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In this novel, as in so many others by Anita Desai, the key themes of identity and language are explored and developed. This is vital considering the context in which Desai sets so many of her novels, which is post-Partition and the massive upheaval that occurred as Pakistan was created as a separate nation and many Muslims and Hindus had to relocate and an imaginary border was created in a nation. The focus on language is shown in Deven, who focuses on Hindi poetry because he has no choice but to teach the language of the majority where he is based. However, he has a love of Urdu poetry, and when he tries to interview a famous old Urdu poet, Nur, he is insulted by his head of department with the following words:
I’ll get you transferred to your beloved Urdu department. I won’t have Muslim toadies in my department; you’ll ruin my boys with your Muslim ideas, your Urdu language. I’ll complain to the Principal, I’ll warn the RSS, you are a traitor.
Note the way in which, in this quote, the language you speak and your interest in it becomes a vital signifier of religious and national loyalty. The violence in the head of department's words reveals just how much language was such a massive issue in post-Partition India, and how expressing even a love of old Urdu poetry was seen as a mark of betrayal and being a traitor. Desai in this novel then writes of the way in which nationalism became a vehicle for the annexation of important cultural roots that form such an important part of the tapestry of India.
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