in Bombay to find work. In Bombay the villagers are addressed by Sayyid Ali. Hari finds it odd that a 'city man—neat, clean, and educated—' should take up their cause: 'Yet he spoke of fish and cattle and trees with feeling and concern.' Hari is impressed: 'He speaks well,' Hari said, 'Very well'. So well that he successfully disguises the fact that his own interest in Thul and the interests of those who live there are poles apart. He is worried about pollution, they are worried about their jobs.

When Sayyid Ali comes to Thul, he scarcely notices the villagers. Instead, he looks at birds, through binoculars. It is Anita Desai's way of recognising that when she looks at Hari, Lila, and their family, she can look at them only as if they were birds—charming, interesting, and of a different species from the observer. She can look at them so nearly only by using a prose that works like a pair of binoculars, allowing her to show in close-up people who would be too shy of her presence ever to let her approach their lives too closely.

In Bombay Hari learns how to mend watches. When he returns to Thul his new skill soon finds a use. Sayyid Ali has dropped his watch into water, and it has stopped. The incident exposes the insecurity of the alliance between the villagers, fearful of a change that they cannot understand, and those like Sayyid Ali who resent change because it threatens their taste for the picturesque, their hobbies of bird-watching or villager-watching. Hari has learned how to mend watches, how to make the most of time. His new skill will be useful when watch-wearing engineers come to Thul, and he thinks of starting a poultry farm and selling the produce to the newcomers. Hari explains his plans to Sayyid Ali, and Sayyid Ali grasps the lesson that Anita Desai's fable is designed to teach:

'Adapt—that is what you are going to do. Just as birds and animals must do if they are to survive.' It is a chastening lesson. He learns it, and at once topples backwards, and falls off the veranda into a hibiscus bush. He has tried to make Thul a wildlife sanctuary, a reserve for the baya birds and a reservation for the villagers. But Hari does not want his old life protected. He wants a new life, and a better life, and he will make it for himself. History, like Sayyid Ali's watch, is in his pocket. Sayyid Ali learns his lesson, and then goes back to bird-watching: 'with a cry of delight he was stumbling back to his marsh, having seen a little baya bird arrive with something in its beak for its young. He seemed to have forgotten Hari.'

He seems to have forgotten, but he has not. Anita Desai's novels have a single plot. The central characters build around themselves a quiet space, and into that quietness, just for a moment, the noisy life of India intrudes. Then it is quiet again, but the quality of the quietness has changed. Hari leaves his little fishing village for Bombay, where his ears are stunned by the noise of the traffic 'hooting and screeching and grinding and roaring past and around him'. Then he comes back to Thul, but he comes back a changed man. Hari is the central character in The Village by the Sea, but he is observed, seen from the outside. It is Sayyid Ali who is in close proximity to the novelist. His silent hours of bird-watching are interrupted by a short conversation with Hari. Then he goes back to his birds. But he too is changed. He has learned to recognise his own life as irrelevant to the larger life of India.

In Fire on the Mountain Nanda Kaul, widow of a vice-chancellor and a great-grandmother now, has retired from the plains to the quiet, unfashionable hill-station Kasauli. There, in the cool mountain air, she finds freedom at last from husband, children, servants and visitors. She devotes her old age to the perfection of an art that she has practiced all her adult life. 'Each day, for an hour' she would retreat to her room, and lie with 'her eyes tightly clenched, her hands folded on her chest', and withdraw from the household noises—the giggles, the scrunch of bicycle tyres over gravel, the running taps, the hissed threats of an ayah—into her own stillness. In Kasauli she has found a place where she can surround herself with stillness all day long. She remembers just one moment in her adult life when she felt herself perfectly alone. It was night, the badminton was over, the guests had gone. She walked in the garden, and watched from the darkness as her husband returned after driving his mistress home. Then she walked again: 'That was one time she had been alone: a moment of private triumph, cold and proud'. In Kasauli she can stretch that moment into years.

