Anita Desai’s novels reveal certain recurring patterns in plots, settings, and characterizations. The plots of her novels fuse two opposing propensities—one toward the gothic mystery and the other toward the philosophical novel. The gothic orientation, which Desai probably derived from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), is evident in varying degrees in all her novels. Fire on the Mountain, the novel that comes closest to being purely a psychological thriller, ends with a half-insane, reptilelike child setting fire to the forest surrounding her house; in Cry, the Peacock, Maya, the neurotic heroine, kills her husband, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of an albino sorcerer; in Voices in the City, Monisha, an unsettled, manic-depressive housewife, pours kerosene over herself and burns herself to death. On the other hand, most of Desai’s novels also contain a deep-rooted, philosophical concern about the meaning of life. From Maya to Matteo, most of Desai’sprotagonists, dissatisfied with their routine existence, search for a more meaningful life. Such a spiritual orientation is reminiscent of similar concerns in novels such as E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941).
Desai’s novels also evolve a typical setting or “world” of their own. Most are set in the city, which comes to represent the undesirable, unimaginative reality; most also have a romantic counterpoint to the city in a hill station or an island that seems to represent the remote, romantic, ideal but is revealed to be an unreal or unsatisfying delusion. At the hearts of the novels are usually big, old houses with several verandas, green shutters, gardens, servants, and pets. The garden is extremely important in Desai’s world because her characters show an unusual sensitivity to it. Trees, creepers, tendrils, flowers, fruits, seasons, pets—the concerns of the so-called woman’s world—are more vividly perceived in Desai’s novels than anywhere else in Indian English fiction. Also part of Desai’s world is a brooding, Faulknerian obsession with the past; the present is usually seen by the characters as a decadent remnant, a husk of a glamorous past. Finally, the characters are all members of the upper class who belong to once-affluent, now-decaying families. The city, the hill station, the big house with a garden, a decadent family, an obsession with the past—these make up the typical world of a Desai novel.
Desai’s protagonists can be divided into essentially two types: One type possesses a neurotic, hypersensitive, artistic sensibility; the other is cynical, tough, and acerbic. Maya, Monisha, Sarah, Sita, Tara, and Matteo belong to the first category, while Nirode, Amla, Dev, Nanda, Bim, and Sophie belong to the second. In addition to these are two types of supporting characters: the old, ugly, sterile crone, who has been a failure, and the mysterious, insulated character, intriguing but ultimately inscrutable. The best example of the former is Ila Das of Fire on the Mountain; of the latter, Dharma of Voices in the City. The rest of the characters are the common crowd against whom the protagonist defines him- or herself: They have given up trying to make their lives meaningful and have accepted the full mediocrity of a futile existence. Against such a backdrop, Desai’s protagonists struggle to come to terms with their lives. They are usually in a state of conflict, either with themselves or with their environment. The results of this basic conflict are murder, insanity, suicide, compromise, death, or, in the rare instance of Desai’s best novel, Clear Light of Day, balance, reconciliation, rich acceptance of reality, and a resolution of the conflict.
In the mid-1980’s, Desai started to look more closely at the lives of the less privileged. In Custody is an ironic story told with humor about literary traditions and academic illusions in a world dominated by men. The central characters are Nur, an Urhi poet, who has fallen on hard times, and Deven, a professor of Hindi. In Baumgartner’s Bombay, Desai goes back to her parental heritage as she zeroes in on a German Jew who seeks refuge in India. Journey to Ithaca is much like Baumgartner’s Bombay in that it also approaches India through Europeans who are attracted to the mystic India.
Desai’s novels since the mid-1990’s have continued to explore a concern with imagery built on places, cities that affect her characters who are uprooted or alienated, living away from their homelands and disturbed by their own inner conflicts. In Fasting, Feasting, Desai contrasts the American and Indian cultures as well as male and female roles, as Arun leaves India to study in Massachusetts while his sister Uma lives in a small provincial city in India. In The Zigzag Way, Desai departs from her familiar territories, setting her story of self-discovery in twentieth century Mexico.
Cry, the Peacock
Cry, the Peacock, Desai’s first novel, is divided into three sections: a short introduction and conclusion in objective, third-person narrative, and a long subjective middle section narrated by the neurotic heroine, Maya. In Maya’s narrative, Desai employs stream of consciousness to fill in details of Maya’s past and to chronicle the progressive deterioration of both Maya’s relationship with her husband, Gautama, and her own mental poise and sanity. In the climax, Maya, a slave to the fate she has feared, kills Gautama in accordance with the prophecy of an astrologer. The novel ends with her total mental collapse.
