Anita Desai | Critical Essay by Shyam M. Asnani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
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Critical Essay by Shyam M. Asnani

SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Fiction: A New Dimension," in Indian Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, March-April, 1981, pp. 44-53.

In the essay below, Asnani examines the themes of "alienation and incommunication" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, stating that Desai's "fiction grapples with the intangible realities of life."

My writing is an effort to discover, underline and convey the significance of things. I must seize upon that incomplete and seemingly meaningless mass of reality around me and try and discover its significance by plunging below the surface and plumbing the depths, then illuminating those depths till they become a more lucid, brilliant and explicable reflection of the visible world.

The fiction of Anita Desai adds a new dimension to Indo-English Writing. Turning inward her fiction grapples with the intangible realities of life, plunges into the innermost depths of the human psyche to fathom its mysteries, the inner turmoil, the chaos inside the mind. Under the impact of the new pressures of the scientific and technological advancement, the world around us shows signs of the disintegration of the individual. It is therefore imperative that the modern Indo-English novel should seek new techniques to articulate these newly experienced inner and outer realities.

Anita Desai's preoccupation with the individual highlighting the psychological motivations, frustrations, sense of failure, and his keen awareness of the futility of existence radiates from each of her novels. She may be said to be the spokesman for our culture. She transmutes authentically its uncertainties, its complexities, its paradoxes. Her imagination is horrified by the emptiness of modern life as is Saul Bellow's or Ionesco's.

In her fourth novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), Anita Desai takes up for treatment the theme which had engaged her attention in her first two novels—Cry, the Peacock (1963), and Voices in the City (1965). The novel dramatizes the theme of alienation and incommunication in marital life in a more controlled and less exotic manner. The structure of the novel is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The three sections of the novel, of almost equal size, are concerned with a particular season, time and space. This may be said to be a planned dialectical exercise where perception, memory and fantasy depicting the present, the past and the future, are manipulated in that order with the corresponding units of time and space so as to depict the inner consciousness of the protagonist.

The predicament of Sita, the sensitive and rebellious protagonist, is strikingly similar to that of D. H. Lawrence's The Woman Who Rode Away. The extracts of Lawrence's poem End of Another Home Holiday apparently authenticate this aspect of Sita's ordeal. Her loneliness is symbolic of the loneliness of a woman, a wife and mother—the loneliness conditioned by familial and social constraints. Ironically she is the modern version of her mythological namesake. She takes to smoking and has occasional neurotic outbursts obviously as a result of her growing incompatibility and the unbearable fever and fret of urban domesticity.

Sita's alienation from her family and the outside world is mainly due to her nervous, sensitive and introvert nature. The dull, dry and drab life around her, the boredom "implicit in sensuality" of this dedicated work-a-day century infuriates her so much that she cries out desperately:

They are animals,—nothing but appetite and sex. Only food, sex and money matter. Animals.

She vibrates and throbs in revolt against the "subhuman placidity, calmness, and sluggishness" of the people living in the "age-rotted flats off Queens Road" in her neighbourhood:

The more stolid and still and calm they were, the more she thrummed, as though frantic with fear that their subhumanity might swamp her. She behaved provocatively—it was there that she started smoking … and began to speak in sudden rushes of emotion, as though flinging darts at their smooth, unscarred faces … She stormed in her room suffocated by their … complacence…. She had begun to suffer from appalling, inexplicable backaches, her husband sighed and moved to a small flat where they lived alone.

This clash between the sensitive individual and the insular, complacent world around her is objectified in terms of a series of situations and incidents which effectively dramatize the seething tension and the compulsive withdrawal of Sita's festered and decrepit soul into its own protective shell.

The first section of the novel flashbacks several images, "small incidents" and little scenes in succession reflecting the all pervasive brutality and violence which appall and madden Sita. The boys acting out the scene from the film they saw, fighting each other on the floor, the way Menaka tears all those drawings of hers she had kept so carefully; the ayahs on the roadside sitting, gossiping and fighting; Raman's sadistic delight in Sita's failure to protect the eagle from the rough, raucous, rasping tatterdemalions (crows), Menaka's crumbling of a sheaf of new buds on the small potted plant Sita had been labouring to grow on the balcony; Karan's unconscious exhibition of violence in building "a tower of blocks only for the pure, lustful joy of throwing it over with a great clatter, so much more enjoying the downfall than the architecture"—all these incidents indicate Sita's hatred for "murder, infanticide, incest, theft, robbery" and violence "with a quite paranoiac show of rage, fear and revolt" simmering inside her.

The problem of marital discord, the tension between husband and wife because of their temperamental incompatibility is yet another oft repeated theme in Anita Desai's novels. The theme of marital dissonance, handled so effectively in Cry, the Peacock and Voices in the City through the married lives of Maya-Gautama, and Monisha-Jiban has been re-enacted in this novel through Sita-Raman. In all these three novels the novelist's prime aim has consistently been the projection of the existential predicament of woman as an individual. In each of these novels one could sense the author's urge for a way of living which would respond to the innermost yearnings of the Indian woman for self-emancipation and self-dignity.

