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.