But even there Nanda Kaul's isolation is imperfect. She is still at the mercy of letters and of the telephone. As the novel begins, the postman intrudes into 'the cool cave of her day'. He brings a letter telling her that her great-granddaughter Raka will be visiting her. After she has read it, the telephone rings. It is her childhood friend, Ila Das. First Raka and then Ila Das erupt into the cold, proud stillness in which Nanda Kaul had planned to live out her life.

She dreads Raka's visit—the demands it will make on her, the presence of a child who will 'shatter and rip her still house to pieces'—but the child, when she arrives, is as self-contained as Nanda Kaul herself. The old woman begins to feel a complicity with her: 'Raka, you really are a great-grandchild of mine, aren't you? You are more like me than any of my children or grandchildren. You are exactly like me, Raka'. But, like Sayyid Ali's championship of the villagers, it is a false complicity. The self-centredness of the old, born of weariness, is quite unlike the self-centredness with which the young signal their amoral energy. Nanda Kaul recoils in her old age from a lifetime spent suffering other people's impingement on her. She believes that she is released from her debts to others because she has paid them in full. Raka, the child of one careless and one inadequate parent, has not yet learned that such debts exist.

Lila Das has spent her life clinging to that steep Indian slope that plunges from genteel poverty to indigence—slipping, clutching again, slipping, finding herself ever nearer the precipice over which India's unimaginably poor have fallen. She is in the same position as her rusty, broken-spoked umbrella, the last relic of her gentility, when it is snatched from her hand by laughing schoolboys and kicked to the side of the road where it lodges precariously in the railings, saved—but only just—from a plunge of 2,000 feet. Lila Das has given piano lessons, been a domestic science tutor in the university that Nanda Kaul's husband governed, and now ekes out a meagre existence as a social worker in a village in the Himalayan foothills. When she visits Nanda Kaul, she brings with her a bitter knowledge; of babies dead of tetanus, children blind with conjunctivitis, and seven year old girls married to gray-haired landowners in exchange for a quarter of an acre and two goats.

Such knowledge is a jarring, discordant load to take up into the cool, pine-scented air of Kasauli—as jarring as Lila Das's voice. She is famous for her voice. When she lisped nursery rhymes, the noise 'curdled the blood of the adults who dandled her'. When she recited at school, 'teachers shivered, their teeth on edge, as if a child had squeaked a pencil on a slate or slid a nail down a glass pane'. As she sits in Nanda Kaul's garden taking tea, she bursts into a quavering song, and becomes for a moment a woman out of myth, an anti-type of Orpheus. At the sound of her voice pine trees let their needles fall, cicadas hide under stones and weep, pebbles roll downhill to escape the cacophony:

      Ye banks and braes o'bonny Doon,
      How can ye bloom sea fresh and fair.

The two old ladies take tea together, and Ila Das refreshes herself with a bath in the cool waters of memory; the vice-chancellor's house, well-groomed lawns, and badminton parties. Her memories are akin to those with which Nanda Kaul tries to win Raka's attention, but less crafted. When he set out to explore Tibet, Nanda Kaul's father took his family with him as far as the Zaji-la Pass:

But one morning, when we had camped beside a river of green ice water in a meadow that seemed untouched by a single foot-print, and the sky seemed the purest, cleanest sky that's ever been, he got onto his horse, Suleiman, dressed in fur and leather, and rode away over the pass, leaving us alone.

Nanda Kaul makes her memories as hard and bright as dreams, but even so they distract the child only for a moment from the more pressing interest of things; a fat yellow snake, a broken tin can, a burnt-out bungalow. Lila Das is no more successful. Her memories stumble on something unmentionable. She remembers badminton, mixed doubles against the Vice-Chancellor and Miss David: 'Miss David was an ace player—ooh, she was good—and they beat us hollow …' The forbidden name puts a stop to the conversation: 'and here were Ila Das and Nanda Kaul, both beaten, silent'.

