Games at Twilight

by Anita Desai

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In "Games at Twilight," how does Desai make us feel sympathy for Ravi? What techniques or use of the theme does this create?

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Desai creates a sense of sympathy for Ravi because she constructs the pain of being voiceless.  Throughout the narrative, Ravi is marginalized and alienated from the other kids.  On one level, this marginalization is physical:  "Ravi had wished he were tall enough, big enough to reach the key on the nail, but it was impossible, beyond his reach for years to come. He had sidled away and sat dejectedly on the flowerpot. That at least was cut to his own size."  Ravi's size prevents his voice from being fully authenticated amidst the other kids.  It is for this reason that he yearns to win.  In this condition, Desai creates sympathy because of the universality in being silent.  It is a condition with which all human beings can empathize. The pain of losing one's voice, struggling for acknowledgement, is a uniquely human experience.  

When Ravi envisions a path of victory, Desai articulates this as more than just a game.  She develops it so that Ravi might be able to actually feel that he can have importance and that his voice can finally be heard.  This is illuminated in the way she brings the reader into Ravi's mind: "Ravi shook, then shivered with delight, with self-congratulation."  The prospect of "winning" against the other kids causes him to shake and to "shiver."  What Ravi endures to win, to actually be heard, is another way empathy is evoked:

It was dark, spooky in the shed. It had a muffled smell, as of graves. Ravi had once got locked into the linen cupboard and sat there weeping for half an hour before he was rescued. But at least that had been a familiar place, and even smelled pleasantly of starch, laundry, and, reassuringly, of his mother. But the shed smelled of rats, anthills, dust, and spider webs. Also of less definable, less recognizable horrors. And it was dark. Except for the white-hot cracks along the door, there was no light. The roof was very low. Although Ravi was small, he felt as if he could reach up and touch it with his fingertips. But he didn’t stretch. He hunched himself into a ball so as not to bump into anything, touch or feel anything.

Ravi has to endure a great deal in order to win.  There is a certain sadness felt when someone like him has to go through so much simply to be heard.  Desai is able to make it known that he wants this victory in the children's game as something more than a victory.  It is a moment of voice, an instant in which he can be someone, and be treated as more than just insignificant.  Desai is clear in how she is able to develop this empathy by placing the reader in Ravi's mind:  "He hugged his knees together and smiled to himself almost shyly at the thought of so much victory, such laurels."  The instant of victory, and its external praise are moments when Ravi feels his voice can be validated and that he can be so much more than he actually is: 

There he sat smiling, knocking his heels against the bathtub, now and then getting up and going to the door to put his ear to the broad crack and listening for sounds of the game, the pursuer and the pursued, and then returning to his seat with the dogged determination of the true winner, a breaker of records, a champion.

This helps to create sympathy for Ravi.  Desai taps into the universally understood condition of what it is like to be a winner when so much of one's life is loss and pain.  "To be somebody" and to envision success, to be "the true winner, a breaker of records, a champion" is a universally understood yearning and is something for which Ravi years.  He wishes to be more than he is and there is a level of empathy that the reader generates towards this end.

Yet, the profound alienation that results when Ravi is deemed as insignificant, even though he won, is noteworthy.  It is a moment in which Ravi's plight becomes evident and its pain is a universal one.  Ravi realizes that the others "had quite forgotten him."  Ravi is discarded and discredited.  His attempts at a voice are marginalized again, even when he legitimately succeeds.  His alienation is seen with Mira's intimidating, "If you want to play, you can stand at the end of the line,” and she put him there very firmly." The ending of the story creates sympathy in the reader because of Ravi's alienation:

He had wanted victory and triumph—not a funeral. But he had been forgotten, left out, and he would not join them now. The ignominy of being forgotten—how could he face it? He felt his heart go heavy and ache inside him unbearably. He lay down full length on the damp grass, crushing his face into it, no longer crying, silenced by a terrible sense of his insignificance. 

Desai confronts the reader with a sad construction of identity.  It is this alienation that enables the reader to feel sympathy for Ravi.  In the final analysis, one has to have sympathy for Ravi because who among us  has never felt  "silenced by a terrible sense of his significance?"

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