Anita Desai | Critical Review by Shiv K Kumar

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
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Critical Review by Shiv K Kumar

SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai: Another View," in The Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 43-6.

In the following negative review of Desai's prose fiction, which was published in response to Singh's review above, Kumar concentrates on the short story collection Games at Twilight, stating that "I wish to explain why Desai fails to engage the reader's interest."

Anita Desai is one of our known writers who has published a substantial body of prose-fiction—five novels (Cry, the Peacock, Voices in the City, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day), and a collection of short stories titled Games at Twilight. Since her work raises certain basic issues about imaginative writing, particularly the relationship between art and experience, between form and content, I wish to explain why she fails to engage the reader's interest. I shall, however, restrict the scope of this note to her short stories—Games at Twilight.

What strikes the reader on his first encounter with her writing is her overzealous concern with the medium of communication, regardless of the nature of experience embodied in each story. Often she seems to pack an abundance of trivia into each sentence till the words groan under the pressure of overwrought syntactical languor.

This, for example, is how Ravi, a small boy (in 'Games at Twilight') is described playing hide and seek with other children: 'With a whimper he burst through the crack, fell on his knees, got up and stumbled on stiff, benumbed legs across the shadowy yard, crying heartily by the time he reached the veranda so that when he flung himself at the white pillar and bawled, "Den! Den! Den!" his voice broke with rage and pity at the disgrace of it all and he felt himself flooded with tears and misery …'

And so the writer weaves her cocoon of laboured prose (often lapsing into cliches) around mere vacuities, seldom offering the reader any real climatic moment of suspense or stimulation. The only 'dramatic' moment in this story emerges, amidst these inane games played by children 'after they had been washed and had their hair brushed,' and after they had 'wailed so horrendously' (a pompous expression merely to stress their impatience to wrest permission from their parents to play outdoors), when Ravi 'heard the whistling and picked his nose in a panic, trying to find comfort by burrowing the finger deep-deep into that soft tunnel. He felt himself exposed' (italics mine). This is the image, not too aesthetically pleasing, that stays with the reader after the story is over.

The only story that leads the reader on to a possible climax is 'Studies in the Park.' It is structured around Sunno, a young examinee, who chooses to do his studying in a public park because of distractions at home. But as he wanders 'about the park freely as a prince,' he works himself into an excitement on seeing a couple on a bench—a young Muslim lady, 'very young, very pale, beautiful with a beauty I had never come across even in a dream' (italics mine). As her head 'lay in the lap of a very old man,' who caresses her face, he wonders if he were 'her husband, her father, a lover.' If she were sick, 'why didn't he take her to the Victoria Zenana Hospital, so close to the park?' At this point, the story peters out inconsequentially, and the reader is left puzzled as to why the writer has vainly tried to whip up a 'profound,' significance in an otherwise minor incident. Thereafter, we are told, 'the vision burnt the surface of his eye,' till he became a 'professional'—initiated into adolescence? But isn't this a futile attempt at scratching mere 'Surface Textures'—the title of another story in this collection?

In brief, insipid details are invested with the dimensions of dramatic significance, and long involuted sentences are coaxed into suggesting psychic complexity. Take, for instance, another story, 'Sale,' in which a couple comes to buy pictures from an artist whose face looks 'like a house from which ghosts had driven away all inhabitants.' Then the purchasers begin to 'prowl about the room, now showing amusement at the litter which is, after all, only to be expected in an artist's studio, then crinkling their noses for, one has to admit, it does smell, and then showing surprised interest in the pictures of which they have come to select one for their home which is newly built and now to be furnished….'

Thank God, this time the purchasers only 'crinkle their noses' (no nose-picking!), but otherwise the sentences meander on, as usual, in response to some inscrutable compulsion, tapering off into mere nothingness. Never does the writer relax her grip on the style which often freezes into a strange academic anaemia. Stilted and petrified, it abounds in such tritely compounded, palpably alliterative, phrases as those italicized in the passage quoted below, from her story 'The Farewell Party':

A bit embarrassed by their daughter's reckless abandon, the parents discussed with Miss Dutta whose finger by her own admission was placed squarely on the pulse of youth, the latest trends in juvenile culture on which Miss Dutta gave a neat sociological discourse (all the neater for having been given earlier that day at the convocation of the Home Science College) and Raman wondered uneasily at this opening of flood-gates in his own family—his wife grown giggly with gin, his daughter performing wildly to a Chubby Checkers record—how had it all come about?

