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Critical Essay by Ramachandra Rao
SOURCE: "Themes and Variations in the Novels and Short Stories of Anita Desai," in Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Vol. 2, Nos. 2-3, April-July, 1982, pp. 74-9.
In the essay below, Rao focuses on the short story collection Games at Twilight to examine Desai's "obsessive concern with the 'existential' problems of her characters and the continuity of theme which characterizes her work."
Anita Desai is a unique figure in the world of Indo-Anglian writing. She is a conscious artist who is aware of her strength and limitations as a writer. In her novels and short stories Anita Desai has repeatedly gone back to the same themes and situations and has employed the same kind of technique for the presentation of her favourite themes. Each new work of hers affords the reader pleasure of the familiar and the satisfaction of having one's expectations fulfilled time and again in the same way.
Cry, the Peacock, the first novel of Anita Desai, is also one of her most characteristic works and, in the opinion of many critics, her best. We find in this novel many of those qualities which have made her one of the most fascinating original writers in Indo-Anglian writing today. The novel deals with a theme which continues to fascinate her. Maya, the heroine of the novel, Cry, the Peacock, is a young sensitive woman obsessed with childhood memories. She is passionately attached to life and is intensely, even painfully conscious of the beauty, the colour, and the terror of existence. Surrounded by a society which is sometimes indifferent and sometimes hostile towards her, she is unable to arrive at a satisfactory relationship with the outside world. She can neither iron out the contours of her defiant individuality and accept the world on its own terms by conforming to its norms nor can she make the others accept her own vision of life. The conflict in her life is the inner conflict of a unique individual who cannot sacrifice the vision of an authentic existence for the sake of conformity. She represents the passion of life; while Gautama, her husband, stands for the prosaic qualities of life. Gautama is coldly rational, and is impatient of Maya's emotion—charged responses to events and incidents which to him are nothing extraordinary. The unresolved tension between the two leads to the killing of Gautama by Maya who 'regresses' into her childhood memories. The world of sane and rational people who are always afraid of passion "as wise men were afraid of their flesh" declares Maya to be mad and isolates her to protect itself. A Maya can never be accepted on her own terms by the others who are forever skirting the "unimaginable realm of horror."
Alberto Moravia has observed that writers in general have only one theme to which they go back repeatedly, almost obsessively. Each new work of a writer is merely a different kind of exploration of the same territory. This is undoubtedly true of the work of Anita Desai. Her novels and short stories dramatize similar situations and present similar conflicts and tensions. Her obsessive concern with the "existential" problems of her characters and the continuity of theme which characterizes her work can be illustrated through an analysis of her short stories some of which have been published under the title Games at Twilight.
The characters in Games at Twilight fall into two clearly recognizable groups. The first group consists of the protagonists for whom the writer has a great deal of sympathy. These characters have secret inner lives which make them unique and they react against the inane routine of everyday life. The 'private tutor', Mr. Bose, the little boy, Ravi, playing 'games at twilight', Suno, escaping from the unwelcome attentions of well-meaning but insensitive members of his family and escaping into the 'studies in the park', the old and stubborn Varma, literally dying of the burden of the love and affection of Rakesh, the 'devoted son', and Pat and Bina, bruised if not battered by their encounters with others, are all struggling and sensitive individuals protesting against the drabness and dullness of a life of conformity. These characters are not creatures of habit and, although they differ from one another in degree, they are of the same kind. They are stubbornly unyielding and carefully protect the vision of the secret world of passion and beauty. They all have one thing in common. They do not want to lead lives of what Sartre would call 'Mauvaise foi', bad faith. Some of the more sensitive characters achieve minor triumphs in their struggles. Some are defeated because the world is too much with them. But most of them succeed in saying 'no' to society, not in thunder, but more in the vein of Bartleby, the scrivener. They say, silently, that they would prefer not to.
Suno in "Studies in the Park", for example, is overwhelmed by noise and the confusion at home. His father "stuffs" himself with news from the All IndiaRadio. "News in Hindi. Next in Tamil. Then in Punjabi. In Gujrati. What next, my God, what next?" The mother is endlessly busy in the kitchen, "she cuts and fries, cuts and fries". The babble of voices, the noisy children, the noisy neighbours, all represent the chaos and the confusion of a routine life which the protagonist cannot accept. Similarly, the children in "Games at Twilight" feel as if they are boxed-in and suffocated at home. For the sensitive protagonists of Anita Desai, life is a quest while for the others who constitute a menacing majority life is a race. Suno discovers that he is different and that life has taken a different path for him, "in the form of a search, not a race as it is for him, for them". Bina, in "The Farewell Party", after the insincere regrets and the heartiness of her husband's business associates, finds that the party really begins in the company of doctors and their wives "who had held themselves back in the darkest corners and made themselves inconspicuous throughout the party." "Scholar and Gypsy" presents the theme of the clash of temperaments. David, the scholar, and Pam the gypsy, discover that their marriage is a failure. David is working on his thesis in sociology. Pam, the restless housewife, is attracted by the temples, the beggars, the hippies and the Tibetans in the town of Manali. She comes to the conclusion that her husband had never really looked into the soul of things. "Working on a thesis?", she screeched derisively. "Sociology? The idea of you. Dave, when you've never so much as looked I mean, really looked, into the soul, the prana of the next man—is just too—", she spluttered to a stop.
