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Critical Essay by Jasbir Jain
SOURCE: "Anita Desai," in Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1982, pp. 23-50.
In the following overview of Desai's works, Jain focuses on what he considers her "primary preoccupation": "The absurdity of human life, with the existential search for meaning in it and the inability of men to accept a religious solution."
The world of Anita Desai's novels is an ambivalent one; it is a world where the central harmony is aspired to but not arrived at, and the desire to love and live clashes—at times violently—with the desire to withdraw and achieve harmony. Involvement and stillness are incompatible by their nature, yet they strive to exist together. Instinct and emotion and passion seem to be strangers in the world of daily routine and scurry away into dark corners to flourish in conditions of solitude, which is presented in its varying shades and meanings. In all her novels there is a striving, on the part of the protagonists towards arriving at a more authentic way of life than the one which is, available to them. There is a need to be loved: Maya, Monisha, Sita—almost all of them—desire this above all else, but they also resist surrender and involvement. Surrender of the self, appears to her protagonists, to be a subtraction from their personal freedom and wholeness. In each successive novel the problem of involvement versus detachment, of surrender versus freedom is viewed from various angles and psychological perspectives. It becomes, in the ultimate analysis, a question of reason versus unreason and the balance is precariously held.
Maya's unhappiness in Cry, the Peacock (1963) is not related to the reality of her circumstances; it is a product of her own consciousness. Her unhappiness is in part related to the process of her growing up: she has led a protected life and has been brought up on fantasies, and now when confronted with the reality of life and its disappointment, she is unable to face it. Toto's death is but an event which triggers off a set of responses and becomes a reason for her present misery. But even while mourning his death, it is not tears which relieve her but "a fit of furious pillow-beating, kicking, everything but crying. From childhood experiences, I knew this to be sweetly exhausting". She is aware that her relationship with the adult world is tenuous. When surrounded by her husband's family she is quite aware of this, and accepts being left out of many discussions:
For they knew I would not understand a matter so involved, and I knew it myself. They spoke to me … only when it had to do with babies, meals, shopping, marriages, for I was their toy, their indulgence, not to be taken seriously, and the world I came from was less than that—it was a luxury they considered it a crime to suffer, and so damned it with dismissal.
With a child's desire for consolation she wants to be assured that all will be well. But this kind of assurance is not forthcoming. Her father would have said "accept" with the attitude of a fatalist but Gautama tries to comfort her with a cup of tea. He helps her by attending to the needs of the dead Toto. But when he is called away by a visitor, she is hurt. She feels that she is lonely and neglected and nobody understands her—she imagines that her loneliness is of his making. But is it so? He does care; he himself attends to Toto and sees to it that "they lifted him with care", he is aware that she is unhappy and frightened and is tender as a nurse; for a while Maya is able to view him as a protector and guide. He is not insensitive to her sorrow and wipes away her tears and philosophises with her on the merits of emotional intensity. He is able to sense her tension and helps her relax and:
I relaxed then. Like a foolish baby, I sat down upon a pillow and saw, opposite me, a round-faced child in a white petticoat gazing bleakly out of the silvered mirror.
In her moments of lucidity Maya acknowledges that Gautama is an ally and that it is in her love for him that she had experienced pain and reflection, and that he had enlarged her world.
Toto's death fills her with a fear of the unknown:
… something slipped into my tear-hazed vision, a shadowy something, that prodded me into admitting that it was not my pet's death alone that I mourned today, but another sorrow, unremembered, perhaps as yet not even experienced, and filled me with this despair.
Maya tries to analyse her feelings and examines her memories of the past in order to reach the source of this disturbance. She gropes for some kind of meaning, and this comes to her in flashes, first during a conversation with Gautama, the word "ultimate" reminds her of a particular evening in her past and then—in the stillness of the night when the moon acquires for her a demoniac appearance:
I was aware of a great, dead silence in which my eyes opened to a vision that appeared through the curtains of the years, one by one falling back till I saw again that shadow. A black and evil shadow … It was, I remembered it now, Fate.
It is not only the memory of the albino astrologer's prophecy which pushes her towards her insanity but her brother Arjuna's letter which mentions the horoscope. After that there are a number of incidents which force her to remember the prophecy. The tension within her gives rise to her severe headaches which are symptomatic of her desire to elude issues. Reality can no longer be eluded, and her own fears and thoughts crowd her mind. She is unable to persuade Gautama to accompany her to the hills. Maya's emotional responses begin to fluctuate between involvement and apathy. Her inability and unwillingness to confide in Gautama lead to her obsession with her fears, her hallucinations and finally her insanity. When she looks around for some guidance, the advice available to her clashes with her inclinations. Her father, as she recollects, had always recommended acceptance:
The source of disintegration is the human being's vanity in his power to act. Not realizing the futility of his rebellion, he steers himself further and further out of the orbit in which he was born to act, and destroys himself. The world is full of destruction that is born out of the Western theory of life, not an Asian one. We have been taught for generations to believe that the merit of accepting one's limitations and acting within them is greater than that of destroying them and trying to act beyond them. One must … accept.
