Balancing Act

Anita Desai’s fiction both fulfils and challenges expectations about Indian novels in English

Indian author Anita Desai poses while in Paris, France, to promote her book on 18 October 1991. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES
01 September, 2011

WHAT WOULD VS NAIPAUL, who recently dismissed fiction written by women as “feminine tosh”, make of the oeuvre of a stalwart like Anita Desai? Many of Desai’s novels, such Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988)—with its male Jewish protagonist—cannot, in fact, be conveniently slotted in any category, whether that of women’s writing, Commonwealth Literature (which was the ‘in’ term a few decades ago) or even diasporic Indian English writing. Again, in one of her best novels, In Custody (1984), Desai explored a clearly individualised male character: an Urdu poet belonging to an old and established literary tradition. This obviously contradicts one of the simplistic assumptions behind the idea of ‘feminine tosh’—that women write about other women and ‘female’ matters.

Two of the three long stories, or short novellas, in Desai’s new and excellent collection, The Artist of Disappearance (Random House India, 2011) also feature male protagonists. Neither in her writing—always sculpted and precise—nor in her selection of protagonists and stories do these texts fit any stereotypical definition of ‘women’s writing’.

‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ brings a young sub-divisional officer to a small town—or, rather, a hamlet—on his first posting. The story captures the reader from the first page, with its well-honed and calculated descriptions of place and people, thought and emotion: “The sun was setting into a sullen murk of ashes and embers along the horizon when he turned the jeep into the circular driveway in front of a low, white bungalow.” The sub-divisional officer is soon accosted by the custodian of one of the old mansions in the area, now left with no rightful owner but filled with objects accumulated by the last scion. It is a beautiful story, redolent with loss and the fascination with life, and has an ending that reminded me of that immortal and underrated film, Mrinal Sen’s Khandahar. More I dare not say, for this story—like the other two—is meant to be savoured.

The second story, ‘Translator, Translated’, revolves around a female protagonist, Prema, who teaches English literature at an obscure metropolitan college. Her limited life and confining canvas of ‘required’ teaching have left Prema with “a small, smouldering ember deep inside her soul (so she designed its location, no other would do), where it released an odour of heated rubber, threatening to destroy whatever pleasure or satisfaction she might court”. Recognised and encouraged (absentmindedly) by the one classmate from her alma mater who has made it ‘big’, Prema launches into a career as a translator of an Oriya writer unknown outside the state of Orissa. Desai manages to combine humour and empathy in just the right proportions to communicate the drab and unremarkable heroism of Prema as well as explore some core issues concerning translation (her take on the Bhasha-English divide is fleeting but hilarious), creativity and the essentially human and endless process of ‘becoming’. Prema is the kind of character Naipaul would expect to find in ‘women’s writing’, but she is also the kind of character he cannot create or sustain. Naipaul has remarkable strengths as a writer, no doubt, but in his hands someone like Prema, with ambitions that are at odds with her marginal position, would become a parody. Desai’s Prema remains gloriously herself, mostly because Desai’s narrator does not reduce her—as Naipaul often does to characters in his fiction—to an illustration of the author’s understanding (however profound) of historical and political realities.

With the third story—‘The Artist of Disappearance’—Desai returns to a male protagonist. Ravi is the adopted and only son of parents who, busy with their international travels and social lives, let him grow up in relative isolation in their house in a hill station, cared for by an English governess (who has been left adrift by the end of Empire), taught by tutors and attended to by family servants. Ravi is a sensitive, reclusive boy, considered a little ‘retarded’ by his other relatives when he is forced to move in with them (in Bombay) after the death of one of his parents.

As an adult, he returns to the house he grew up in and falls back into the old, reclusive patterns. When the aged governess burns down the house by accident, Ravi continues to live in the one room that survives, tended to by a servant’s family. His life is simple; he feels at home in undemanding nature. In his spare time, he constructs a garden in a secluded spot. When his garden is discovered by a TV crew shooting a film on environmental degradation, Ravi abandons it. He finds a smaller and more private mode to keep his inner self structured and cultivated, away from the prying eyes and loud voices of others.

This narration of the quiet, solitary, vulnerable ‘soul’ (for lack of a better word) in a loud world has been a constant theme in Desai’s fiction. This can be understood in terms of class, for middle-class ennui in the face of the perceived threat and ‘crudeness’ of other classes is a familiar motif of fiction across cultures. But who can deny that this search for peace is also at times an aspect of existence, regardless of class differences?