Sita, the wife of an upper middle class factory owner in Bombay, has had four children "With pride, with pleasure—sensual, emotional, Freudian, every kind of pleasure—with all the placid serenity that supposedly goes with pregnancy and parturition." "Now in her forties, greying, aging, Sita finds in her fifth pregnancy the impetus to revolt against her milieu, the indifference of her family, and the cruel violence that she sees in the human and non-human world around her. She does not want the fifth child nor is she prepared for an abortion. She just wants "to keep it," she does not want "it to be born." That is why abandoning Bombay under terror, leaving Raman in despair, she comes "on a pilgrimage" to Manori island in a mood of doubt and desperation to "beg for the miracle of keeping her baby unborn." Sita's wish may sound ludicrous and mad, but through this mad craze she does succeed in asserting her individual identity.

Sita's flight from the experience of the "civilized world" to the pristine island of miracles originates from the fright of creation which could be explained as "an immaculate conception in reverse," a case of regression and retreat from reality in Freudian psychology. She does not want anything to happen. It is just unthinkable for her "that anything should happen—for happenings were always violent."

The references to war in Vietnam, Rhodesian jails, and perfidy of Pakistan objectify Sita's existential dilemma and her tragic awareness that "destruction may be the true element in which life survives and creation merely a freak, temporary, and doomed event." This technique of telescoping the inner crisis of the protagonist with the realities outside far from being a "misuse" or a "fictional banality" turns out to be an effective ersatz dynamics through which the inner layers of Sita's unconscious are laid bare. It is only by this technique that we are given a glimpse of the storm raging inside her. The novelist succeeds eminently in capturing the vacillating Hamlet-like mood of Sita:

By giving birth to the child now so safely contained, would she be performing an act of creation or, by releasing it in a violent, pain-racked blood-bath, would she only be destroying what was, at the moment, safely contained and perfect?… The line between the creative and the destructive grew so thin, so hazy and undefinable, that, gazing at it, she seemed to see it vanish altogether.

In a series of flashback scenes in quick succession, the novelist presents in Sita the desperate state of a woman who is unable to control her nausea and fits of hysteria, and being swept off in a whirlwind of confusion and fright. Obviously the pent-up misery of her isolation in the family, the indifferent nature of her husband and children have driven her to this plight. Implicit in her plight is a two-pronged protest. One is against the kind of life with its all pervasive violence. "More and more she lost all feminine, all maternal belief in childbirth, all faith in it, and began to fear it as yet one more act of violence and murder in a world that had more of them in it than she could take." The other is against the role of a breeding machine the society has cast on her. All through her married life she had been avoiding a confrontation. But now she is all out to explode her piled up fury with a total lack of control as though "for seven months she had collected inside her all her resentment, her fears, her rages, and now she flung them outward, flung them from her."

The island is more a symbol than a place. It is an apt metaphor to concretize Sita's condition. She retreats into it as into a womb, with an obsessive desire to recapture, once again, her childhood innocence and purity. Her obsession for childlike purity and innocence acquires tremendous significance in the sense that she is herself carrying a child and has come on "the pilgrimage" to the island in search of this pristine world for the sake of her child. Twenty years earlier she lived here in the blissful company of her father and others. The picture of "the life of primitive reality" on the magic island "had been buried beneath her consciousness deliberately for years. Its black magic, its subtle glamour had grown too huge, had engulfed her at a time when she was still very young and quite alone." The mainland which implies solidity, security, the solidity of streets, the security of houses, only means "a crush of dull tedium, of hopeless disappointment" for Sita. She has therefore, "no longer the nerve or the optimism to continue…. She would turn, go back and find the island once more."

Sita's pilgrimage to the island turns out to be a bitter disappointment. All her expectations are belied when she discovers that the fields are "only pits of mud and slush," that the tank is overflowing with dirty water "green as spinach, viscous," and that the old house is full of dust spider webs and odours—"a waste of ashes." The Moses who once attended on her old father, disdains her as "the unworthy offspring of the illustrious and well-remembered father." And on the top of this all, she feels betrayed when she discovers that Raman had come to the island not to see her or to fetch her but because Menaka had called him. She sees everyone "wincing at her harshness, her wildness that they so dreaded." She feels that she is "a woman unloved, a woman rejected." If the road, the bullock-cart, the grove, the fields, and the people inhabiting the island, including Moses, appear old and decrepit because of the ravages of time, Sita too has grown up to realize the rottenness under the surface of the exotic atmosphere. No wonder, therefore, that she fails to recapture the imagined innocence and purity of the past. The metaphor of the island aptly conveys the present actuality of the "dilapidated and rundown life" of Sita tempered by the exotic and mysterious memories of her pristine childhood. Sita's deep anguish and remorse becomes more evident with the invisible author's crisp questions:

Where was the magic of the island that she had promised herself, promised the children? Was this it?