Besides her father, she has her present circle of friends. And among them, there is Leila who is nursing a dying husband, resigned to her fate and also to her choice. She had married him knowing that he was a patient of tuberculosis. There is also Pom who, after flaunting her in-laws, submits meekly to her mother-in-law where the birth of a son is concerned. Her friends, her surroundings, her father's fatalism all these lead her to feel trapped in the shadow of the astrologer and the belief that she is condemned to die. This certainty leads her to value every moment of Gautama's company; only life is so very unaccommodating to her demands. In her need for comfort, Maya turns to Gautama's advice of detachment. But detachment is difficult to attain and attachment leads to self-destruction.
Gautama, is for Maya, the 'mediator' beneath the bo tree. He seems to have arrived at detachment like the Buddha and, she feels, is unperturbed by her sorrow. But Maya wants Gautama to love her intensely for his love would give meaning to her existence and help her fulfil her desires. It would be an extension of her ego. She asks him:
'Is there nothing', I whispered, 'is there nothing in you that would be touched, ever so slightly, if I told you I live my life for you?'
Gautama's impatience at this query alienates her and strengthens her sense of isolation. Maya's version is, however, not an objective account, although at times objectivity does get the better of her and she acknowledges that Gautama is perturbed by her behaviour, by her apathy, by her lack of vocation and self-control. Gautama aspires as near the goal of the Gita as is humanly possible. For him 'Action is greater than inaction', and therefore one should perform one's task in life. Love, in its essence, rises above attachment and Maya thinks:
… and, for once, I listened to him, listened fully and attentively. The dryness, the bleakness of his voice, of his theories, no longer bored me, or repelled me. I saw them now as a mass of rock, high and dry in the middle of a tossing sea. To hold to it was safety. To be borne away from it, by my insane passion, my weakness and lack of control, was to perish.
It is at such a moment of sanity and control that Maya wishes for death, a wish Keatsian and romantic in its essence, a wish indicative of her desire to link her inner fears with the world of outer reality:
'Do you know', I said, 'I shouldn't mind dying now, after all. At this very moment. Then it would remain like this, for me. We should never walk a step farther, or say a single other word. It would all come to a stop here, and rest. Gautama, don't you wish it?'
All around her there is an atmosphere of acceptance and resignation. But there are two non-conformists—Arjuna who had rebelled against the claims of his family and birth, and was a 'wild bird, a young hawk that could not be tamed, that fought for its liberty', and Gautama who is anti-Brahminical and relates the Karma theory to logic not to faith. Gautama urges her to action: "I have always felt, the necessity in each human being for a vocation" he says. Gautama believes that only those who have a vocation can attain peace and serenity. Quoting again from the Gita he asserts his belief in the power of self-control:
He, who controlling the senses of the mind, follows without attachment the path of action with her organs of action, he is esteemed.
But for Maya self-control is fast slipping away. Her preoccupation with the idea of death and with the possible kinds of afterlife, the grip of the cyclic births—all these render her hold on reality and control tenuous and intermittent. And she moves towards insanity and destruction. The prophecy or her circumstances are in themselves not a sufficient reason for her to push Gautama off the roof—the root of this tragic action lies within her. It is not the prophecy which haunts her but the way her father had sent away the ayah and hounded the astrologer out of the city. The astrologer himself had emphasized the potency of prayer and faith:
Be wary, child, be wary and fear God, worship Him, make sacrifices. Pray. Do we not know, all of us here, the story of Prahlad? Of how Krishna saved him again and again, countless times, through love and mercy?
But Gautama offers her logic not faith. She is unable to extricate her thoughts from these fears of death and her sensuous love for life and her desire for self-preservation make her shift the burden of the prophecy to Gautama's life. Perhaps it is Gautama who is destined to die: "Who knows which one is to perish? Perish one must". Maya does not feel prepared for death, while Gautama, she thinks, has reached a stage of detachment which approximates stillness. She tries to enter his world but he is absorbed in his work and does not realise that she had "entered the room, had spoken, had left." She wonders: "Could death disturb him then?"
Her conscious mind tells her that they are not made for tragedy, that their faces were of those who lived, while her subconscious mind moves towards thoughts of murder. Moving from one fit of depression to another, she assures herself that Gautama has no contact with the world. Gautama is on trial, as if to prove himself worthy of life. And when he restrains himself from asking her questions, she uses his restraint to convince herself that he is the one who should die. Later, when she tells him that she misses Toto, she waits for a response from him, for an offer of understanding and compassion:
Having offered the confession, I was overcome with a desperate timidity, begging him once more to answer, to come and meet me half-way, in my own world, not merely demand of me, brusquely, to join me in his which, however safe, was so drab and no longer offered me security.
Had he done so, all might have been quite different.
But Gautama has even forgotten the very existence of Toto. He asks her as to who was Toto. To Maya, Gautama's words "were as grim as any death sentence, absolute and unredeemable". Maya persuades him to go for a walk on the roof and is at that moment consciously contemplating murder. She is quite aware, in her moments of lucidity, that it is not fate but "a chain of attachment … that hauled me, slowly and steadily, down the dark corridor to the pit where knowledge lay".
Thus the central image of the novel is the confrontation between life and death and the inability on Maya's part to accept them as they are. Her world is a world inhabited by animals; it is a close, cossetted world where pity and fear mingle to become terror not compassion—where the emotional fears she experiences cloud her sensibilities. She never grows up, and never learns to live or to love: merely to destroy and depend, she is pure "instinct" without the necessary accompaniment of wisdom. Maya's life follows the course outlined in the quotation from the Bhagwad Gita:
From attachment arises longing and from longing anger is born. From anger arises delusion, from delusion, loss of memory is caused. From loss of memory, the discriminative faculty is ruined and from the ruin of discrimination he perishes.