Early morning landscape of Mussoorie, Mall Road, 1940. DINODIA PHOTO LIBRARY

The three novellas in The Artist of Disappearance are sad and deeply haunting, but not despairing. Disappearance is central to them, and appearances are, in some ways, ‘unreal’: people, hopes, memories and pasts ‘disappear’ and what appears instead seems, at times, in its crass materiality, to lack essence. But even in their implicit elegy for a world of ‘disappearances’, these stories engage with life to a degree of fullness that is rare in fiction these days. Their characters and protagonists range widely across the Indian social scale; they are set across urban and rural spaces. All three stories go beyond hope, or despair. Above all, these are stories that could have been written by an Indian writer in English living in India: ‘diasporic writer’, an easy category, fails to do their author justice. The Artist of Disappearance is singularly shorn of diasporic concerns and discursive elements: the colonial ‘bridge’, on which so much Indian English fiction is predicated, is not missing in the collection but used with Desai’s characteristic subtlety.

This colonial ‘bridge’—by which I mean the tendency in some postcolonial literatures, especially those which assume visibility in the West, to make the history of European colonisation, as theme, criticism or atmospheric nostalgia, central to postcolonial presents—is often a narrative contraption that usurps the space for other possibilities. Writing in a language like English, this appropriation cannot always be avoided—and Desai does not necessarily seek to avoid it. But the ‘bridge’ can be used creatively to suggest other spaces and narratives, which is what—as I’ll go on to highlight—Desai does in her own way.

BORN IN MUSSOORIE in 1937, the daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother, and awarded a BA from Miranda House, University of Delhi, Desai started off as a writer under two obvious influences: the larger one an attempt by women writers across the world to approach literature on their own terms; and the more specific influence—given her background—of the fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born British writer married to an Indian, whose work started to appear in the mid-1950s. Desai’s debut novel, Cry, The Peacock, was published in Britain by Peter Owen in 1963.

There is no doubt that Desai has been an enabling presence in Indian writing in English, not only because she is poised between the generations of Raja Rao and RK Narayan, on the one hand, and Salman Rushdie, on the other, but also because of her creation of a distinctive stylistic space that is different from these definitive presences: as the late and much-missed Meenakshi Mukherjee put it in her book The Twice Born Fiction, “Desai is a rare example of an Indo-Anglian writer who achieves that difficult task of bending the English language to her purpose without either a self-conscious attempt of sounding Indian or seeking the anonymous elegance of public school English.” While it eschews Rao’s serious linguistic experimentation and Rushdie’s magical playfulness, Desai’s language is more linguistically complex and stylised than that of Narayan. This should be obvious enough to any scholar of Indian writing in English. What is less obvious is the significance of Desai’s changes of location: from being an Indian, of German and Bengali parentage, educated in Delhi and later residing in India and then England, Desai has, in recent years, divided her time between the US and Mexico.

Does this make her a diasporic writer, a category currently in vogue in the West and, consequently, sometimes viewed with suspicion in India? Or does it, more correctly, make her a different type of diasporic writer? For, surely, given her background, she could have been defined as ‘diasporic’ even when based in India. Reading her work, one is faced with the limits of such tags. While some of her novels, such as Fasting, Feasting (1999), fit the idea of diasporic literature in terms of theme, location, focus and even characterisation, much of the rest of her work eludes this category. Desai’s fiction ranges from narratives of domesticity and well-punctuated stream of consciousness to stories of emotional and social breakdown, historical vignettes, fables about life and works of subtle sociopolitical criticism. While, very often, her core narratives are situated in a middle-class space, what she surveys from that necessary vantage point ranges widely: not just the many layers of middle-class existence, in India and abroad, but also servants, peasants, political manipulators, trades people and criminals. All of her oeuvre presents a highly distinguished body of literature which, if it has to be tagged, should be called Indian fiction in English.

Fasting, Feasting is easy to slot into a certain privileged discourse of diaspora. In this stereotypical discourse, employed in different ways across colonial and (often) postcolonial writing, ‘lack’ refers to the non-West while ‘completeness’, ‘plenty’ or ‘excess’ (depending on the political trajectory of the writer) refers to a Western space. At a cursory glance, the fasting of Fasting, Feasting seems to allude to India and Indians, and the feasting to the US and Americans. But, again, this is misleading, because what the novel does between the lines and in a non-programmatic manner is to complicate these notions: both of fast and feast, and of what they mean and where they take place.

Desai’s own (reported) claim that she “feels about India as an Indian”, but thinks about it “as an outsider” is rather misleading. She thinks about India as an Indian too—of a certain background. Given our different backgrounds, it is inevitable that we Indian writers, based in this land or abroad, think of ‘India’—which is actually that slice of a multitudinous reality that is available to us, just one slice out of many—in different ways. Diaspora, as a discursive element in literature, has less to do with location than with choice (conscious or not) on the part of an Indian English author.

