Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One of the themes of Fire on the Mountain is certainly withdrawal, with its associated theme of loneliness, especially as embodied in Nanda and Raka. In Nanda’s case the withdrawal results from a failed, if enduring, marriage, while in Raka’s case the withdrawal is from domestic violence; for both, a man causes the alienation. The violence of a predatory world cannot, however, be escaped, as Ila Das’s fate so forcefully indicates. Nor is the “retreat” without its symbolic violence, which is played out in nature. As Nanda anticipates Raka’s visit, she sees a white hen drag out a worm until it snaps in two: “She felt like the worm herself, she winced at its mutilation.” Nanda also sees herself as a predatory cat in pursuit of the lapwing, and later she sees the hoopoe bird feeding its young with insects. While Desai tends to depict the ravine as a symbol of nature and as a refuge for Raka, who cannot abide the civilization of Carignano and the clubhouse, even the ravine is “blighted” by civilization’s waste and polluted by the smoke from the chimneys of the Pasteur Institute.

The Institute serves as an appropriate symbol for the contradictory nature of civilization or progress, since it serves people through its production of serum, but at a cost: the smell of “dogs’ brains boiled in vats, of guinea pigs’ guts, of rabbits secreting fear in cages packed with coiled snakes, watched by doctors in white.” Desai does not, however, seem to be nostalgically yearning for the past, even though colonialism offered a surface grandeur (the decline of Kasauli seems attributable to the town going “native”). The colonial past is also marked by violence, which the postman traces with black humor in his account of Carignano’s various owners: Colonel Macdougall’s corrugated roof blows off, decapitating a coolie; the pastor’s wife attempts to poison him and then to stab him; Miss Jane Shrewsbury pokes a fork into her cook’s neck, and he dies. In Desai’s fictional world, one simply cannot escape violence by retreating from one’s obligations to others. Nanda’s failure to “connect” with Ila Das and with Raka indirectly causes the former’s death, and Raka’s refusal to “connect” with her great-grandmother leads to her decision to destroy a world she can neither accept nor tolerate.