Her next novel, Voices in the City (1954), once again takes the message of the Gita for its central theme but it is developed on different lines. There are outward contrasts between Maya and Monisha. Monisha, unlike Maya, comes to live with her insensitive, obtuse in-laws. Whereas Maya's life is an abundance of feeling, Monisha has stilled her emotions and trained them to submit. There are other parallels and contrasts as well. Jiban is very unlike Gautama who is mature and accommodating, yet both Maya and Monisha are unhappy; Maya pushes Gautama off the roof in order to protect her world of sensuous abundance while Monisha sets fire to herself in order to reach the core of intense feeling. But in both the novels the search for reality, for a meaning in life, for a moment of balance, is the same. In Voices in the City, Monisha is not the main protagonist: it is Nirode who is the main protagonist. He is a "congenital failure" and his search for freedom is an existential search. He, like Arjuna of the earlier novel, is a rebel and rejects the world of security and routine. The contrast is there right in the beginning. Arun, who is going abroad has been the father's favourite and has accepted routine, while Nirode loathes routine and wonders how can one spend one's lifetime on "something that does not matter". For him it is:
Better to leap out of the window and end it all instead of smearing this endless sticky glue of senselessness over the world. Better not to live.
Nirode rejects his past, his upbringing, the wealth of his family, everything that may tie him to some kind of a semblance with routine. He rejects intimacy and touch and wants to be free in his private world of doubts and questionings. Arun's departure decides him and he gives up his job and his room in the YM. He plans a magazine which also fails to hold his attention or faith for long. It doesn't reassure him. He tells David:
I want it to fail—quickly. Then I want to see if I have the spirit to start moving again, towards my next failure. I want to move from failure to failure, step by step to rock bottom. I want to explore that depth … I want to descend, quickly.
To which confession David replies, "That is more than defeatism—Nirode, it is absolute negation".
Nirode wants negation, not acceptance. He doesn't want to continue, for, as he tells David, "I feel as if I was born with my heart emptied out". He feels isolated and cherishes this isolation; he closes himself in his world and withdraws from the outside world. His desire is to announce: "I am a leper … leave me, do not come near. I am a leper, diseased with the loneliest disease of all". He is dissatisfied and disillusioned even with the world of the artists. Life, to him, is meaningless, it is absurd like the journey of Sisyphus. The magazine Voice is a voice in the wilderness, failing to build any contact between him and the world. It is a farce and Nirode admits his failure, only "where was the will to get up, select another ladder, and begin the journey of absurdity all over again?… Nothing existed but this void in which all things appeared equally insignificant, equally worthless".
Nirode, like Maya, rejects both faith and the need for faith surviving only through doubt and questioning. The fear that one day he may turn to religion momentarily passes through his mind but he suppresses whatever inclination there may have been. After deliberately allowing Voice to fail, he begins a play with two characters, and only one of them is alive. Nirode reduces his needs to the barest minimum thus rebelling against the imposition of any pattern on his life. Life and death confront each other during his illness and when he comes out alive out of it, he has rid himself of this last desire to communicate through art. His bare, vulnerable self which had so frightened Monisha, now, she noticed, had begun to grow another cover:
I realize … he has progressed beyond me. Here is a combination of acquiescence and renunciation I have not yet made. Here it is, in this plant gesture, this wind gesture of a weak invalid hand. Back he goes, into the captivity of friendship, concern, criticism and world. Yet he will never again be a part of it as he once was with such passion and anxiety—this gesture has removed it, all to a safe distance from his self.
Later, Nirode explains to Amla that his rejection is not born out of morbidity but out of desire to preserve his sanity, "… at the end of it realised that the only thing I wanted to protect, what any sane man needs to protect is his conscience". He admits that his pursuit of failure had been a mistake for "you can't descend to such complete darkness, such complete isolation, all exposed. That's where you most need to know your covering, your carapace". He denies himself even the consolation of suffering. To Amla as to David he quotes from Camus. He is wary of love because of the inroads it makes into a man's privacy; marriage, he considered to be "destructive, negative and decadent", Nirode's rebellion is completed through Monisha's death. The fire which burns her to death acts like a cathartic agent where Nirode is concerned. He sees her dead body, or what is left of it and his silence is broken and his exile ended:
He seemed unable to remain still or silent, he was filled with an immense care of the world that made him reach art, again and again to touch Amla's cold hand when, he saw it shake, or embrace the old woman in the battered wicker chair when he saw her weep. He pressed them to him with hunger and joy, as if he rejoiced in this sensation of touching other flesh, others' pains, longed to make them mingle with his own, which, till now, had been agonizingly neglected.
Nirode's desire to touch and to feel, to be involved and to share the suffering of others is in direct contrast to his earlier evasion of touch and contact. He felt excited as a "religious fanatic is excited by the death … of a saint". The design of life and death seemed suddenly clear to him.
Monisha, like Nirode, wants to be free, but unlike him she finds it difficult to free herself of her appurtenances and duties. She longs for privacy and solitude and the inviolability that these may bring, but that is not to be. Life follows a subdued pattern of monotonous activity, without acquiring any meaning. Jiban's posting to Calcutta and Monisha's childlessness further detract from her privacy. Looking at the women around her, she asks herself:
Why are lives such as these lived? At their conclusion, what solution, what truth falls into the waiting palm of one's hand, the still pit of one's heart?