Nanda Kaul does not invite Ila Das to live with her. When tea is over Ila Das walks back down the mountain to her shabby village home. But she never arrives. On the outskirts of the village she is raped and murdered by a villager who resents her interference in his marriage plans for his seven-year-old daughter. A policeman telephones Nanda Kaul with the news, and it has scarcely sunk in when Raka taps at the window: 'Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire'. In the ravine below the house the brushwood is already aflame. Raka has always been fascinated by fire.

From her veranda Nanda Kaul can see the red-tiled roof of a school and the spire of a church. It is a more comfortable view than the one from the back windows, 'of the cliff plunging seven thousand feet down to the Punjab plains'. Raka delights in that gorge. The people of Kasauli use it as a midden. Rusted scrap-metal litters its slopes, snakes live there, and jackals—rabid jackals according to Nanda Kaul's servant, Ram Lal—and there too, according to him, are the churails, man-monsters, their feet turned back, who live on corpses. Jackals and churails haunt the gorge because in Kasauli is the Pasteur Institute where rabies serum is manufactured for the whole of India. The dead bodies of the animals on which the doctors have experimented are thrown into a chute from which they are debouched into the gorge.

The Institute is a factory in Shangri-la, a reminder that the stillness that Nanda Kaul finds in Kasauli, the stillness that she weaves around her, is not a natural but a manufactured product, an antidote to the madness of involvement refined as painstakingly as the doctors of the Institute refine their rabies serum. The memory of a childhood with a father who did not really ride into Tibet on his horse, Suleiman, and of a married life devoted to relieving her husband of domestic anxieties that might distract him from his lifelong affair with Miss David, are ejected into some mental gorge, put behind her while she broods contentedly on a red-tiled roof and a church spire. She nourishes this life of hers on carefully chosen reading: Waley's translations, a book on Indian birds, the Travels of Marco Polo, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It is a taste for the exotic, for detached elegance, the scent of pines rather than the fetid, pungent odours of the Indian plains. It is a refined and rather etiolated taste, and Anita Desai's prose is there to remind us that it is the taste of the author as much as of her heroine.

The story of the novel is the story of how Nanda Kaul's life of quiet self-containment is disrupted, by Raka and by Ila Das. Raka forces her to feel again a solicitude that she had given up as a bad habit. Raka loves exploring the gorge, and, as Nanda Kaul's eyes follow her, she is reminded of the clutter of tin cans, dead flesh, and primitive legend that she had rejected as incompatible with the elegant austerity of her chosen life. Then, with the murder of Ila Das, Nanda Kaul is forced to recognise the mindless brutality of a life that she had thought herself aloof from. Anita Desai's prose is a perfect match for Nanda Kaul in her aloofness. It is 'style' as a carefully refined antidote to the maddening welter of experience with which India, the India of the plains, assaults the mind and bewilders the senses. All impediments to its bright clarity have been excised, debouched into the waste-paper basket. When Nanda Kaul can no longer maintain her aloof detachment from life, Anita Desai is forced to relinquish her style. She looks for an alternative. Ila Das with her tattered gentility and awful voice infects the prose with a Dickensian extravagance, but this never reaches much higher than pastiche. The rape and murder are recounted with a blank factuality that derives from another school of writing—Muriel Spark at her nastiest. The novel gutters and dies in a medley of conflicting styles that can do no more than share in the central character's bewilderment. It is a less successful novel than the earlier Clear Light of Day.

Like Midnight's Children, Clear Light of Day is at once a family chronicle and a history of modern India. But there is a crucial difference. In Clear Light of Day history is glimpsed only out of the corner of the eye. In the partition riots Delhi is ablaze, but the fires are on the horizon. The novel takes place in Old Delhi's Civil Lines, 'where the gardens and bungalows are quiet and sheltered behind their hedges', and the residents only imagine that they 'hear the sound of shots and of cries and screams'. It is here that the family live, the four children—Raja, his two sisters, Bim and Tara, and Baba, the youngest son, the retarded baby of the family. Raja and Tara leave, Raja to marry the daughter of a rich Muslim businessman, and Tara to marry a diplomat and enter on the displaced life of the embassy, shifting from country to country, returning to India from time to time in a forlom attempt to 'keep in touch'. Bim teaches history at the local college. Her life oscillates between history and memory, between the comfortingly distant history of the Moghul empire that she teaches at college, and the memories that she broods over at home: sad memories for the most part, of her aunt's lapse into alcoholism, and of the rupture that took place between herself and her brother, embittering the love that she still feels for him.

