Anita Desai

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Seema Jena (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4913

SOURCE: Jena, Seema. “Characterization in the Works of Anita Desai.” In Voice and Vision of Anita Desai, pp. 16-34. New Delhi, India: Ashish Publishing, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jena surveys Desai's early novels, highlighting the mental development of the female characters in terms of the patriarchal Indian family structure.]

One of the chief delights of fiction is the satisfaction of our desire to know about man as he is himself, and in relation to his society. A novelist should, therefore, carve man's image in his art with an social awareness and insight into life. The Indo-Anglican novelist generally writes in the classical tradition and seeks to project an integrated view of man's identity, his place in society and the social values, there within which he works out his destiny. Anita Desai is an exception, that instead of presenting man in conflict with the society, she rather wishes to keep her focus on man in conflict with his mind. Her forte is the exploration of the human psyche. The social concern is present in the form of cultural polarisation, conflict between traditional values and westernised ideas, but they are organised to highlight the mental development of the characters. She is gifted with a style and a sensibility to suit her aesthetic goal of delineating her central subject of a world weary character fighting and struggling to be free from the nets laid by society, in which he is enmeshed. Among the Indian writers in English she is perhaps the most self-conscious artist “forging an unique world out of things of day-to-day existence of an Indian female.”

Here is a small world, but it has a form and colour of its own design to convey a special creative impulse, not derived from tradition. For her, reality consists in the raw materials of existence: the passing moods and attitudes, that keeps disturbing from moment to moment. It is for this reason that she does not address herself to a larger sphere of social and political questions but creates a private world of her own, her creative effort being directed at seizing upon the raw materials of life, its shapelessness and meaninglessness, that lack of design, that drives one to despair.

Her novels are certainly reflective of social realities, but she does not dwell like Anand on social issues; and rather delves deep into the forces that condition the growth of a female in the patriarchal, patrilineal, male dominated Indian family. She observes social realities from a psychological perspective, not as a social reformer or moralist.

Confining herself, as she does, to a circumscribed milieu, she is yet able to create and achieve remarkable depth and intensity. Most of her major characters have a near-neurotic quality about them. Exceptionally gifted, they are constantly disturbed by familial ties that they find uncomfortable and inescapable at the same time, and with which they cannot reconcile their individual values. Maya of Cry, the Peacock is a highly sensitive creature. Brought up in an illusory world of romantic faith she fails to adjust with her practical and down to earth husband. Nirode is a rebel, but he fails to keep up the link with his mother and is constantly at loggerheads with himself as he cannot either completely detach himself or establish a satisfactory relationship. Bim is admired for her courage, for her resolve to live without hanging on to some one, yet her bitterness sprouts from the familial disturbances caused by Raja and Tara. Nanda Kaul is an admirable person but in spite of her efficiency, carriage and talents, she had led a life...

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of deprivation in the world of her husband and children, and retires to “Carignano,” passionately pledged to a life of loneliness. A common trait in all major characters of Anita Desai is their longing to be free of all kinds of social and familial involvement. They are constantly striving to avoid emotional entanglement and social responsibility. Bim, however, is an exception; deeply committed to certain responsibilities even while struggling against the consequent psychological strain is her peculiarity.

A regular feature in most of the Indo-Anglican novels is the treatment of character as types rather than as individuals. In Anita Desai, however, there is a striking departure from this practice. Although her characters might display a particular set of psychological complexes and represent certain universal predilections and conflicts, essentially they are independent individuals with special, distinct identities of their own. There is in each one of them a sense of deprivation caused by family ties. Maya is in search of an identity and an communion with her husband. Nirode ties to breach his family ties to set up himself independently, but fails miserably as he is unable to sever all connections from his mother. Nanda Kaul, forced into the role of a dutiful wife for a number of years, feels emotionally drained out and retires to the Simla hills to find peace in loneliness. But her alienation is very temporary, and she is unconsciously pulled back into her former life with the advent of Raka into her sequestered world. Sita and Sarah hopelessly fail to achieve their goals and in the end give in to the demands of their husbands, and surrender themselves. Bim is full of bitterness in the beginning, but eventually she tries to put things together and towards the end is able to find some kind of a resolution. Bim is a mature creation. After experimenting with five novels, Desai could create in her a mature, strong and reasonable protagonist like Bim. While the other characters give up their fights halfway, she struggles to the end and emerges victorious.

The protagonists embark on their individual voyages in quest of an unattained ideal. In the process they become involved in a search for identity and like the knight of the Grail Legend have to undergo untold sufferings before they can achieve their goal. They are powerful characters, who break down under the stress of the misery, but they remain staunch individuals very much conscious of their independence and find it difficult to accept conventional equations and strike a balance with the people around them. Anita Desai's heroines are not just variations of Nora or Alison.