I think Desai, at her best, belongs to a group of Indian writers who write in English and might even be based abroad, but who cannot be confined to the ‘diasporic’ or ‘non-resident Indian’ tag. As an Indian who was raised and educated in a small town in Bihar and now lives abroad, I would include myself in this group. It is unfair to read all texts by writers like Desai—or, for that matter, Amitav Ghosh, Attia Hosain, Vikram Chandra and so on—as belonging to ‘diasporic’ or ‘NRI’ writing. A critical re-engagement with Desai would help writers who live outside India to be read on their own terms—and not through the lens of ‘diaspora’, ‘postcolonialism’, ‘global literature’, ‘NRI-writing’ or some narrow linkage of Indianness with territoriality, which ignores the fact that some Indians who are settled in, say, Delhi or Mumbai might be more ‘diasporic’ and ‘global’—by virtue of having been educated in cosmopolitan institutions and travelled the world—than other Indians working in Berlin, Melbourne or Aarhus.

TO RETURN TO THE SUBJECT of “feminine tosh”, by which Naipaul of course means ‘stereotypical women’s fiction’. This is densely- mined territory and has to be trod with care, especially by male writers. The notion of women’s fiction as a coherent entity is faulty because—as any feminist (and I consider myself one) will point out—it defines the concerns of women writers in the light of the concerns of male writers. Among the many potential problems with a category like ‘women’s writing’, one stands out in particular: it overlooks the fact that women, like men, have always written in different ways. Consider what is now mainstream English literature from roughly a century ago and think of the differences between Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë. Today, too, women writers are just as varied as men writers in their concerns and styles.

And yet, when one speaks of ‘women’s writing’, one has in mind such elements as a domestic (largely middle class) canvas, a concern with family, an exploration less of action than of emotion. The stereotyping implicit in the label ‘women’s writing’ does not do justice to a writer like Desai who does at times use the domestic canvas, but in order to go far beyond the limits of domesticity and class.


Some of Desai’s earlier works—such as Bye-Bye Blackbird (1971) and Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975)—are easier to slot as ‘women’s writing’ if one employs a (reductive, to my mind) critical reading of domesticity, emotional introspection, bourgeois ennui and a middle-class canvas. These are novels that largely explore an Indian middle-class domestic setting and whose narration privileges introspection and reminiscence over ‘action’. But Desai’s great novel, Fire on the Mountain (1977), coheres to certain stereotypes about women’s writing only if you do not pay enough attention to what is really going on. Fire on the Mountain has a ‘limited’ setting; it is largely inward-facing, contains very little (obvious) action and revolves around women. But consider what Desai does with these elements.

Fire on the Mountain has three major female characters: Nanda, her great-granddaughter, Raka, and Nanda’s friend, Ila Das. Unlike Ila Das, who has slipped down the social scale, Nanda married well once and, now as a widow, still has social status. Both are genteel and cultured, though Ila Das’s natural gaucherie and relative penury—which force her to work as a schoolteacher—add shades of pretension to her desire to be refined. While Ila Das’s life has been forcefully denuded by circumstances, Nanda—in her old age—is voluntarily trying to trim her life, or so it seems: “Have I not done enough and had enough? I want no more. I want nothing. Can I not be left with nothing?”

Justified in themselves, these disclaimers have to be read in the context of Nanda’s situation—that of the proprietor of a large villa in an exclusive hill station, and tended to by at least one full-time servant. Desai is not an obtrusive author; she does not point out the salient features of context or narrative, unlike so many other more popular or ‘prized’ writers. And yet, not to read her every word and between the lines would be a mistake.

Let me highlight this further with reference to Fire on the Mountain. Nanda is the epitome of inherent or natural refinement, something Das admires but cannot achieve. In spite of her genteel background, and partly because of her loud and unmusical voice, Das can never achieve Nanda’s aloof refinement; she cannot even prevent schoolchildren from teasing her. Nanda’s own attitude to Das is pitched at two levels: on the one hand, she detests Das’s florid, genteel pretensions and, on the other, she unites with Das in her fear and condemnation of the ‘rough and uncouth’ world outside. It is only in the context of this (objective and material) world that Nanda first expresses a feeling that has been growing in the careful reader for a long time: that of the heroism of Das, her sheer, stubborn, unbowed, indomitable pluck in the face of (social) adversities and (natural) handicaps. In this way, Desai subtly and unobtrusively illustrates not only Nanda’s privileges in comparison to the impoverished Das but also, as unobtrusively, highlights the incredible poverty of the surrounding peasantry—poverty that even the brave (and once upper-middle-class) Das cannot face.