The story that one may speculate to have excited the writer most is the last piece in this collection, titled 'Scholar and Gypsy,' with its unmistakable overtones from Matthew Arnold's much anthologized poem 'The Scholar Gypsy' (coy plagiarism?). It portrays an American couple, David and his wife Pat, who are visiting India to experience an exotic culture—a much-used theme in Indian English fiction. Through a sequence of highly contrived situations, the writer carries them from Bombay, with its cloying cocktail parties, to Delhi which also turns out to be 'dry as a skeleton.' David, who is engaged in research on some abstruse sociological problem (there, the reader is given another dose of a 'neat sociological discourse') is otherwise quite popular, for he 'attracted people like a magnet' (a less hackneyed phrase might have lent greater credibility to David's 'magnetism'). When even in Delhi Pat sounds restless, her husband hits upon a strategy to reclaim her. He takes her out to the hills—Manali, a quiet holiday resort in the Kulu valley. (Incidentally, this is a recurring theme in Anita Desai's prose-fiction; whenever her characters lapse into some mental or emotional sogginess, they resolve their tensions by escaping to the hills. For instance, the problem that agonizes a bored, sophisticated family, in one of her novels, is 'Where Shall We Go This Summer?' Which also happens to tee the title of this novel!) Here in Manali, a strange 'vision' descends upon Pat, almost as an epiphanic revelation. She suddenly recognizes the benign simplicity and the prelapsarian innocence of these hill-people, so unlike the tainted urbanites—it was 'like coming out into the open and breathing naturally again, without fear.' Here, in these ancient hills of northern India, Pat experiences a kind of 'nirvana,' a spiritual elevation. So, apart from presenting a stereotyped theme of cultural interaction, the story generates no real tension, moral or emotional.

In fact, the entire spectrum of experience in her work is woefully limited—a private tutor gives coaching in Sanskrit and Bengali ('Private Tuition by Mr. Bose'), a young child is obsessed with 'Pineapple Cake,' or a 'Devoted Son,' a renowned medical practitioner, forces tonics on his dying father: 'Then Varma turned and looked at his son. His face was so out of control and all in pieces, that the multitude of expressions that crossed it could not make up a whole and convey to the famous man what his father thought of him, his skill, his art …'

Or, in 'An Accompanist,' we encounter a young boy who feels thrilled at the prospect of becoming a tanpura player to his master, Ustad Rahim Khan. At his first meeting with the master, the boy watches 'with the blazing black eyes that were widely spaced. His nostrils and his mouth, too, were large, royal …' Then the boy begins to study the Ustad's face, with almost the professional closeness of the writer herself; 'And as I looked into his face, telling myself of all the impressive points it contained, he looked down at me. I do not know what he saw, what he could see in the darkness and shadows of the unlit hall, but he smiled with sweet gentleness and beckoned to me.'

The overall impression of reading Anita Desai's stories and novels is one of a contrite sensibility lashing inanities into excitement. For instance, her novel Fire on the Mountain (even the melodramatic title fails to redeem the banality of the narrative), portrays an old woman, Nanda Kaul, who beguiles the tedium of her hours by reading, 'in small sips, bits and pieces from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,' as she lies tucked away in the seclusion of Carignano, amidst the Simla hills. She finds her privacy disturbed by the arrival of Raka, her great-granddaughter whom she baby sits all through the forty-four chapters, and 145 pages, only to be shocked into hearing, on the very last page of the novel, that the child has set off a blaze.

'Nani, Nani,' whispered Raka, shivering and crouching in the lily bed, peering over the sill. 'Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire. Look, Nani—look—the forest is on fire'.

If the writer has here tried to offer the reader a wisp of action, she has failed lamentably because the 'fire' comes upon him too suddenly, with no relevance, symbolic or otherwise, to the central plot.

Dullness broods over this narrative as it does over most of Anita Desai's prose-fiction. Wooden, sexless characters stalk across her pages, chasing dark shadows at twilight. Nothing profound or soulful ever falls within the range of her aesthetic experience—it is just words, words, in tangled sentence-structures, forcing the reader into a sort of insensateness. In a very perceptive contribution to an 'International Symposium on the Short Story' (in Kenyon Review, XXX, 4, 1968), Herbert Gold asserts 'that the story-teller must have a story to tell, not merely some sweet prose to take out for a walk.' But when even the prose is bittersweet and stilted, the writer may have trouble in coaxing his readers 'out for a walk.'

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This section contains 1,754 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shiv K Kumar
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