Unforgettable tales

Print edition : January 18, 2008

Anita Desai, only the third Indian writer in English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi Fellowhip. A file picture.-HAND OUT

The special quality of Anita Desais literary voice is its ability to weave several strands of feeling into a complex, affecting symphony.

IN his introduction to the new Random House edition of Anita Desais novel Baumgartners Bombay, Suketu Mehta sums up the great literary debt owed to her by his generation of writers: Anita Desai is godmother to the current generation of prodigal Indian writers in English. She began writing at a time when Indian writers did not get big advances, werent reviewed regularly in all the big papers, didnt win Bookers or Pulitzers. Teaching at American universities to support herself and her four children, she wrote steadily, consistently, and without fanfare. She championed Salman Rushdie from the beginning. She taught us, among other things, how to use spoken Indian English without it lapsing into parody. Farrokhs soliloquy about hippies, at the beginning of the book, is a classic study of an Irani restaurant owner I know that man, I know that language. Such dialogue could be risible, in the hands of a lesser writer.

Desais tremendous contribution to Indian fiction in English was recently recognised by the Sahitya Akademi fellowship conferred on her in New Delhi this year. Although she is the seventy-fifth Fellow in the entire history of the Sahitya Akademi, she is only the third Indian writer in English, after Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan, to be so honoured.

Speaking on the occasion, Desai described the struggle of those early days of writing in the language: It is true that in my early days as a writer of English I and my colleagues were constantly having to apologise for using it rather than Hindi or Tamil or Bengali or Marathi. We were the leftovers of the colonial age, unfortunately educated in what everyone could see was not a native tongue and surely ours was the last generation that would employ it. Yet we were enjoying the challenges of making the language our own, bending and twisting and manipulating it to express our own way of living, thinking and speaking.

Desai has been writing for over four decades now, steadily, through a marriage and four children, through moves to England and then to the United States with occasional retreats to Mexico. And through a teaching career, through several awards, and three nominations on the Booker Prize shortlist for her novels Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Baumgartners Bombay (1988).

Beginning in the early 1960s, much before the phenomenal successes of Salman Rushdie and then Arundhati Roy, Desais oeuvre includes several novels, short story collections and a childrens book, all the way from the early works Cry, the Peacock (1963) and Voices in the City (1965) set in India, to The Zig-Zag Way (2004) set in Mexico. She also wrote the screenplay for Merchant-Ivorys 1993 film version of her novel and Ismail Merchants feature debut as director In Custody, although she remarked in a recent interview to a newsmagazine that this experience led her to recognise that film was definitely not her medium: Writing the screenplay was like obliterating the text rather than creating it.

Born Anita Mazumdar on June 24, 1937, in Mussoorie to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali father, D.N. Mazumdar, she grew up as the youngest of three sisters and a brother in Old Delhi. She grew up speaking German at home, Hindi with friends, and English at school; Bengali she would learn after her fathers death, when she was 18, after the family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata). In Delhi she attended Queen Marys School and Miranda House, reading English literature before her marriage to businessman Ashvin Desai. They went on to have four children, with Anita making time for her writing between the needs of family and household.

As Salman Rushdie observes in his introduction to the new edition of In Custody, Desais great subject is solitude. Her characters grapple with regret, alienation and even brokenness and the need to come to terms with the past. Out of these obsessions she has crafted her most unforgettable tales. One recalls the proud and brittle Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain (1977), the old woman spending her last years in Kasauli. Nanda Kaul, who is referred to by her full name throughout the novel, who had not gone to watch for (the postman), did not want him to stop at Carignano, had no wish for letters. She wanted no one and nothing else. Whatever else came, or happened here, would be an unwelcome intrusion and distraction.

And then there is the intense, angular, fiercely independent Bim in Clear Light of Day (1980), who tells her sister about what she plans to do with her life: I shall work I shall do things, she went on, I shall earn my own living and look after Mira-masi and Baba and and be independent. Therell be so many things to do when we are grown up when all this is over and she swept an arm out over the garden party, dismissing it. When we are grown up at last then then but she couldnt finish for emotion, and her eyes shone in the dusk.

Finally, there is Hugo Baumgartner in Baumgartners Bombay (1988), the Jew who comes to India to escape Nazi Germany and meanders across the country before finally settling in a room in Bombay. Baumgartner is destined to encounter a different sort of loneliness in the midst of the teeming Colaba crowds: He had lived in this land for fifty years or if not fifty then so nearly as to make no difference and it no longer seemed fantastic and exotic; it was more utterly familiar now than any other landscape on earth. Yet the eyes of the people who passed by glanced at him who was still strange and unfamiliar to them, and all said: Firanghi, foreigner. The word, the name, struck coldly and he winced, hunching his shoulders and trying to avoid the contact he knew they hated because contact contaminated. Accepting but not accepted; that was the story of his life, the one thread that ran through it all. In Germany he had been dark his darkness had marked him the Jew, der Jude. In India he was fair and that marked him the firanghi. In both lands, he was unacceptable.