She finds her answer in the bleeding doves who carry their suffering with them, but her own options are limited. For her the choice is "between death and mean existence, and that surely is not a difficult choice". Monisha, like Gautama, turns to the Gita, for the Gita does not offer a purely religious solution. And the wisdom of the Gita recommends detachment and control—"the self-subjugated attains peace and moves among objects with the senses under control, free from any longing or aversion." But the detachment she achieves, like the detachment of Nirode, is not born out of experience, but out of fear and attachment. They are both afraid of the inroads that love may make into their lives:
I see now that both Nirode and I shy from love, fear it as attachment, for "from attachment arises longing …" If only love existed that is not binding, that is free of rules, obligations, complicity and all stirring of mind or conscience, then, but there is no such love….
But the kind of love Monisha wants is not available to her. Jiban destroys whatever meaning their relationship might have had. When she is accused of being a thief, he, instead of accepting her right to the money, questions it: "He did not say 'why you did not tell them at once?' He said, 'Why didn't you tell me before you took it?'."
She withdraws from the material concerns of family and retreats behind the barred windows. From behind these barred windows she advises Amla to always go in the opposite direction; it is an advice to rebel. Amla notices her stillness and deathlike submission and thinks of her as a lifeless statue. But Monisha's stillness is not steadiness or detachment; it is not even feeling or suffering—it is a death-like stillness. While watching the dancer in the street, Monisha feels curiously untouched. She alone stood apart "unnaturally cool, too perfectly aloof, too inviolably whole and alone and apart". She is suddenly conscious of having lost all right to exist, of having given up the quest too soon. Her victory over her mind has "less value" than the instinctive surrender of the other women to their feelings of sorrow end sympathy. Monisha's fear of touch and intimacy, her withdrawal from passion and its display confines her to her own private prison. She is aware of this:
I am different from them all. They put me away in a steel container, a thick glass cubicle, and I have lived in it all my life, without a touch of love or hate or warmth on me. I am locked apart from all of them, they cannot touch me….
What a waste, what a waste it has been. This life enclosed in a locked container, merely as an observer, and so imperfect, so handicapped an observer at that … I have not given birth, I have not attended death. All the intervening drama has gone by, unwound itself like a silent, blurred film that has neither entertained nor horrified me.
Monisha's suicide is an attempt to rebel against this meaningless, death-like isolation. It is an attempt to give meaning to her death, for her life has not been able to acquire one. Her suicide is preceded by self-knowledge and it asserts her freedom: it is an exercise of her choice.
Amla is very different from Monisha and Nirode and finds their silence and withdrawal mystifying. But gradually she too finds a sense of hollowness and futility sapping her interest and vitality, and also her sense of usefulness. She loses her sense of camaraderie:
Lassitude overcame her like a fever, weighing against her temples, making her rest her elbows on the table and her head droop over unfinished work.
Her relationships with Aunt Lila become a little tense, she becomes secretive about her thoughts and finally falls in love with Dharma, a married man much older than her. She requires communication and reciprocation. Her dream of love and involvement is broken when she learns that Dharma has disowned his daughter. She senses the inhuman power that love wants to exercise and she has the courage to bid farewell to this love which had begun to overpower her.
Sita's return to Manori in Where Shall We Go This Summer? is, like the withdrawal of Monisha and Nirode, an act of rejection. She is unable to bear the violence and destruction around her—the gossip and quarrelling sessions of the servants, the fighting amongst the children, and civilisation's ridicule of her effort to protect and preserve.
To certain people there comes a day When they must say the great Yes or the great No.
Such a day has come for Sita, and she says 'No'. She has not been able to adjust to the complacent routine of life and has longed for the sensitive approach in others. Her defiance has been manifested earlier also—, in her provocative attitude towards the women-folk of her husband's family, and in her taking to smoking. It is not only the complacency and the violence of the life around her but also the violence in the world at large:
They all hammered at her with cruel fists—the fallen blocks, the torn watercolours, the headlines about the war in Viet Nam, the photograph of women weeping over a small grave, another of a crowd outside a Rhodesian jail; articles about the perfidy of Pakistan…. They were hand-grenades all, hurled at her frail gold-fish-bowl belly, and instinctively she laid her hands over it….
The destruction around her overwhelms her and she goes to Manori in search of a miracle, of some way of continuing and preserving life without the need for it to be exposed to constant danger. It is also a desire to find a meaning for her existence:
Physically so resigned, she could not inwardly accept that this was all there was to life, that life would continue thus, inside this small, enclosed area with these few characters churning around and then past her, leaving her always in this grey, dull-lit, empty shell.
Sita's refusal to continue life as it comes to her is a manifestation of her rebellion. It is her way of saying thus far and no further. The trip to Manori is actually a trip back to her childhood, which she had perhaps never outgrown and which had acquired a perfection of its own now because it had actually ceased to be. But this trip becomes for her a trip of self-discovery and a recognition of reality. Her island home is not as she had remembered it. The house is in a dilapidated condition and the welcome they get is a shabby one. In herself she has no importance, she is tolerated because of her father, and later her husband gets a welcome in his own right as a man. To her dismay, she is as much an outsider here as she was on the mainland. The daily disappointments are many. Memories and uncertainties of the past are at once rendered more clear by her indulgence in them. The well water which was not really sweet, the quack-cures of her father, his relationship with the islanders, his hold on his children—all these are relived by her through a return to Manori. And at once the power and the ego of her father come through and destroy the belief in the myth that had survived him. Her sister Rekha and her brother Jivan, had both rejected the island magic in order to seek their own destinies. Now, when Sita tries to see only the beauty and the magic of the island, her daughter Menaka points out the filth and the stink present there.