Her novels are then studies of the inner life of characters and since she creates a small milieu, her narrative focus becomes precise and clear. This provides her with an opportunity to observe all the minute details in the environment of the characters. Anita Desai is gifted with an extraordinary sense for details, a capacity for graphic delineation of things, usually left unnoticed, and is able to present a very realistic picture.

She employs a variety of techniques to show the fear and anxiety-neurosis with which her sensitive young women are sized. In tracing the neurosis and death phobia of Maya, the psychologically disturbed heroine of Cry, the Peacock. She employs the technique of “fugue” a term used by Frink to suggest the morbid fears by which a person feels constantly threatened. By employing this device she makes the novel a fascinating psychological study of neurotic fears caused by marital incompatibility and disharmony and compounded by age-old superstitions. Even in certain ordinary habits and mannerism they reflect this sense of disharmonious, alienated existence. For instance many of the women characters cultivate styles and behaviour that are designed to throw into relief their difference from others. Along with this feeling of psychological insecurity they are endowed with the related quality of intense and sometimes morbid self-introspection. They are sensitive and imaginative enough to discover and have a proper appreciation of the meaninglessness of their existence. Maya which means illusion had a sheltered childhood under the protective care of an indulgent father. She enters into matrimony with Gautama a person much older than her and much more rational and practical. Whereas Maya is extremely sensuous, Gautama has more intellectual and philosophical attitude to life. This results in an intense feeling of alienation and deprivation in Maya giving way to tragic consequences. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird, similarly the contrast is between a life of acceptance and adjustment and one of rejection and isolation. In Where Shall We Go This Summer?, the conflict is between ‘No’ and the potent ‘Yes’ the protagonists find themselves between the horns of these conflicts and the moment they try to escape they meet disaster. Maya, Monisha and Nanda Kaul all face a particular dilemma in their lives mainly nurtured by marital disharmony and all three meet a fateful end.

Anita Desai's protagonists are people born out of loveless marriages, people who try to shun reality and escape into a dream world nurtured by their fantasies, people who break away from what is real and rational and feel terribly alienated. They always evince a tendency to escape—sometimes the character seeks to flee from the past as in case of Nanda Kaul or the present as in case of Sita, to seek shelter in an illusory world of their own creation.

Though Mrs. Desai drops an occasional comment to persuade the reader to adopt a certain attitude towards her characters, more often her views are implicit and originally issue from character and action. The necessary aim is evoked, the right emotion is elicited from the reader through a series of objective descriptions. That Maya is a hyper-sensitive, highly-strung, young woman tottering on the brink of insanity, is suggested by a detached description of Maya's excessively sentimental hysterical response to the death of Toto. Maya cannot bear the sight of the corpse, she is shown “rushing to the tap to wash the vision from her eyes,” “she thought she saw the glint of a blue bottle and grew hysterical,” the evening sun appears to be swelling visibly like she thought a “purulent boil until it was ripe to drop.” Such subjective, highly impressionistic and hysterical responses, the careful repetition of the qualifying phrase, “she thought and grew hysterical,” force the reader to regard Maya as a person gifted with a highly poetic, but slightly neurotic sensibility. Her neurosis becomes acute due to the lack of communication between her husband and herself. In one of her broodings she cries, “I was alone, Yes, I whimpered, it is that I am alone,” Loneliness is something to which most of the protagonists of Anita Desai are a prey. They fail to find a point of contact with people around them and gradually drift away and become alienated. Sita cannot understand why her daughter tears up her paintings and Sarah fails to understand both her husband and her mother and desperately tries to make the best of her two worlds the one she has rejected and the other which rejects her. Thoroughly disgusted with their past life they desperately try to attain the peace that was denied to them in the family and the society by a process of arbitrary withdrawal and cultivated psychological distancing. Fire on the Mountain, presents the character Nanda Kaul who has all along resented her role is the family even while bravely playing it with apparent satisfaction and calm whose only fervent desire now is to be left utterly alone in her mountain retreat. She resents the intrusion of outside elements into her secluded world to the extent of having a horror of even postal contact. The novel abounds is observations like the following.

She relished the sensation of being alone again. That was one time she had been alone: a moment of private triumph cold and proud.

Sita's escape to the El-dorado of her childhood home on the island also reflects a longing to flee from a dull and mundane life where one has no privacy. Monisha, unable to cope with the people at her husband's home retreats to pour out her agonies in the diary and when she could no longer bear the humiliation she commits suicide. Bim an unique and much more mature creation of Anita Desai, fails to understand the world around her, in spite of her brave efforts to tolerate and adjust with others. Bim is a later development, when the author had completed her experimentation on varied range of personalities, is different from Desai's other protagonists. There is in her an unfailing courage to endure the implications of fate. Her whole life is one of sacrifice and tolerance. She does not shrink from responsibility, but faces them and tries to fight out her way. Unlike Tara she is not an escapist who runs into matrimony sensing the trouble at her home. Bim nurses both Raja and Mira Masi and after that she also looks after Baba. Her life is one of constant struggle for survival. In spite of all these virtues, however, she too fails to psychologically adjust with her brother and sister. This lack of adjustment makes Desai's protagonists into a cloistered world created by themselves away from the environment that is repulsive to them. There they try to spend their days in weaving fantasies and trying to be aloof and detached but all the time unknowingly being drawn out of their cocoons and forced into commitments they had sought to reject.