Yet if solitude the need for it but also the need to escape loneliness is her great subject, Desai also writes about the family, its supportive concern and its suffocating demands, with rare insight. Mothers bearing children, making time, multitasking, running their houses, being there for family and guests, making sure their husbands get something sweet for their tea, always being called upon to discharge their many duties are at the centre of the ever-buzzing family universe.

Most memorably, it is Nanda Kaul, as the Vice-Chancellors wife, who had played this role at the hub of a small but intense and busy world a world where there were too many trees in the garden too many servants in the long long row of whitewashed huts behind the kitchen too many guests coming and going too many trays of tea would have to be made too many meals, too many dishes on the table, too much to wash up after. Such an over-full life, so much happening day after day, that she has now retreated to the mountains for a life of bitter calm.

The novels also explore the ties that bind mothers and their children. In different ways, Nirode in the early Voices in the City and Hugo in Baumgartners Bombay are driven by their intense relationships with their mothers.

Nirodes final realisation is that his mother is not merely their mother but Kali, the mother of Bengal: not merely good, she is not merely evil she is good and she is 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.

Anita Desai receiving the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi from Gopi Chand Narang, Chairman of the Akademi, in New Delhi on November 30.-R.V. MOORTHY

Baumgartner, on the other hand, lives with his bunch of letters from the mother he left behind in Nazi Germany, letters that ask affectionately, with heartbreaking urgency: Are you well, my rabbit? Do not worry yourself. I am well. I have enough. But have you enough, my mouse, my darling? Do not worry

But heartwarmingly, too, there are young Hari, Lila, Bela and Kamal, the lovable, unafraid siblings of Desais childrens novel The Village by the Sea, who nurse their mother back to health, help their father come out of his drunken state, and become a family once again to adapt to their new circumstances and celebrate Diwali together on the beach.

At the heart of Desais storytelling, from the intense prose of her early novels (she has referred to them as overwrought) to the spare and almost achingly unadorned later novels like Fasting, Feasting (1999), is the sharply vivid, Woolfian quality of her prose.

Suketu Mehta writes of Baumgartners Bombay, about Desais achievement, at the very basic level of sentence construction how word follows word to make world. She can construct an entire universe in a couple of paragraphs, with an accumulation of sensory detail the novel carries you along because of Desais mastery of the medium. You read not to get to the destination but for the sheer literary pleasure of the journey.

One of the great contributions of Desais fiction has been its ability to illuminate the richness of detail, the texture and the sheer aliveness of the worlds where her characters move. In fluid, evocative paragraphs, Desai writes about the natural world that is hidden all around, not only in the rugged terrain of Nanda Kauls hideaway in the hills or in the decaying, crumbling gardens of Bims Old Delhi, but even in the midst of Baumgartners crowded Colaba.

In Kasauli we feel the scented sibilance of the pine trees, hear the invisible fiddling of the cicadas, and sense the explosive energy of young Rakas scramble up and down the hillsides, letting loose small avalanches of pebbles and gravel under her toes, making newts dash, lizards slip and tree-crickets crackle.

In Bims garden we go down the old rose walk where the roses are diminishing every year, their petals coming apart in Bims hands and falling limply on the earth below, reflecting the slow decline of the old way of life. And in Bombay, where Hugo Baumgartner watches the sunset on the sea in the evenings, as the brightly coloured flames collapse into the waves, he also makes time to care for the hungry and injured stray cats that he brings home from the streets, giving them names Fritzi, Mimi and paying attention to their quirky individual personalities.

But there are also occasional intimations of the violence that lies in wait beneath the surface of this inevitably divided, inevitably fractured world. The fire on the mountain, the black smoke curling up the hillside as the body of an old woman lies on a rocky path. The tired horse lying on the road, screaming in agony as the cart-driver whips it with all his force, the animal finally sinking lower into the dust as the driver continues to whip it and scream abuse. The young man from halfway across the world who steals across the landing, picks up the kitchen knife that the old Jew uses to cut up food for his hungry cats and then uses the knife to carry out his agenda of hatred.

The special quality of Desais literary voice is its ability to weave together several strands of feeling into a complex, affecting symphony. As Rushdie observes in his introduction to In Custody: When you first encounter it the prose seems to whisper, to speak so softly as to risk going unheard, but as you bend your ear to listen you hear many unexpected notes of wicked comedy, of sharp, even biting perceptions about her fellow men and women, and of a clear-sighted unsentimentality about human nature that is anything but frail. The voice takes hold of the reader, gently, irresistibly, and its strength and clarity soon come to seem like small miracles.

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