It is a noisy house. Badshah, the dog on which Bim lavishes her affection, irritates the neighbours with his non-stop barking, and Baba plays over and over again at full volume his small collection of 1940s records. The noise grates on the nerves of visitors, sometimes on Bim's nerves too, but the noise works only to drown out the noises of the outside world. However paradoxically, it works to preserve a silence, the silence in which Bim has chosen to live out her days.

Time stopped for her in 1947. Then her sister married, and her beloved brother left home. She lives with her memories, two memories in particular—the one associated with her aunt, the other with her brother. The aunt—really a poor relation taken in by Bim's mother so that she need not be distracted by her children from her bridge—recommended buying a cow. The cow broke its tether, stumbled into the garden well, and was drowned. That image—the white cow, green slime and black water—haunted Bim's aunt as she lay dying. The white cow is balanced by a white horse. 'Can you remember', Bim asks Tara 'playing on the sand late in the evening and the white horse riding by, Hyder Ali Sahib up on it, high above us, and his peon running in front of him, shouting, and the dog behind him, barking'. It is the image that first inspired Raja with a vision of the grace of Islam, the glamour of India's Moghul past, and the beauty of Urdu. It gave him the ambition to become when he grew up a poet or a hero, a second Iqbal, or someone who might single-handed heal the wounds of his country's partition by the practice of a reckless magnanimity. Bim's emotional life is suspended between a white dream and a white nightmare, between love and bitterness.

Raja married Hyder Ali's daughter, became his heir, and wrote Bim a letter assuring her that he would not increase the rent she pays for the family house. Bim has never recovered from the shock of her brother, her hero, diminishing to a landlord. She keeps the letter by her, until, at the end of the novel, she destroys it, as a sign that she has recovered from her sterile obsession with the past. It is the progression figured in the novel's third white memory, a memory associated with Tara. Tara was running after her mother as her mother strolled through the rose garden. She spied something gleaming from under a heap of fallen rose petals, a pearl, or a silver ring. But what Tara finds when she bends to look is a 'small blanched snail'. 'Her face wrinkling with disgust her mother turned and paced on without a word, leaving Tara on her knees to contemplate the quality of disillusion'. The incident is recalled again later in the novel, but, as it is repeated, it is transformed. Tara stayed for a while on her knees 'crushed with disappointment, then lifted the snail onto a leaf and immediately delight gushed up as at a newly mined well at seeing the small creature unfold, tentatively protrude its antennae, and begin to slide forward on a stream of slime'. The loss of childish illusions need not after all be sad: it may mark the beginning of the adult's capacity to find joy in looking at the world undeceived. At the end of the novel Bim forgives her brother, forgives him for being not what she dreamed he might be, a pearl, a silver ring, a hero, but for being what he is.

In the novel's last scene Bim has left her house, left her garden. She has not been released into a full possession of the great and wonderful land of India—Anita Desai's novels do not work like that—she has only gone next door, to listen to her neighbour singing. She still lives in her house as if in a shell, and she can only progress as snails do, slowly. But she is no longer self-enclosed: her horns have emerged and are alert to the world around her. After the neighbour, his teacher sings in his old man's voice: 'All the storms and rages and pains of his life were in that voice, impinging on every song he chose to sing, giving the verses of love and romance a harsh edge that was mocking and disturbing.' It is a voice that redeems by its beauty the ravages of time, the pain, and the disillusionment that it embodies: 'Vah! Vah! someone called out in rapture—it might have been the old man listening above on the veranda—and the singer lifted a shaking hand in acknowledgement'. So the novel ends, not with Baba playing over and over again his collection of 1940s records with their depressingly ironic titles—'Don't fence me in'—but with an old man making beauty not by ignoring the passage of time, but by accepting it.