Sita's return to Manori is not under any illusion of her past life. While still on the island, as a young girl, she bad slowly but unmistakably grown out of the chrysalis of the childhood and had begun to question. She had struggled to free herself from the magic spell of her father, but now after twenty years, the island life has again gained an ascendancy over her. The island has become a symbol of a private refuge and is her only route of escape:
Knowing that accepting that, she knew it was because ordinary life, the everyday world had grown so insufferable to her that she could think of the magic island again as of release. If the sea was so dark, so cruel, then it was better to swim back into the net. If reality was not to be borne, then illusion was the only alternative.
Her return allows her to see the face of reality in this world of illusion, and she realises that in essence there can be no running away from reality. The magic of the island, if it had ever existed was "now buried beneath the soft gray-green mildew of the monsoon, chilled and choked by it".
Sita's withdrawal is indicative of a need for love, the kind of free, unquestioning love which would envelop her. Her one happy memory does not relate to her personal life but to her experience as an observer of a young woman dying of tuberculosis, and being devotedly attended to by a person who loved her. This kind of love transcends the self and makes no claims. It is love in the face of death, in the face of human finitude. It is this kind of relationship which she wants from Raman, but which she is unable to achieve. When the news of his likely visit arrive, she first experiences a sense of grief and then a "warm expansion of relief, of pleasure, of surprise". And when he arrives, she wants to lay down her head and weep, "my father's dead—look after me", but the confession is difficult to make. She wants to be told that he has come for her but instead he tells her that he has come because Menaka had called him. Raman's reply leaves her with a sense of emptiness:
Their betrayal had torn her open with such violence, now violence poured from her like blood. In it was also the shame, the disappointment, he had not come to fetch her, as she had supposed; he had come because Menaka had called him. He had betrayed her too. They had all betrayed her. Why?
With Raman's visit and the children's betrayal, Sita finds that this route of escape is closed. She has to accept the fact that she is a woman unloved, a woman bitter and jealous. Through this acceptance she also realises that Raman is brave, while she is not. He had said "yes" and saying it had crossed over to the path of honour and his own conviction while she had escaped from duties and responsibilities, from order and routine, from life and city, to the unlivable island, "She had refused to give birth to a child in a world not fit to receive the child". But now escape is impossible and it is difficult to trust one's own responses, it is difficult to know what is authentic and what is not: "How could she tell, how to decide? Which half of her life was real and which unreal? Which of her selves was true, which false?"
The conflict between the need to withdraw in order to preserve one's wholeness and sanity and the need to be involved in the painful process of life continues in Fire on the Mountain (1977). This oscillation between attachment and detachment reflects the need for a meaning in life. Nanda Kaul is much older than Anita Desai's other heroines and has had a life choked with children and activity. All her life the claims have been far too many and she has yielded to a pattern, submitted to the requirements of her husband's status and to his wishes. Draped in silk sarees, she has presided over his table and managed his household. She had suffered from "nimiety, the disorder, the fluctuating and unpredictable excess". In the midst of this busy life she had tried to fortify and steady herself by an hour of stillness every day:
She had practiced this stillness, this composure, for years, for an hour every afternoon: it was an art, not easily acquired … she remembered how she had tried to shut out sound by shutting out light, how she had spent the sleepless hour making out the direction from which a shout came, or a burst of giggles … All was subdued, but nothing was ever still.
Stillness had eluded her, and now when she had arrived at it through her forced isolation, she wants to hold on to it and be left alone with herself, "I want no more. I want nothing. Can I be not left with nothing?" Obviously it is not possible. Claims continue to be made on her, she has not done with the act of living having ensconced herself in Carignano. The postman brings letters, the telephone rings and before she is aware, her great-granddaughter Raka descends on her. Nanda tries to shut people out; she doesn't pay attention to Raka, she postpones Ila Das's visit to Carignano. In all this she meets with a measure of success until she is drawn out of herself by Raka's withdrawal, and sees in it some semblance to her own. Raka seems to have no need for human company. She goes for long walks on her own and avoids human company and conversation. Raka seems to be totally absorbed in a world of her own and ignores Nanda Kaul with a "total rejection, so natural, instinctive and effortless" when compared with Nanda's own flawed experiment. Raka wants only to be left free to pursue her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli:
If Nanda Kaul was a recluse out of vengeance for a long life of duty and obligation, her great-granddaughter was a recluse by nature, by instinct. She had not arrived at this condition by a long route of rejection and sacrifice—She was born to it, simply.
Nanda Kaul wants to penetrate Raka's secret world. She offers to go for a walk with her and during this walk, there is a moment of shared laughter, a coming together as it were, only to pull apart the moment the idea of pattern enters their conversation. Raka's sense of the essential upsets Nanda Kaul; somehow Raka's withdrawal does not conform to the conventional idea of normalcy and Mrs. Kaul desires response from her. She seeks to fire her imagination, to hold her interest and in this process she endows her father with imaginary travels, travels which he had never undertaken, and with animals he had never kept. It is a world of private fantasy in which she lives: an escape, for after all nobody wanted the truth and no one could bear it. It is because reality is unbearable that she builds a protective wall of solitude, only to find that it is vulnerable and requires constant effort to be maintained. She finds herself slowly getting involved in Raka and she is overcome by a strange desire to hold on to the child, "Somehow she could not bear to let her slip away. It was as if Raka's indifference was a goad, a challenge to her—the elusive fish, the golden catch".