Most of the heroines of Anita Desai bear the scars of a particular kind of emotional deprivation; they are either motherless like Maya and Sita or products of a broken homes like Bim and Nanda Kaul or sterile. They try to preserve their independence zealously and they think that by getting themselves alienated they will achieve their goal; the discovery of their identities. It is this nostalgia for independence that turns them into rebels. They grow into non-conformists, sometimes even wayward people—who cannot find peace in a fixed situation. They are usually drifters. They engage themselves in lengthy passages of contemplation to explain to themselves the nature of their urges and impulses. Thus, Nirode is poetic and fanciful but isolated and has reached a preconscious disillusioned maturity.

He himself knew by instinct that he was a man for whom aloneness alone was worth treasuring.

Nanda Kaul tries to get in solitude the independence, denied to her during her days as the Vice-Chancellor's wife.

“The old house, the full house, of the period of her life when she was the Vice-Chancellor's wife and at the head of a small but intense and busy world, had not pleased her. Its crowding had stifled her. She was glad when it was over. She had been glad to leave to all behind, in the plains, like a great, heavy, difficult book that she had read through and was not required to read again.” “Discharge me she groaned I have discharged all my duties.”

These characters cannot, however, be dubbed as escapists, for they discharge their duties allotted to them quite effectively, but resent the circumstances in which they have to operate, Nanda Kaul, Bim, Sita, Sarah are dutiful wives and daughters. They discharge their duties quite efficiently, but most of the time they feel crushed under the load of responsibilities and long for a release and when they find themselves free from the enmeshing net of duties they try to get what they had been robbed of in the past. Bim, Sita, Sarah, Nanda Kaul are always bogged down playing their respective roles as wife, daughter and mother and they try to find peace by forcing themselves into a state of alienation. In an interview with Yashodhara Dalmia for the Times of India, April 29, 1979, Mrs. Desai had given some aspects regarding her characters in the following way.

I am interested in characters who are not average but have retreated, or have been driven into some extremity of despair and to turn against, or made a stand against, the general current. It is easy to flow with the current, it makes no demands, it costs no effort, but those who cannot follow it, whose heart cries out ‘the great No’ who fight the current and struggle against it, they know what the demands are and what it costs to meet them.

Unlike most of the Indo-Anglian novelists, Anita Desai does something unique by portraying each of her individuals as an unsolved mystery. In respect of the treatment of theme and setting, Cry, the Peacock,; Where Shall We Go This Summer?, and Fire on the Mountain are very much similar. These three novels portray female protagonists who are not average, but have retreated, or have been driven into some extremity of despair and so have turned against or are made to stand against, the general current. Withdrawn into a life of seclusion and loneliness, their material wants are taken care by affluence of wealth and luxury, but their emotional needs are much more difficult to meet.

According to R. S. Sharma, Maya's neurosis originates in the presence of the father in the unconscious. That she suffers from a father-fixation is apparent from the various incidents in the novel. This fixation is later extended to her image Gautama and Maya's tragedy lies in the inadequate emotional transference from father to husband, and this blocks her encounter with reality. Gautama himself explains to her the reason of her sorrow:

You have a very obvious father—obsession, which is also the reason why you married me, a man much older than yourself the realization that another person, both close to you and your father does not place the same trust as you do in the adored figure—shakes your faith. …

Her hopes are thwarted by the prediction of the albino astrologer who foresaw her death or that of her partner four years after her marriage and this is aggravated by Gautama's avid rationalistic way of life. The world of her father, a world of love, tenderness, flowers and Urdu Poetry, and the world of Gautama a world of absolute detachment and avid philosophy, where love is not love and where everything is reduced to the dictums of Bhagvad Gita. Both Maya and Gautama indulge in lengthy discussions on the nature and meaning of death and in the process reveal their own philosophies of life. The death of Toto brings these altitudes into a sharp collision. For Gautama death is a cessation, a physical termination of human activity. He mocks the very idea of mourning, death for him is a ‘disappearance,’ but for Maya, ‘it was a cruel word, cruelly spoken.’ The lack of communication, between husband and wife is evident from their views on this question. She gives up her effort in making him understand things as she feels, that the truth of living, the quality of existence, the colour and flavour of each passing moment of life, are things to be felt, not to be described or explained. Maya is a girlish Mrs. Dalloway who has created a dream world as illusory as her name and who does not find fulfilment with her husband's solid rationality. She views her relationship with Gautama as a relationship with death and she tries to escape. Maya's anguish finds its correlation in the agony of the Peacocks, and once she discovers this identity she becomes tragically aware of her own predicament, ‘I am dying and yet I am in love with living,’ she cries out. Her passion is not merely for Gautama the man; he is in fact her point of contact with reality, his rational world has little room for her fantasy. Maya revolts against this denial of life and thinks of him in terms and an ascetic like Buddha. Maya reads the slokas from the Gita, but her understanding of detachment is different from that of Gautama. They fail to meet on a common ground.