Maya is the sensitive, poetic, intuitive, and unstable type of personality that appears consistently in Desai’s fiction. She is extremely sensitive to the beauty around her—the flowers and fruits in the garden, the trees and plants, the sky and the seasons, her pets and other animals—in brief, the whole gamut of nature. Gautama, her husband, is her opposite: He is insensitive to transient beauty; a pure rationalist, he is concerned only with absolutes. The characters’ names themselves epitomize their irreconcilability: Maya means “illusion,” and Gautama is the name of the Buddha, who was able to rend the veil of maya. Thus, while Maya revels in the world of the senses, Gautama rejects it entirely. According to the astrologer’s prophecy, one of them must die. Maya decides to kill Gautama because, in her view, he has rejected all that makes life worth living; hence, to her, he is already “dead.” Unable to resolve her conflict with Gautama, Maya pushes him from a terrace, thereby terminating her struggle.
Voices in the City
Desai’s second novel, Voices in the City, is more ambitious than her first but also noticeably flawed. The narrative centers on the effect of Calcutta on Nirode and his two sisters, Monisha and Amla. The novel is divided into three sections: “Nirode,” “Monisha,” and “Amla.” Nirode is the first of Desai’s tough, cynical protagonists, a type that finds fruition in Bim, the heroine of Clear Light of Day, fifteen years later. Nirode, realizing that his uncreative job at a respectable newspaper will never allow him to live meaningfully, quits. He refuses support from his rich, widowed mother, who lives in the hills; instead, he sinks from failure to failure, cynically awaiting the bottom. He starts a magazine that fails after a brief run; his subsequent attempts to be a writer fail, too, when his brutally honest play is rejected by a theater group. Nirode envisions himself as fighting Calcutta, the city of Kali, the city that destroys all that is worthwhile in its denizens. Surrounded by quitters, he refuses to compromise, to succumb to an existence he despises.
Monisha, Nirode’s elder sister, is the sensitive, neurotic type, like Maya in Cry, the Peacock. Married into a traditional Bengali family, she has, to all appearances, accepted the compromise of a routine existence. In fact, however, Monisha leads a secretive inner life that is inviolate despite the ugliness of her surroundings. For example, her inability to bear a child symbolizes her refusal to allow another life into what is, to her, a meaningless and loathsome world. Her section of the novel—a sort of compressed version of Maya’s long narrative in Cry, the Peacock—takes the form of a diary. Amla, the youngest sibling, is a muted version of Nirode. Beneath the surface, all three characters struggle against Calcutta, fighting to preserve their inner integrity. Of the three, Amla seems the most likely to succeed because she has neither the excessive cynicism of Nirode nor the neurosis of Monisha.
An interesting minor character is Dharma (“righteousness”), the unflappable painter who has left Calcutta but who, upon discovering an ideal model in Amla, returns, following a drastic revolution in his painting. Though Dharma is shown to be the only character who has survived against Calcutta, his inscrutability renders him incomprehensible to Nirode and Amla, as well as to the reader.
The novel has a sensational climax and a somewhat contrived ending. Monisha triumphs by burning herself to death in her bathroom. Her death brings her mother down to Calcutta from the hills. Nirode has a vision of his mother as Kali, the preserver and the destroyer; apparently, his conflict is thus resolved. Nirode, therefore, becomes the initiate, and Amla’s more promising efforts at wisdom are sidestepped. In fact, Amla is the only character out of the three whose spiritual growth is utterly convincing; after her encounter with Dharma, she becomes more reconciled to Calcutta. Disregarding the triviality of her job in an advertising agency, she manages to do something that truly satisfies her—making sketches for Professor Bose’s translations from the Panchatantra. Amla’s progress, however, is not allowed fruition; it is neglected in favor of the more artificial vision of Nirode. Part of the problem lies in Desai’s definition of the central conflict in the novel; by pitting three individuals against an entire city, the novelist, in effect, disallows the possibility of a single creative, balanced, and happy person in the whole city. Such an opposition is precarious because the reader questions the stance of the protagonists instead of accepting the destructiveness of their environment. Thus, when Nirode’s very ordinary mother, who has retreated to the hills, is suddenly revealed to be the goddess Kali, Nirode’s vision and the novel’s resolution seem to be mere impositions of the novelist.
In Desai’s third novel, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, the action shifts to England. The novel, like the two earlier works, has a tripartite structure: arrival, “Discovery and Recognition,” and “Departure.” The three main characters are Dev, who has recently arrived in London from India when the novel begins, his friend Adit, with whom he is staying, and Adit’s British wife, Sarah. All three characters are in conflict with their environment. Sarah is an unstable wife (in the tradition of Maya and Monisha) who finds herself playing two roles, that of an Indian at home and that of a Britisher outside; all the while, she questions who she really is. Dev and Adit are, in a sense, doubles like Nirode and Amla. Dev is the more cynical and aggressive of the two, while Adit, though essentially the same, is muted at the beginning. The novel follows a pattern like that of Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903): Adit, who thought he had felt at home in England, returns to India, while Dev, the militant cynic who has reviled Adit for staying, takes Adit’s place after his departure, accepting a job in Adit’s firm and moving to Adit’s apartment.
Bye-Bye, Blackbird is a satisfying novel partly because Desai builds an inevitability into the narrative; characters are...
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