Again, when Ila Das visits her, Nanda Kaul has to exercise a strong control on her impulse to invite her to stay with her and to suppress her sense of guilt.
Withdrawal, which does not come naturally to her, takes her nowhere and involvement is equally meaningless. Both are destructive forces: there is no centre of equilibrium, no centre of harmony. It is difficult to be like Buddha and to meditate amidst suffering. The bronze Buddha is used as an effective symbol in the novel. Right in the midst of a storm, Raka puts out her hand to stroke the "little bronze Buddha that sat inscrutably smiling and still, counting its beads on the table top". The impulse of the average human being is very different, it is an impulse of aggression and it comes to the surface in Maya who pushes Gautama off the roof to save herself and in Raka who picks up a box of matches quietly and sets the forest on fire.
Bye, Bye Blackbird (1971), which chronologically is her third novel is a novel of a different kind. Though in this novel also the theme of loneliness is explored but both the technique and the intention are different from the ones adopted in Desai's other novels. The novel is not about Dev and Adit as much as it is about Sarah who has withdrawn from the world of her childhood. She doesn't want to look back and in this she is different from Maya and Sita. There is no meeting point between her external and her personal world and when she moves from one to the other, there is an "automatic and switch-swift adjustment". Outside her home, she has the "hurried rush and tough briskness of one suspicious, one on the defensive." Once when Adit had seen her from a distance, he too had noticed her anguish:
An anguish, it seemed to him, of loneliness—and then it became absurd to call her by his own name, to call her by any name, she had shed her name as she had shed her ancestry and identity, as she sat there, staring, as though she watched them disappear.
She is reluctant to visit her former friends, just as she is unwilling to talk about her Indian husband. Her whole existence is split into two different roles. They were roles—and "when she was not playing them, she was nobody. Her face was a mask, her body only a costume". The real Sarah is lost somewhere between the two worlds and:
She wondered with great sadness, if she would ever be allowed to step off the stage, leave the theatre and enter the real world—whether English or Indian, she did not care, she wanted only its sincerity, its truth.
But in her present position she can feel free only amongst strangers where she is unidentifiable. Sarah is also wary of touch or contact. Her loneliness is not an instinctive need but it has risen out of her circumstances and it is only Adit who can help her transcend it.
When Adit realises the inadequacy of the world he had adopted and decides to return to India, he offers her a chance to live in her own right. Adit realises what Sarah had realised long before, "Little India in London…. It has no reality at all, we just pretend all the time".
The sense of nostalgia which is there in Bye, Bye Blackbird is very different from the nostalgia which persists in Desai's other novels. Sarah has no nostalgic memories, and Adit's nostalgia for the hilsa fish and the Bengal atmosphere is an expression of a need to belong and to bridge the gulf between London and Calcutta. For both Sarah and Adit reality exists at two schizophrenic planes, the two planes of the two cultural traditions and the merger takes place only with Adit's decision to return to India. In her other novels, Anita Desai uses the memories of the past as a method of evaluating the individual's relationship with the present, and nostalgia becomes a narrative technique. The movement backwards is both a medium of self knowledge and of confrontation with the reality. Her protagonists are caught in adult life and it is from a particular stage in their life that they try to relate their pest to their present. Nostalgia is both—merely a backward glance, and a backward glance with longing.
In Cry, the Peacock, Maya longs for the protection of her childhood and for the pattern which her life had followed with her father, she longs for the holiday in the hills and for the calmness of stoic resignation. Maya wants neither the freedom nor the responsibility of an adult world and her nostalgic memories help to prolong her immaturity. She is aware of her petulance and childishness. Her acceptance can have no meaning for it would not be born out of any confrontation with life rooted as she is in the past. She has not evolved emotionally. It is through her nostalgia that the two worlds of her past and present are constantly juxtaposed and contrasted—Toto's death with the prophecy, her husband's practicality with her father's fatalism, her visits to the hills with her present inability to do so.
Nostalgia, in Voices in the City and Flre on the Mountain, is used for distancing the past. In fact the process of nostalgic memories is inverted. It is not Nirode who seeks the past, but the past which holds on to him. When he reads the letter from his mother, it is "like sinking his teeth through a sweet mulberry to bite into a caterpillar's entrails". The "bright birds of the past", turn "macabre and horrifying" for he himself is at some distance from it. Between him and his past there is a barbed wire fence. During his illness, Nirode does turn to thoughts of his childhood and talks of mother when she "would play Chinese checkers with us on the bright mats, and put us to sleep with stories from the Mahabharata". But his conscious effort is geared to a rejection of his past. Monisha, like Nirode, rejects a return to it. Her nostalgia is for the immediate past, for the life in the district where she was alone and was left to herself. In this novel the past turns predator and swallows up the present.
