Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
The plot of Fire on the Mountain is relatively brief and uncomplicated, the significant action occurring within the psyches of Nanda and, to a lesser extent, Raka, her great-granddaughter. When Ila Das is raped and killed, that violent action happens “offstage” at the end of the novel, almost simultaneously with Raka’s announcement that she has set the forest on fire. While there are few important “events” in the rest of the novel, Anita Desai prepares the reader for the horrific ending by carefully embedding violence in her imagery and in her symbolism. In effect, the “fire” metaphorically smolders within her characters before it literally ignites at the end of the novel.
Part 1 of Fire on the Mountain provides the geographical and psychological setting prior to the arrival of Raka, Nanda’s great-granddaughter. After the death of her husband, Nanda has apparently chosen to live an isolated life in her retirement. Except for an occasional telephone call and a visit from the postman, which she regards as unwelcome intrusions, only the presence of Ram Lal, her cook, disturbs her solitude. Carignano, her literal and metaphorical “retreat,” is perched on the side of a cliff, and its setting suggests the precarious nature of the life she has established there. That life, free from obligations to others, is threatened by the visit of the postman, who brings her a letter informing her of the impending visit by Raka. When Ila...
(The entire section is 761 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Fire on the Mountain is a superbly crafted novel, known for its rich symbolic imagery and psychological insights. A winner of two prestigious awards, it tells the story of two older women and a young girl.
The first part of the novel takes the reader inside the mind of Nanda Kaul, the aged protagonist. The widow of a university vice chancellor and once at the hub of a large, demanding family and a hectic social life, she now lives in seclusion at Carignano, a desolate old house on the ridge of a mountain in Kasauli. Aloof, indifferent, and irritable, she wants no intrusion to violate her privacy. Her cloistered life is threatened when she receives a letter announcing an impending visit by her great-granddaughter Raka and when a telephone call comes from her childhood friend Ila Das, who wishes to visit her.
The second part of the novel shows the tense relationship between Nanda Kaul and Raka. A recluse, Raka has the habit of slipping away into her own private world, ignoring her great-grandmother completely. Haunted by nightmarish memories of a drunken, violent father and an unhappy, battered mother, she shuns human company and spends her time roaming the desolate hills and ravines like a bird or a lizard. This offers Desai an opportunity to weave symbolic nature imagery into the text of the novel. Challenged by Raka’s indifference, Nanda Kaul reluctantly comes out of her self-imposed quietude and makes a desperate, though futile,...
(The entire section is 477 words.)