Bim's was a family overtaken by history, unprepared for life in an independent India. Her parents spent their lives playing bridge at the club, intently conning their hands, unaware of the movement of history that was bringing their way of life to an end. Their children were educated in English, in Christian schools, educated into a culture that in 1947 packed its bags and left, condemning them to live their lives as a futile exercise in nostalgia, dreaming like Bing Crosby on Baba's record of a white Christmas. Bim is offered no magic release. Even when she listens to the old man's song, what it brings to her mind is a line from Four Quartets. She and Raja will be friends again: the partition in the family will be healed. But the incident has no national implications, for Clear Light of Day determinedly refuses allegory. All that Bim is offered is a moment; a Hindu singing a song by Iqbal, Pakistan's national poet, and herself responding with a verse of T.S. Eliot's—a privileged moment in which her own, and India's, fragmented cultural heritage becomes one, and Bim feels at peace with herself and at peace with her land.

In Anita Desai's most recent novel, In Custody, Raja has slipped down the social scale, and reappears as Deven, struggling to support his wife and son on his meagre salary as a lecturer in Hindi at a college in Mirpore, an undistinguished small town outside Delhi. Like Raja, Deven has dreamed of devoting his life to Urdu poetry, and his dreams have collapsed around him, leaving not even wealth to reconcile him to his unglamorous existence. Deven is Anita Desai's version of a character common in modern Indian novels: the little man, often a teacher, trapped in a job that offers a precarious prestige, but not the salary to support it. One thinks of Narayan's The English Teacher and Ruth Jhabvala's The Householder. These are domestic novels. The householder, the poorly paid young teacher, learns to find in his wife and child the solace that supports him in the humdrum struggles of his life. They share with Victorian novels a sense of the redemptive virtue of domesticity, but whereas Dickens or George Eliot or Trollope find in domesticity the happiest expression of a national character, Narayan and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala celebrate domestic love as a private discovery, a wonderful surprise. Private love remains private: it is not pressed into service as the expression of a national value.

Deven has a sulky wife, Sarla, and a small son, Manu. His task, one supposes, is to transform his domestic relationships, to make his home a closed space where happiness can be kept intact, preserved from the meagreness and frustrations of his public life. After a dispiriting visit to Delhi, Deven returns home and takes his son for a walk. They go to the canal that 'separated the town proper from the chemically lush grounds of the Agricultural and Veterinary College', and look across the water at a flock of parrots exploding out of an acacia tree, 'acid green against the pale yellow of the sky'. Father and son are united in a moment of loving intimacy: 'It was as if the evening star shone through at that moment, casting a small pale illumination upon Deven's flattened grey world'. If Anita Desai is to be true to the pattern established by her predecessors that moment will become the lodestar of Deven's life. Instead, it remains a moment: 'Of course it could not be maintained, of course it had to diminish and decline'. When Deven returns home, he finds a letter calling him back to Delhi, away from his family. It is as if Anita Desai has rejected domestic happiness as an artificial solution, the creation of a closed space, lush but chemically lush, as dissociated from the urgent realities of India as are the grounds of the agricultural college from the stunted, barren, disorderly landscape of the town proper.

The letter is from the great Urdu poet, Nur, who invites Deven to be his secretary. Deven conceives a project, to make a tape recording of Nur. The novel charts the difficulties of the enterprise: Deven's technical innocence, an incompetent sound recordist, shortage of money, but most of all Nur himself—his insatiable demands for biryani, rum and cash, the domestic chaos in which he lives, his rambling conversation that flickers from poetry to racing pigeons, wrestlers and brothels. For all that he writes in Urdu, for Deven Nur embodies India. It is through Nur's poetry that Deven understands his Indian experience, and is reconciled with it. His project is akin to Anita Desai's, akin to that of all Indian novelists: in recording Nur, he aspires to record India.