In Fire on the Mountain both the uses of the past are there, Nanda Kaul uses her memories to distance the past, while Ila Das welcomes her nostalgic memories for it is "a little bit of the past come alive". They both view the past from entirely different points of views: Nanda Kaul resents the claims it had made on her, the curbs it had placed on her freedom, and the deceptions it had held, while Ila Das romanticizes it with her memories of the badminton game, the music and the jam, it is a piece of heaven the memory of which renders her present tolerable.
Memory of the past, in someway or the other, is thus used as an important narrative technique by Anita Desai. The characters grow and emerge and define themselves through this process of remembrance. In Cry, the Peacock, the story unfolds itself in relation to the albino astrologer and each incident that happens brings the inner terror of Maya into cleaner focus. In Voices in the City, all events and happenings relate to their mother who does not make an appearance till the last part of the book. In Where Shall We Go This Summer? Sita's visit to Manori is an actual grappling with her world of fantasy and memory. The visit juxtaposes the past and the present and allows her a glimpse of the two versions of reality—the one of the island and the other of the mainland. The world of creation and destruction are brought into direct contrast and held there with the longing for a moment of poise and Sita's desire to be the supreme creator. She tells her unborn child, "I'll keep you safe inside, we'll go nowhere".
In Cry, the Peacock though the central section is narrated through Maya's consciousness, it attains objectivity in its narration of events, and her relation to other characters. There is a projection of other beings and their viewpoints. In Voices in the City, Nirode is first presented in his own right by the narrator but in the succeeding parts we see Nirode through other eyes, through Monisha's, through Amla's and finally face to face with Mother—a relationship which he no longer has any courage to reject, but a tie which is snapped outside his own will. It has a multivalence of design.
In Fire on the Mountain, the three sections of the book represent the relationship of the three characters to reality. Nanda Kaul wants to shut out the world with a conscious effort at retreat. She is unable to relate to it any more, while Raka has never desired to establish any equation. Ila Das lives in a world of fantasy and hope and is finally destroyed by them.
In this juxtaposition of the past and the present, relationships with the parents emerge in a clear light. Maya has been over-protected and has never entered an adult world. Nirode who had been close to his mother and at odds with his father is embittered and estranged from her after his father's death. He is caught in an unbearable love-hate relationship with her, wanting her love and his independence at the same time. His resentment is against the possession and sensuality of love and the way it destroys people instead of liberating them. He stems Amla's confessions of love and tells her to go home to mother and listen to her experience of love:
Ask her about the love that made her swallow father whole, like a cobra swallows a fat, petrified rat, then spews him out in one flabby yellow mess. Ask her about the love that makes her perch on her mountain top, waiting so patiently and surely for retirement and tedium and the last wormy twisting of lust to send Major Chadha—Chadha!—into her open arms.
Amla questions the premises of her parents' choice of Jiban as a husband for Monisha and wonders:
Why had their father chosen him from amongst other young men surely known to him, or to his friends and relations, whose names must have been proposed when word was sent around that the eldest daughter was to marry? Was it merely because Jiban was so unquestionably safe, sound and secure, so utterly predictable? Or was it because fathers did, unconsciously, spite their daughters who were unavailable to them?
And then there is also Dharma's relationship with his daughter whom he had never wanted to change or slip "out of the Chrysalis".
The relationship of the parents to the children is far too subtle to be explained through any analysis of the surface ties. The hold and domination they exercise consciously and subconsciously are, at times, destructive. Whoever can run away from the past, does so: Arjuna in Cry, the Peacock, Nirode and Jiban in Voices in the City, Sita in Where Shall We Go This Summer? and Arun in Voices in the City are able to escape from it without running away. Others struggle hard to understand themselves. Sita (Where Shall We Go This Summer?) is unable to understand her father whose spell she begins to feel while he is alive and finds it difficult to discard even when he is dead. Finally, by returning to the mainland, she succeeds in discarding his overwhelming shadow but not his memory.
This relationship is not so dominant in Fire on the Mountain, though it does exist in a subdued manner. Nanda Kaul builds an imaginary world round her father and the fantasy she weaves reflects a desire to relate and to communicate; it also reflects her dissatisfaction with her own family life. Raka's silence and withdrawal is the direct result of a long chain of events—it is the result of her mother's nervous breakdown and her grandmother's 'heartless' exuberance. Caught between the two extremes, her natural instinct is to perfect her withdrawal.
The climax of this relationship is reached in the merging of the Goddess Kali with that of the mother in Voices in the City, Nirode tells Amla:
She is Kali…. Amla, I know her now. She is Kali, the goddess and the demon are one. When I was driving through the city here, and I saw the sky darken, people put on lights in her honour, and heard them wail and chant, and I knew at once then, that she is Kali. She has watched the sacrifice and she is satisfied…. Don't you see, Amla, how once she has given birth to us, she must also deal us our death?…. I see now that she is everything we have been fighting against, you and Monisha and I, and she is also everything we have fought for. She is our consciousness and our unconsciousness, she is all that is manifest and all that is unmanifest.
She is not merely good, she is not merely evil—she is both good and evil. She is our knowledge and our ignorance. She is everything to which we are attached, she is everything from which we will always be detached. She is reality and illusion, she is the world and she is Maya … Isn't it perfect and inevitable that she should pour blood into our veins when we are born and drain it from us when we die?