To read Desai’s narration of characters like Das and Nanda as ‘limited’ to a ‘domestic’ canvas—which is the implication when Desai or any other writer is read as belonging to the category of ‘women’s writing’—is to read very simply. Even Nanda’s claim to want nothing and her desire to receive some emotional recognition from her solitary great-grandchild, Raka, is turned into something far more complicated by the deliberately understated ending of the novel—literally, the fire on the mountain. Note that when Raka sets fire to the mountain, out of sheer disinterest, real boredom and lack of connection with the adults around her, she not only controverts Nanda’s now-facile claims but also highlights an aspect of the narration: it is not that ‘action’ does not take place in this novel; it is just that ‘action’ is presented differently, and sometimes for an end other than that of simply moving the plot forward.

IN HER USEFUL STUDY of Anita Desai’s fiction, Elaine Yee Lin Ho points out that Desai’s international reputation was inaugurated in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the publication of Fire on the Mountain (1977), Games at Twilight (1978) and The Village by the Sea (1982). She notes that these “three works map out the spaces of an ‘Indian’ milieu which include the rural precincts of Kamala Markandaya and the domestic interiors of Attia Hosain, and compare well with the acute observations of small-town life for which RK Narayan’s Malgudi novels are renowned.”  The extent of the stylistic sweep and narratorial space has to be noted; it has remained a feature of Desai’s oeuvre. Like any other writer, she does not and cannot write of anything and everything. But she covers an impressively wide field.

Collectively, Desai’s work connects the early phase of Indian English writing, when India was seen as predominantly rural or semi-urban, to the current preponderance of diasporic and metropolitan narratives. The latter trend was largely established by Salman Rushdie and succeeding generations, despite the odd exception of, say, Rohinton Mistry or Amitav Ghosh. Lately, this trend appears to be changing contours, with books by Pankaj Mishra, Siddharth Chowdhury, the excellent and underrated Siddhartha Deb and others: novels such as The Romantics, Patna Roughcut and The Point of Return range around India, and sometimes the world, in such a manner as to make other-than-metropolitan spaces visible and other-than-standard-diasporic discourses audible. Desai’s fiction might well prove more sustaining and useful in the context of this developing trend and, hence, to an upcoming generation of writers.

What, to my mind, some of these writers share with Desai is an engagement with ‘India’ that is aware of how ‘India’ is seen in the West, and one that both uses and subverts these perceptions. Lin Ho notes that, from the 1980s, with her increasing international visibility—first in the UK and then in Europe and the United States—Desai brought her ‘India’ to the world, “alternating between urban and rural settings” and offering “tantalising glimpses of the rich variety of lives, locales and cultures in post-independence India”. This she did with a degree of “reticence”, partly attributable to her style and partly to “an understanding—and a respect—for the mystery of human existence and circumstance which the author explores and probes through her imagination but can never fully comprehend, represent, or narrate”. The recurrent function of this style is, Lin Ho correctly observes, “to unsettle any complacent assumption of knowledge about ‘India’ garnered from a reading and rereading of her works”.

In this respect, Desai has been a pioneer. The early-20th century onus on narrating the “real India” led to a late-20th century backlash against certain notions of what was ‘real’ about and in India. Having completed that circle, Indian writing in English is now faced with the fact that ‘India’ has to be both narrated and left un-narrated. The Indian writer in English cannot expect her work to be read without certain historically preordained perceptions; she has to work with and against these perceptions. At a more theoretical level, the Indian English writer has to accept the fact that—like most postcolonial writers—she will be expected to provide (perhaps even be seen as actually providing) an insight into or critique of a non-Western culture (‘India’) or the traces of this non-Western culture in the West. To be fair, Desai—as Priyamvada Gopal suggests in The Indian English Novel—adopts a similarly mistaken posture in her commendatory reading of Attia Hosain (whom Desai praises as an important pioneer in the field of Indian English fiction).

This is problematic not only because of the discourses it assumes but also because, in the case of a fiction writer, it reduces the art of the writer to reportage: even the fiction writer is implicitly or explicitly meant to give the Western reader an insight into a land, a political situation, a cultural conflict, or something of ethnographic significance. There are vestiges of a colonial attitude in this: just as in 19th-century Europe and the US, blacks could play instruments and were supposed to have ‘natural’ rhythm, but were not considered capable of composing ‘real’ music, today it sometimes appears that we are expected to report ourselves (in fiction) but not really write a novel, in the sense of a creative work of art.

However, Desai’s best fiction—as I have attempted to show—subtly uses and undercuts these assumptions. In the act of appearing to ‘report’, these works challenge dominant expectations and achieve the status of creative fiction. Desai’s novels, novellas and short stories are significant to my generation because of this subtle act: she walks a tightrope between discourses and cultures. And she does this without forgetting that a novelist’s brief is to tell a story and a writer’s brief is to engage with language—and with our multitudinous realities through language.