Through this subtle authorial intrusion Anita Desai suggests skillfully that Sita's lost beauty and innocence is doomed to fail because it never really existed. Sita's awareness of the illusory charm of the island intensifies with Raman's arrival there. His arrival on the island signifies the end of Sita's voyage of exploration: "She had cried out her great 'No' but now the time had come for her epitaph to be written." She likens her helplessness to a jellyfish:

Perhaps I never ran away at all. Perhaps I am only like the jellyfish washed up by the waves, stranded there on the sandbar. I was just stranded here by the sea, that's all. I hadn't much to do with it at all. She sadly admitted with that black, stripped truthfulness that she could never colour or coat.

With this final submission to the intangibility of life she feels released and freed. Like the "freed sea-bird at evening, she wheeled around and began to circle about and then dropped lower and lower towards her home."

The thin demarcating line between illusion and reality is brilliantly suggested through a series of images such as "the frayed rope dangling from the old fig tree like a hanged ghost," "a netted moth sail out of the weeds into the evening air," and "the windowpanes of the house on the knoll lit by the setting sun to a mysterious brilliance so that the house seems like a construct of trick mirrors."

Sita's awareness of the dual existence of the real and unreal acquires added significance with the simultaneous realization that her own "pilgrimage" to the island was nothing more than a theatrical performance on a false stage:

Her time on the island had been very much of an episode on a stage, illuminated by gaudy sunset effects and played to thunderous storm music. The storm ended, the play over, the stage had now to be cleared—then the players could go home. Instead of being a person who for many years had had to perform on a false stage and had only here, on the island, begun to live a life of primitive reality, she had actually been playing the part here of an actress in a theatrical performance and was now to return to a life of retirement off-stage.

The implied confusion, muddle and intangible ambiguity of life is further reinforced by the authorial skeptical interrogations: But was she sure it was not the other way around after all? Had not her married years, her dulled years, been the false life, the life of pretence 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?

Quite a few critics misread the ironical ending of the novel. R.S. Sharma believes that "in rejecting Sita, Anita Desai seems to reject a number of alternatives." In Sita's struggle and final acceptance, says another critic, "there is thus this sense of defeat for the individual." To B. Ramachandra Rao the novel ends "with a defeated and despondent Sita unable to rediscover the passion of life and deciding to accept the prose of life." Sita's decision to return to her husband, as a matter of fact, signifies neither the defeat of an individual nor her personal failure. It, on the contrary, suggests that the facing of the sordid realities of life and the pilgrimage to the island have graduated her into acquiring a mature sensibility. Despite all the treacheries and betrayals not only as she started understanding and sympathizing with Raman for all the sufferings, the problems and the worries he has had during her absence, she also submits before Raman without any feeling or rancor, guilt or even protest for his steadfast conviction that "life must be continued, and all its business." There is the real, positive courage, Sita admits to herself in shame, "in getting on with such matters from which she herself squirmed away, dodged and ran." She is reminded of her own courage, and confesses earnestly that hers was "the courage of being a coward." It is, therefore, a mistake to say that the novel ends on a pessimistic, sad or tragic note. The positive ending of the novel registers a distinct change in the novelist's outlook.

It gives a lie to the commonly held opinion that Anita Desai is a novelist predominantly interested in depicting the feminine abnormal sensibility and that her heroines bring a violent end to their lives. In Sita's willing acceptance of the humdrum existence with all its ups and downs, has to be read the novelist's firm conviction in the affirmative humanistic values for making Sita revere life, knowing only too well that life has no periods, no stretches. It simply swirls around, "muddling and confusing, leading nowhere." Sita's final return to normal humdrum existence is strongly suggestive of her sanity and courage on the one hand and the teasing ambiguity of life on the other.

The most remarkable characteristic of the novel is the skillful employment of the stream of consciousness technique, the revelation of the character's inner working of mind through interior monologues and the dramatizing of feelings. In this novel, as in her earlier ones and also Fire on the Mountain (1977), Anita Desai does not portray characters in a traditional manner. The characters come alive in their dynamic process, always growing and changing, viable and mutable. They are portrayed as preoccupied with the present, look backward in time and visualize future as well. They have been represented in retrospect and fall back upon memory, or the uncontrolled flow of thought. With this use of pure memory and flux, Anita Desai may be said to be depicting reality.

Another striking similarity, as regards her art of characterization all of her novels, is that she is interested in depicting the characters who are not average but have retreated or been driven into some extremity of despair and so turned against or made a stand against, the general current. "It is easy," as she herself makes it clear, "to flow with the current, it makes no demands, it costs no effort. But those who cannot follow it, whose heart cries out the great No, who fight the current and struggle against it, they know what the demands are and what it costs to meet them." Lest she should be mistaken for being a propounder of any theory, she hastens to stress that she does not set out, while writing a novel, "to illustrate this theme." She is not trying to propound a theory, or to edify or improve her readers. She writes because she is primarily "a writer and must write—that is all."

Where Shall We Go This Summer? adds a new dimension to the Indo-English novel for the fact that it deals with essential human condition—"the terror of facing, single handed, the ferocious assaults of existence."

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This section contains 3,180 words
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Critical Essay by Shyam M. Asnani from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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