One can discover a common pattern in the short stories. The protagonists live in an environment to which they are bound in an uneasy relationship. Sometimes the protagonist is living in a relationship of tension with another character. David and Pam in "The Scholar and the Gypsy" live in a state of mutual hostility and incomprehension. Like Maya and Gautama in Cry, the Peacock, Monisia and Jiban in Voices in the City, and Raman and Sita in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, David and Pam stand for contrasted attitudes and conflicting temperaments. Although no two pairs of characters are exactly alike, each pair represents the clash between the prose and the passion of life.
An incident or a series of incidents lead to a shattering or a muted climax. The protagonist either rejects the world of routine or acquires a new awareness and a new technique which enable him to protect his integrity as a human being. Suno in "Studies in the Park" has a glimpse of the beautiful ideal when he sees the young Muslim woman and her elderly male companion so completely absorbed in each other that they are completely oblivious of the outside world. Suno observes, "They weren't a work of art, or a vision, but real, human and alive as no one else in my life had been real and alive." In "Scholar and Gypsy" there are a series of incidents which ultimately make Pam decide to leave her husband and go to the commune at Nasogi. "It was what she was meant for, she realized—not going to parties with David, but to live with other men and women who shared her beliefs. They were going to live the simple life, wash themselves and their dishes in a stream, cook brown rice and lentils, pray and meditate in the forest and, at the end, perhaps, become Buddhists." "A Buddhist, you crackpot? In a Hindu temple?", he spluttered. But she continued calmly that she was sure to find, in the end, something that could not be found on the cocktail rounds of Delhi, Bombay or even, for that matter, Long Island, but that she was certain that something positive existed here, in the forest, on the mountains.
The protagonists of Anita Desai's short stories constitute an elite of consciousness. Not for them the world of routine gestures and stock responses. They are all looking for that epiphanic revelation which would enable them to recognize the real and the authentic. For Harish in "Surface Textures" the melon that his wife brings home is the "apple of knowledge." His eyes seem to be "newly opened." "With one finger he stroked the coarse grain of its rind, rough with the upraised cris-cross of pale veins. Then he ran his fingers up and down the green streaks that divided it into even quarters as by green silk threads so tenderly." After this moment of revelation life is never the same again for Harish. He gives up his job, deserts his family, and wanders aimlessly. He is looking for interesting surfaces so that he can worship them. His eyes no longer rest on things on which people's eyes normally rest. He sees the surface texture of things considered nondescript and unimportant, things such as "the paving stones on which their feet momentarily pressed, a pattern of grime on the windowpane of a disused printing press." Pam, the American housewife, gives up a life of material comforts, leaves her husband, and decides to live "the simple life." Unlike the characters of Sartre who experience the absurd, the characters of Anita Desai have a vision of the authentic. And the impact of this epiphanic revelation is equally significant. The lives of the characters undergo a change. Of course, this is not necessarily true of all the protagonists of Anita Desai. Bina is quite contented with having glimpsed the real. For her it is a moment, a vision to be cherished and protected. Mr. Bosu in "Pigeons at Daybreak" has a similar experience. In the early hours of one morning, this peevish and selfish invalid suddenly sees a vision of beauty, of pigeons at daybreak. "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 into the soft, deep blue of the morning."
There are some other characters who do not have the vision of glory or revelation, but they have another kind of revelation, a revelation of the horrible dullness and emptiness of their lives. The 'accompanist' is shaken out of his complacency 'only once'. One of his boyhood chums tells him, "Why do you spend your life sitting at the back of the stage and playing that idiot tanpura while someone else takes all the fame and all the money from you?" But the accompanist is only momentarily shaken. He refuses to accept this revelation because acceptance would have meant a total reassessment of his past and a complete change in his comfortable life-style. So he refuses to accept this truth. This short story ends on a note of ambiguity. Anita Desai does not make clear whether this is really a glimpse of the absurd or merely an unsuccessful attempt on the part of the world of routine to destroy the beauty and the integrity of the life of the accompanist.