All that I felt now at his surprise was resignation and even relief. It had only underlined an awareness a half deadness to the living world which helped and strengthened me by justifying my unspoken decision.

This is the speech of a woman who has come to the crucial decision to murder her husband as she is committed to life, while her husband according to her is indifferent to it. Thus, Gautama's death is not a calculated murder or accident but a result of sudden impulse, Maya feels that she has a right to live as she loves life.

On the other hand In Fire on the Mountain we come across the aged Nanda Kaul, in her decrepit summer villa, her abode after the death of her Vice-Chancellor husband. Once an important figure of a Society as well as in her vast family, she is one of those intelligent, unsentimental Indian women with a built-in-streak of Sardonic feminism who do not love their matriarchal role. Whereas she had previously tended to her children with pleasure and pride, entertained her husband's colleagues and students, “looking sharply to see if the dark furniture, all rosewood, had been polished, and the doors of the gigantic cupboards properly shut,” she now has a different attitude towards her personal environment. The care of others was a habit Nanda had mislaid. It had been “a religious calling she had believed in still she had found it fake.” The unexpected arrival of Raka unnerves Nanda and disturbs her privacy. Earlier, left to herself, Nanda “could groan,” with self-pity and pain, “certainly that she was alone and no one would hear.” Now in Raka's presence, “She could never groan aloud again, the child would hear.”

Raka has a rickety upbringing with parents both peripatetic and neurotic. She too is alienated like her great grand mother. She is presented as a shy, wild, withdrawn, alienated, not entirely attractive and a rather ubiquitous creature. Both Raka and Nanda work out the means by which they would live together avoiding each other, but Nanda painfully realizes that “it was not so simple to exist and yet appear not to exist.” The total seclusion of Raka brings a sort of self-realization and metamorphosis in Nanda's attitude. Realizing that Raka lacks the tender care and love due to her as a child, Nanda's attitude changes slowly and she begins to woo Raka with long stories about her imaginary childhood trying to make contact by hooking Raka's curiosity. Raka is too wary to be caught.

The third part of the novel introduces yet another female character—Ila has been Nanda's childhood friend, a ludicrous spinster starving on her pittance as a social worker, comes to have tea one evening at “Carignano.” The visit is shown as an unmitigated disaster. Her life suggests another dimension of misery and meaningless existence. Her real involvement in people's welfare assumes tremendous symbolic significance when contrasted with the barren, unfulfilled and lonely existence of Nanda Kaul. Nanda's overwhelming will for the potential transcendence of the human spirit is totally relegated by another equally lurid act, that of Raka's setting fire to the hillside. These two incidents shatter for ever Nanda's world and reverie, she realizes only belatedly that her whole life, or rather the version of it she has always accepted, has been a lie; her past as a valued and loved hostess, wife and mother as much as her present dignified and a deceptive retirement. The fictive world of Nanda Kaul is consumed by the fire.

Unlike other female protagonists of Anita Desai, Bim is free from the traumas of a shattered childhood or an incompatible marriage. She is symbolic of forces that have sustained all the foundation of all family life. She becomes symbolic of the archetypal sustaining mother, a metaphor that Anita Desai subtly employs to reaffirm and reassert the life-themes in the novel. Bim's revolt against the traditional image of Indian woman is manifested in all that she says or does. Unlike most Indian girls, she opts out of marriage for a life of chosen spinsterhood to pursue a career and a way of life which she accepts gracefully despite its limitations. This decisions she takes of her own will. It is quite evident that she is more admired and adored of the two sisters. She had a near sure offer of marriage from Dr. Biswas and continues to draw amorous responses from men around her, including Bakul. She refuses to play the conventional role of a submissive wife and becomes in a sense a truly liberated women.