The result is a 'fiasco':

When the tapes could be induced to produce sound, there seemed to be nothing to listen to—long intervals of crackling and sputtering interspersed with a sudden blare of horns from the street, the shrieking of nest-building birds, loud explosions of laughter and incoherent joviality, drunken voices bawling, singing, stopping short. Where was Nur? Occasionally his voice wandered in like some lost mendicant off a crowded street, offering a few lines of verse in a faint, foundering voice, then breaking off to say, much more firmly and positively, 'Fetch me another glass of rum. What have you ordered for lunch today? Has someone gone to collect it? I need more rum if I am to wait for so long'. Or else wandering through some difficult and involved tale of his vagabond days, stopping to groan and complain of the agony piles were causing him, pleading for some relief from discomfort, cursing his age, calling for palliatives in the way of food and drink, then sinking into silence while some admirer of his bawled out advice or encouragement with bawdy undertones that made his audience yelp like a pack of jackals.

Deven's students, who understand electronics, help him to edit, and the result is a single tape, 'a bizarre pastiche', made by 'recording an excerpt from one tape and putting it together with an incongruous bit from another, quite arbitrarily and fantastically'. The final tape is 'completely useless from a scholarly point of view', and yet not quite without value. It will be listened to by devotees 'sufficiently interested to crawl by the amplifier with their ears cocked'.

Deven loves Nur's verse for its 'perfect, unblemished shapes', for how it places 'frightening and inexplicable experiences like time and death at a point where they could be seen and studied, in safety'. He had hoped that his tape recording might share the formal beauty and the contemplative detachment of the verse. But he finds that his project is not like a poet's, but like a novelist's, and the novelist, the Indian novelist, must work with the immediate clutter of experience. What form results is at best a makeshift, a bizarre expedient, desperate and more or less unsuccessful.

Deven's tape stands for the Indian novel, and yet it is not much like the novel. In Custody, not much like any of Anita Desai's novels. Hers is a fastidious talent. Had she lived in Britain, she would have become, one guesses, a novelist something after the manner of Barbara Pym. Living in India, writing about the country where she lives, her subject becomes her own refinement, and the barrier it creates between her and her material. She looks at India like Nanda Kaul, from within the cool cave of her prose, or like Bim, from behind an overgrown hedge, or like Deven, a pained spectator of the messy chaos of Nur's life. She cannot escape herself, and neither can she escape her subject. Her task as a novelist becomes the forging of uneasy reconciliations between the two. The Village by the Sea ends when Sayyid Ali recognises his own irrelevance. In Fire on the Mountain all that Nanda Kaul can do is to escape from the cold triumph of her detachment into pained bewilderment and guilt. In Clear Light of Day and In Custody Anita Desai is less self-deprecating. The culture that Bim and Anita Desai share may function like a carapace, separating them from where they live, and yet even without leaving its shell a snail can tentatively protrude its horns. When Deven returns to Mirpore and takes up his university duties again, he is still pursued by Nur's demands for money. He had 'imagined he was taking Nur's poetry into safe custody, and had not realized that if he was to be the custodian of Nur's genius then Nur would become his custodian too'. Their relationship, he realises, will never end. Even when Nur dies 'the bills would come to him, he would have to pay for the funeral, support the widows, raise his son …' Deven, the quiet man, will never be able to extricate himself from Nur and his noisy household. It is a predicament that Anita Desai understands. In seeking to be the custodian of India she has herself been taken into custody, has placed her quiet, fastidious talent at the service of a noisy, melodramatic land. It is a painful burden. So Deven feels, and one senses that Anita Desai sometimes finds it so. But In Custody ends not with a gesture of weariness, but with Deven striding robustly forwards, confident that the burden he has condemned himself to carry is also his highest honour.

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