This merger of the forces of creation and destruction is a violent image, powerful and overwhelming. It is in line with the imagery of prey and predator which is a strong element in Desai's novels. In Voices in the City it sums up the destructiveness of the city of Calcutta, and what it does to sensitive beings with its clamming, closed ways. It also embraces the destruction. Nirode and his two sisters emanate because of their sensitive uncompromising attitude. Amongst those who notice this is Jit who tells Amla, "there is a terrible destructiveness in all of you. He tells her:
You destroy—you destroy yourselves, and you destroy that part of others that gets so fatally involved in you. There is this—this dreadful attractiveness in your dark ways of thinking and feeling through life towards death.
While in Cry, the Peacock, the destruction lies in Maya's own consciousness and her own myopic vision, in Voices in the City it works at various levels. Nirode thinks of his mother as a "she-cannibal", he feels that people destroy each other through love and marriage. Jit considers Nirode and his sisters to be the worshippers of destruction and Jiban drives Monisha to her death like silence and final suicide. Hopes change to disaster and dreams into nightmares. The destruction which life deals out to the maimed and the slow comes vividly through in the race-course episode. When one horse trips and falls, the mob and the jockeys urge the others to continue. The fallen horse is soon attacked by countless birds who descend on the flailing horse "with beating wings and tearing claws, to jab and tear at the feast for which they had waited".
The imagery of prey and predator is continued in Where Shall We Go This Summer? Sita's whole abhorrence of life in Bombay is triggered off by the violence around her. She doesn't want her fifth baby to be born for she has lost her faith in life's ability to continue—"for happenings were always violent". Her adult life contrasts sharply with her childhood faith that death could be dispensed with. Now she sees the destructive element in her children's behaviour, she watches Menaka crumble a sheaf of new buds and unable to bear the sight of such "unthinking destruction" she calls out to her. Menaka had done it unconsciously, had not really meant to destroy anything at all. Sita's despair is related to this for "destruction came so naturally; that was the horror … The creative impulse had no chance against the overpowering desire to destroy".
This need to destroy manifests itself in Raka's desire to set the forest on fire in Fire on the Mountain. She is not drawn by the cozy world of civilization but by the forces of destruction and negation. It is not the club but the unbuilt and the burnt houses on top of the hill which attract her:
This hill, with its one destroyed house and one unbuilt one … appealed to Raka with the strength of a strong sea-current—pulling, dragging. There was something about it, illegitimate, uncompromising and lawless—that made her tingle. The scene of devastation and failure, somehow drew her, inspired her.
In Where Shall We Go This Summer? Sita is upset by the sight of the crows feeding on a young, wounded eagle and tries in vain to protect it from them. This pursuit of the prey by the predator is horrifying enough even in the animal world, where perhaps it satisfies the need for food, but it acquires a new terror when transferred to the human world. When the young boys chase Ila Das (Fire on the Mountain), they not only destroy her dignity but also expose her extreme vulnerability and their own thoughtless aggression. They underline the hostility which comes to them so naturally.
There are other images which echo the theme of human vulnerability and the conflicting demands of protection and independence. In Where Shall We Go This Summer? it is the island, and in Fire on the Mountain it is the Carignano which rejects this image. Sita looks to the island for protection, but all that it has to offer her is a hostile, cold welcome with the islanders wary of talking to her and the palms "hissing and clattering their dry leaves together harshly, like some disturbed, vigilant animals …", and the house—"a waste of ashes", the "cold remains of the bonfire her father had lit here to a blaze". Similarly Nanda Kaul's house is both an escape and an exposure situated as it is on the knoll. There are no trees to protect it from the wind, it is bare and stark and vulnerable. It has a long history of having housed the fugitives of life, it is like a burial ground.
The novels unfold themselves within the framework of death and destruction: and it is in reference to these that life has to work out its solutions, whatever they may be. They are, however, difficult ones to arrive at: involvement is enslavement and the loss of freedom, while detachment and stillness, besides being equally destructive, appear to be unattainable, Monisha, Sita and Nanda Kaul aspire to move towards freedom and wholeness. Sita, in Where Shall We Go This Summer? feels that she has to stay whole, "I had to stay whole, I had to", but when she is offered her freedom she is unable to take it. When Raman is resigned to her withdrawal, she finds she is not ready to be resigned:
… she felt him release her then—give her up. She felt it as surely as if his hand, till now clutching her hand, had let it drop, let her go. He did it not out of passion, but out of pure weariness with her, weariness with her muddle, her dark muddled drama … He released her and at last she was free.
She stood still … and felt herself released and freed. Immensely tired now, all emptied out, the drama drained, the passion crumpled, she felt so light that she could have risen and floated out to sea, a black seabird. But she did not.
Similarly Monisha cherishes her privacy for she feels she can be herself and feel more "whole". But later she rejects this wholeness which is unnatural and she wants to make the great leap towards emotion and the fire she lights envelops her. Nirode, in the same novel, consistently withdraws from involvement only to find in the end that he does not want this freedom, which appears to be "desolate".
Anita Desai comments, through her central characters, on the violence and aggression in society, the aggression between men and men and between men and women. She also comments on the narrow ingrowing vision which blinds mankind on the confrontation between inner and outer reality, but her primary preoccupation remains with the absurdity of human life, with the existential search for meaning in it and the inability of men to accept a religious solution. It becomes, in the ultimate instance, a question of reason versus unreason. Reason in itself is inadequate—therefore men turn to unreason. And those who like Gautama live merely by reason also die by it. Others who move towards self-knowledge and recognition of their true selves move towards it through unreason, by rejecting the pattern of normalcy.
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