Unlike Nanda Kaul, Bim achieves her identity and her ‘self’ not in isolation but in togetherness, not in rejection, but in acceptance, not in withdrawal, but in positive commitment. Her commitment to her role sustains Bim against the onslaughts of time and makes her the sustaining force of the family. She is peculiarly enough, both traditional and modern in her ideals. She is decisive and firm in her resolve to carry on the task on which she has set her mind. She is very courageous, and does not break easily with grief. She shoulders all the responsibilities instead of shrinking away from them. However, she is not an unwitting agent of destruction like Nirode's mother, as she never tries to overpower her brother and sister, but allows them to embrace their chosen paths. She prefers a life of adventure with a constant struggle. “Rich, fat and successful people are extremely boring” she says. She leads a life as she pleases not to please others. She feels a certain degree of bitterness when Raja walks out on her and Tara marries Bakul and goes away. Bim makes a contrast between her own life and that of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb's intolerance, his puritanism, his exclusiveness, his cruelty to his Kith and Kin in pursuit of power and purity is widely known. His last words addressed to prince Azam and to his Kam—Baksh not only provide a moving commentary on the drama of history and politics, on the games that people play in pursuit of their own biases and prejudices on the futility of pride and arrogance, however, noble against the transience of life, but they also become the mirror in which Bim discovers her fate of her own life. She rejects Aurangzeb as an example of egocentricity and in rejecting him, she also rejects a past of hatred and bitterness. She destroys the letter, which Raja had written to her, which had hurt her so deeply and had made her bitter. She realises the essential truth of the situation and forgives. This realization marks her transition from hatred to love, from alienation to accommodation from rejection to acceptance, from egotism to altruism. The apparently absurd world of Bim and her family acquires a new meaning once they see themselves not in isolation, but in togetherness, not as isolated threads but as a part of a design. In this state of harmony and blessedness even the inarticulate Baba becomes vocal.

Bim repeats the last words of the emperor “to herself like a prayer” and she experiences a ‘stillness’ that settles over her mind. In that awakening and recognition, she makes an evaluation of her own self and rejects all that had hindered her growth into a truly liberated soul. Rejecting her inauthentic self and aberrations, she moves, towards the realization of a new authentic self. The final pages of the novel capture the buoyancy of her soul. She discovers her last connection in the embraces and kisses of her nieces, that follow the night of her anguish. Resurrected and rejuvenated, Bim suggests a resurrected and rejuvenated India. It is only in the last pages that Bim could find the balm for her tormented soul, and everything that threatens to disrupt the pattern of life is brought under control though love, understanding, forgiveness and mutual acceptance. Bim is successful in her quest for liberty and identity. She does not spin a fictitious world around her like Nanda Kaul, nor escapes like Sita to an island in search of peace. Bim stays steadfast to her resolve and realizes her position and tries to find some meaning to her existence. As a more maturer creation of Anita Desai, she embodies these qualities which enable a person to rise above despair and challenge all viscidities and emerge victorious.

Anita Desai's major preoccupation as a novelist has been the delineation of characters. Each of her novels is primarily designed to project one or two memorable characters. In the character portrayal again, she is primarily interested in the projection of female protagonists living in a separate, closed, sequestered world of existential problems and passions, love and hatred, she portrays her characters as individuals facing single handed, the ferocious assaults of existence. Carefully eschewing feminist impulses, she makes it clear that for all her concentration on her concern, as an artist is with those individual men and women, she is out for the subject of psychologically liberating her female protagonists not to whip up any interest in a mass of women marching forward under the banner of feminism. “Only the individual, the solitary being is of true interest. One must be alone, silent, the order to think to contemplate.”

Notes and References

Sharma, R. S., Anita Desai, Arnold-Heinmann, New Delhi, 1981, p. 12.

Rao, B. R., The Novels of Anita Desai: A Study. (Kalyani Publishers, New Delhi, 1977) p. 5.

Desai, Anita, Cry, the Peacock, (Hind Pocket Books, 1980), p. 5.

Desai, Anita, Fire on the Mountain, (Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1977), p. 26.

Desai, Anita, Voices in the City, (Orient, Paperbacks, 1968) p. 26.

Iyengar, Srinivas, Indian Writing in English. (Asia Publishing House, 1973) p. 467.

Shivwadkar, Meena, Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglican Novel. (Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1979), p. 63.

Bellippa, Meena, Anita Desai: A Study of Her Fiction. (Calcutta: Writer's Workshop, 1972), p. 10.

Sunwani, V. K., Journal of Literary Studies, Dec. 1979, p. 83.

Din, A., ‘Interview with Anita Desai.’ The Times of India, April 1978.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049

Anita Desai 1937-

Indian novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Desai's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 97.

Best known for her studies of Indian life, Desai has written exclusively in English since she debuted in the mid-1960s. Throughout her novels and short stories, Desai focuses on the personal struggles of Anglicized, middle-class women in contemporary India as they attempt to overcome the societal limitations imposed by a tradition-bound patriarchal culture. Set amid the cultural and social changes that have swept India since its independence from Britain in 1947, most of Desai's narratives validate the importance of familial bonds and explore the tensions that exist between different generations. In her later works, Desai has addressed such themes as German anti-Semitism, the dissolution of traditional Indian values, and Western stereotypes of India. As a contemporary Indian female author, Desai has been identified with a new literary tradition of Indian writing in English, which is stylistically different and less conservative than colonial Indian literature and concerns such issues as hybridity, shifting identity, and “imaginary homelands,” a phrase coined by Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