However, there is no such ambiguity in the short story, "Private Tuition of Mr. Bose". The teacher knows that his students have no interest in what he teaches them. They are dull and vulgar. There is no single moment of revelation in the life of Mr. Bose. There are a series of daily encounters which only confirm Mr. Bose's awareness of the indifference of his pupils to what he hast to communicate. But this knowledge makes no difference to Mr. Bose even as the accompanist's life is not altered by what he experiences.
The characters of the second group, characters who lack inwardness, are usually presented as caricatures. Mrs. Desai makes no serious effort to understand the victims of routine. Mrs. Desai is more interested in the romance of non-conformity than in the tragedy of conformity.
The lives of these characters are empty of all meaning, although these characters are successful from the worldly point of view. Since Mrs. Desai is not interested in probing into the lives of these successes who are in an essential sense failures she presents them as flat and two-dimensional characters. They are treated ironically and with detachment. Rakesh, the devoted son, and his wife Veena illustrate the limitations of Mrs. Desai as a writer. Rakesh and Veena behave like puppets and not like full-blooded characters. Their actions are predictable. Veena is "a plump and uneducated girl, it was true, but so old-fashioned, so placid so complaisant that she slipped into the household and settled like a charm." She is pretty "in a plump, pudding way." Fatness is generally associated with insensitivity by Mrs. Desai. Veena is "tactful", "smirking" and "sliding" merrily. The "devoted son" is presented with equal detachment and irony. Rakesh is always patient and "understanding" and there is something frightening about his kindness to his father. Similarly the business executives in "A Farewell Party" are dull and insensitive. They are bluff and hearty. They are unaware of what is wrong with their lives.
Anita Desai employs in her short stories the same technique of evoking a mood or atmosphere by carefully piling up innumerable details of the colours, the smells and the sights of Indian life. This technique which is quite effective in her novels has obvious drawbacks when employed in the short story. Owing to its shorter length, the short story does not offer enough space for Anita Desai to build up the tempo or to evoke the mood as she does in her novels. But within these obvious limitations imposed by the short story as an art form, Mrs. Desai does succeed in giving us very poetic descriptions of the heat and the dust, the beauty and the sordidness of the environment in which her protagonists live. Mrs. Desai's gift for the telling phrase, and her uncanny ability to see the unusual and the unfamiliar are displayed in the short stories as well. In "Games at Sunlight" she describes the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun:
They faced the afternoon. It was too hot. Too bright. The white walls of the veranda glared stridently in the sun. The bougainvillea hung about it, purple and magenta, in livid balloons. The garden outside was like a tray made of beaten brass, flattened out on the red gravel and the stony soil in all shades of metal—aluminum, tin, copper and brass. No life stirred at this arid time of day: the birds still drooped, like dead fruit, in the papery tents of the trees; some squirrels lay limp on the wet earth under the garden tap. The outdoor dog lay stretched as if dead on the veranda mat, his paws and ears and tail all reaching out like dying travellers in search of water. He rolled his eyes at the children—two white marbles rolling in purple sockets, begging for sympathy,—and attempted to lift his tail in a wag but could not. It only twitched and lay still.
The "drooping birds", the dog whose eyes look like white marbles in purple sockets, its tail twitching and not wagging, squirrels lying limp on the wet earth under the water tap, the outside garden looking like a tray made of beaten brass, all vividly create the picture of an oppressive environment in which her characters move. Anita Desai is equally effective in describing the trivialities and the oddities of daily life. Suno in "Studies in the Park" is fascinated by very ordinary things which have an odd beauty of their own. He watches the boy reciting poetry in a "kind of thundering whisper, waving his arms about and running bony fingers through his hair till it stood up like a thorn bush." There are other fascinating details such as the chipmunks fighting and chasing each other a madman going through the rubble at the bottom of the fountain, the yoga teacher with his disciples, and the young Muslim woman with her elderly companion. These show us the unfamiliar in the familiar, the beauty in ordinary things which many people fail to see because their eyes have been covered by the film of familiarity. Harish in "Surface Textures" observes and worships things normally considered unimportant, things such as the railing at the side of the road, the pattern of grime on the windowpane of a disused printing press.
The short stories do not in any way break new ground. The themes and the technical devices that Mrs. Desai has employed in her novels are pressed into service in her short stories too. There is a characteristic persistence in Mrs. Desai as an artist which is a sign of her deep integrity of vision. She is not interested in experimenting with new themes and techniques to attract a wider audience. This is perhaps her limitation as well as her strength.
This section contains 2,989 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)