Biographical Information

Desai was born on June 24, 1937, at Mussoorie, a hill station north of Delhi, India, to D. N. Mazumdar, a Bengali business executive, and Toni Nime, a German expatriate. As a child, Desai spoke German at home and Hindi among her friends. At primary school, she learned to read and write English—which eventually became her literary language—publishing her first short story at the age of nine. Despite the somewhat limited opportunities for women in Indian society, Desai attended Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in New Delhi before enrolling at Miranda House, Delhi University, where she earned a bachelor's degree with honors in English literature in 1957. In December of 1958, she married Ashrin Desai, with whom she has four children. Although she regularly wrote short stories since adolescence, Desai officially launched her career as a novelist in 1963 with the British publication of Cry, the Peacock, which was subsequently followed by Voices in the City (1965) and Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968). In the late 1970s, Desai published the critically acclaimed novel Fire on the Mountain (1977), which won the National Academy of Letters Award, and Games at Twilight and Other Stories (1978), her first short story collection. During the 1980s, Desai enhanced her reputation with the novels Clear Light of Day (1980) and In Custody (1984), both of which were short-listed for the Booker Prize, England' s highest literary award. Desai later adapted In Custody as a screenplay, which Ismail Merchant and James Ivory produced as a motion picture in 1993. In 1982 Desai published the children's work Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story, which won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction. In 1990 she received the Padma Shri, India's highest artistic honor. A member of both the Advisory Board for English in New Delhi and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Desai has also taught writing at several universities, including Girton College at Cambridge University, Smith College, and Mt. Holyoke College. In 1993 she joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a creative writing instructor, teaching one semester each year and returning to India for the remainder. Desai has since published the novels Journey to Ithaca (1995) and Fasting, Feasting (1999), which brought her a third nomination for the Booker Prize, and Diamond Dust: Stories (2000), her second short story collection.

Major Works

Most of Desai's works engage the complexities of modern Indian culture from a feminine perspective while highlighting the female Indian predicament of maintaining self-identity as an individual woman. Cry, the Peacock, Desai's first novel, chronicles the morbid dread, descent into madness, and suicide of Maya, a young Delhi housewife who is trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to the much older Gautama, a misogynistic lawyer. The novel foreshadows several of the major recurring themes in Desai's works—the problems of independence and communication, the influence of the West, and the tensions between religious and domestic interaction. Set in the late 1950s, Voices in the City depicts Indian society still in transition more than a decade after India's independence from British rule. The novel is broken into four sections—the first three are named after a trio of young adult siblings from a Himalayan village who, separately and for different reasons, have moved to Calcutta. As the narrative follows each sibling individually, Desai illuminates the myriad ways that their respective social class defines their self-identities. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird, her first novelistic foray into a country beyond India, Desai portrays the intense xenophobia and prejudice that manifested in England during the influx of commonwealth immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. The novel opens with Dev, a young man from Calcutta, arriving in England to attend the London School of Economics. He eventually moves in with two old friends, Adit and Sarah, an Indian-English interracial couple. As Dev becomes enamoured with the English way of life, Adit becomes more and more nostalgic for his family's home in India. As in Cry, the Peacock,Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975) centers around a desperate wife looking to escape her marriage. The plot follows Sita, a housewife in her early forties, as she arrives on the rustic island of Manori after a twenty-year absence. She has brought along two of her four children, having abandoned the others with her businessman-husband in their home in Bombay. In the third trimester of yet another pregnancy and convinced that the world is hopelessly marred by cruelty and violence, Sita has returned to the island because she believes that it possesses magical powers which can safely terminate her pregnancy.

In Fire on the Mountain, Desai explores the effectiveness of escapism as a coping mechanism. After a lifetime of dutiful servitude to her family, elderly matriarch Nanda Kaul purchases a house in the isolated hill country of Kasuli and lives out her days in peaceful seclusion. Nanda's tranquility is disturbed, however, after her great-granddaughter Raka arrives on her doorstep, having been forced out of her home by her parents' marital problems. The novel shows the clash of generations between Raka and Nanda, the division of classes between Nanda's isolated hill community and the nearby village, and the conflict between the educational programs sponsored by the central government and the traditions of the local villagers. The collection Games at Twilight consists of eleven short stories that describe events from the everyday life of various members of the Indian middle class. Set against the historical backdrop of Delhi before the Partition of 1947, Clear Light of Day recounts the saga of the Das family, a Hindu clan from Old Delhi. The main characters are three of the four Das siblings: Bim, who is unmarried and teaches history at a women's college; her younger sister, Tara, who lives in America with her diplomat husband, Bakul, and their two teenage daughters; and their elder brother, Raja, who has given up his aspiration to become a poet and lives as a rich, fat businessman in Hyderabad with his Muslim-heiress wife, Benazir, and their five children. The story begins with Tara's visit to the now run-down family homestead in a suburb of Old Delhi, where Bim continues to live and to take care of their autistic younger brother, Baba. Tara has come to India to attend the wedding of Raja's eldest daughter, an event that Bim is boycotting, having long been estranged from her once beloved brother. A novella for young people, The Village by the Sea tells the story of a family beset by misfortune in the traditional fishing village of Thul, on the west coast of India near Bombay. With the mother ill and bedridden and the father an unemployed, abusive alcoholic, the brunt of the family responsibilities devolve upon the elder children, the adolescents Lila and Hari, both of whom have stopped attending school in order to fulfill these duties and care for their two younger siblings.

Since the mid-1980s, Desai has shown a definite shift in her narrative voice, favoring dialogue over interior monologue and focusing on underprivileged characters rather than her usually bourgeois protagonists. In Custody revolves around Deven Sharma, a middle-aged man who once dreamt of becoming a poet but who was forced to take a job teaching Hindi in order to support his wife and child. A sharply incisive social comedy, In Custody dramatizes the tensions between worldly and spiritual concerns through Deven's almost-obsessive attempts to interview Nur, the greatest living Urdu poet. Based on Desai's own Eurasian heritage but narrated from a male perspective, Baumgartner's Bombay (1988) concerns themes of alterity and hybridity. The novel—Desai's first to feature a non-Indian protagonist—recounts the tragic life and violent death of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew who has emigrated to India in the late 1930s from Nazi Germany. The story opens with Hugo's murder and the ensuing chapters alternate between scenes of his last hours and flashbacks that take us chronologically through his life. The first half of Desai's next novel Journey to Ithaca focuses on Matteo, an idealistic Italian, and his temperamental girlfriend, Sophie, a hard-bitten realist German. The countercultural pair marry in 1975 and immediately set off for India, chiefly in pursuit of Matteo's dream of enlightenment, which has been inspired by his reading of Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East. They eventually arrive at an ashram in northern India that is led by a charismatic, elderly woman who calls herself the “Mother.” Although Sophie remains unimpressed by the “Mother,” Matteo is enthralled by what he finds to be the spiritually edifying environment, and they remain for several years, during which time they have two children. Most of the novel's second half consists of Sophie's retracing of the “Mother's” life, which is presented in the form of flashbacks to the early 1920s. Fasting, Feasting relates the disastrous attempts of an Indian daughter to leave her parents' home and achieve independence without marriage. Her parents, referred to as the indivisible unit MamaPapa, barely notice their daughter's aspirations as they lavish all of their attention on their only son. The short story collection Diamond Dust features a selection of tales set in North America and India—although Indian characters and concerns figure in all of them—illuminating Desai's thematic preoccupation with the psychological effects of multiculturalism.

Critical Reception

Although Desai has not been widely read in her native country—mainly at Indian universities—Western audiences have warmly received her fiction largely due to its unique insights on the often neglected aspects of Indian culture. Most critics have attributed these circumstances to Desai's own dual ancestry as well as her preference for the concerns of Westernized, middle-class characters rather than those facing the majority of Indians. Many reviewers have praised her intellectual rigor and vivid portrayals of India, particularly her insistence on the multicultural dimension of contemporary Indian society. Although some commentators have charged that Desai's fiction depends too heavily on the mundane and trivial, others have defended her attention to detail, arguing that this feature breathes life into her fiction and contributes to its often humorous tone. Critics have equally extolled Desai's short stories, tracing the thematic similarities between her short fiction and novels. However, several reviewers have asserted that Desai's later stories set outside of India are inherently stronger, faulting Desai's skewed perspective on more recent developments in Indian society and noting her inappropriate use of Indian idiom. Postcolonial literary scholars have focused on Desai's use of Indian settings in the majority of her works, contending that colonial appropriation of Indian cultural values remains an obstacle for postcolonial writers. Others have explored the effects of English culture on the subjectivities of Desai's urban Indian middle-class characters, suggesting that the unspoken gendered and imperialist premises of colonial culture inhibit the potential growth and artistic expression of the formerly colonized. Feminist critics have assessed the psychological development of Desai's female characters in terms of the patriarchal Indian family structure while evaluating Desai's representation of the Indian feminine within the context of other Indian literature written by women. Although most of these critics have praised the complexity of the family relationships depicted in Desai's novels, several have objected to their resolutions as either too simplistic or perpetuating patriarchal values.

Bharati A. Parikh (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5964

SOURCE: Parikh, Bharati A. “Heroines of Toni Morrison and Anita Desai: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Indian Journal of American Studies 23, no. 2 (summer 1993): 17-25.

[In the following essay, Parikh compares the treatment of female relationships in Toni Morrison's fiction with that in Desai's novels, emphasizing the alienation experienced by the characters in their respective cultures.]

What makes a writer memorable, wonderful teller of stories, passionately in love with her people, creating unforgettable heroines and heroes and making them breathe? The answer is Toni Morrison and her world peopled with young black girls, adolescent Sula and Nel, Pecola Breedlove and Milkman, alias Macon Dead Jr.

The overwhelming power of the writer as a teller of stories is wonderfully felt in all the novels of Morrison. What strikes one in Morrison's world is her depiction of relationships between women. No major writer has dealt with this theme. Here Morrison feels that:

Relationships between women were always written about as though they were subordinate to some other roles they're playing. This is not true of men.

(Tate 1983:118)

Hence the hierarchy created by patriarchal society crumbles to a certain extent in Morrison. And women are at the centrestage.

This can also be said of the world of Anita Desai. In her major novels, she deals with, depicts and describes the world of heroines. They may be lonesome, sensitive, educated, fondled or motherless, or get paranoid in the insensitive world around them. But they interest, attract and haunt readers. Maya of Cry, the Peacock is haunted by the Albino's reading of her horoscope and prophesizing an early death of one of the partners. Monisha in Voices in the City is sensitive, appreciative of fine arts, falls prey to her monitoring in-laws. She is a private person, keeps a diary, and feels ill at ease at the in-laws' huge joint family mansion. Amla is a character who is totally different from her sister. She is a painter, an artist, and learns the survival techniques early like Claudia and Frieda, the MacTeer sisters in Morrison's The Bluest Eye. In Where Shall We Go This Summer?, Desai has portrayed a magic world of Manori Island, the charismatic personality of Sita, a Gandhian father, and her businessman husband, Raman. The cruelty all around her makes her almost desert the day-do-day world of reality; but she discovers that there no more exists the enchanting world of her childhood days on Manori Island. She does not want her child to be born in a chaotic, insensitive world, where new life will be jeopardized. Nanda Kaul is yet another character in Fire on the Mountain who suffers lifelong negligence at the hands of her Vice-Chancellor husband. Raka, Nanda Kaul's great granddaughter, is one of the finest creations of Desai. She is a recluse by nature; she is simply born that way. Here, in a very subtle manner, Desai comments on the bureaucrats who fail to nurture their wives and daughters in their race for power and position.

Morrison deals with themes of love, friendship, beauty, ugliness and death. Her heroines as well as heroes struggle to understand “aspects of the human condition: good and evil. …” Sula is a memorable novel and heroine. She is “a marvelously unconventional woman.” Sula Peace's life is one of “unlimited experiment.” She is neither bound by any social codes of propriety prevalent in the black community nor awed by the matriarch Eva Peace, her grandmother. Eva is a black woman who dares to get her leg cut collects the insurance money and maintains her family with dignity, when she is deserted by her husband, Boy Boy. Morrison deals with the theme of friendship between two adolescent girls Sula Peace and Nel:

Sula is first thought to be simply unusual, then outrageous, and eventually evil. She becomes a pariah of her community, a measuring stick of what's evil and, ironically, inspires goodness in those around her.


Toni Morrison has expressed her views on friendship between women thus:

It seemed to me that black women have friends in the old-fashioned sense of the word; perhaps this isn't true just for black people, but it seemed so to me. I was half-way through the book [Sula] before I realized that friendship in literary terms is a rather contemporary idea. So when I was making up people in Sula, it was inevitable I would focus on black women, not out of ignorance of any other kind of people, but because, they are of compelling interest to me.


Even in The Bluest Eye (1970), Pecola Breedlove's quest for affection goes awry. She hungers for love and admiration, but fails to find it at home, at school and in the community. She gradually lapses into a world of fantasy. Then she is the girl with the bluest eyes, the most beautiful girl. She converses with her “other” self. This “other” becomes her best friend, who assures her that in her town Lorain, Ohio, none has such blue eyes. The pathos of this young girl's destiny is choking. Then the whole town feels better. No one pays any attention to Pecola.

Morrison is an artist with commitment to her people. She feels the tragedy of the children's total neglect by society, by parents, by all. Hence in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Morrison says “children under 18 are hungry for love. …” The women in Morrison's novel “do extraordinary things for children, for love.” She also adds, “We must do something nurturing for children, to make another person feel good. …”

The theme which cuts across the novels of Anita Desai and Toni Morrison is that of alienation. Alienation proves devastating for black women in white America. Away from their native land and chained by the chains of slavery, black women were reduced to the roles of breeder, maid and domestic, and several other such menial roles. Thus, they have endured the most vicious form of racism and sexism which results in their uniquely agonizing alienation.

Pecola of The Bluest Eye is accepted by few: by the three friendly prostitutes, China, Poland and Miss Marie, who dwell in the upstairs apartment, and by good-hearted Claudia and her sister Frieda. Even these befriending sisters have problems communicating with grown-ups and understanding the values of the adult world. There is none to convince or reassure Pecola of her self-worth. Instead, her interaction with other human beings serves only to reinforce her self-image of worthlessness. Thus, her negative self-image alienates her from her parents and classmates as well as from the larger society.

Black women like Pauline Breedlove experienced isolation in northern cities during the black people's migration in the late thirties and early forties. Pauline's alienation is the outcome of her struggles to achieve the white bourgeois social model (in which she worked but did not live), which is itself produced by the capitalist system of wage labor. She leads a schizophrenic life, working as a housemaid in a wealthy lakeshore home. Her marginality constantly confronts the world of Hollywood movies, white sheets, and tender blonde children. She feels isolated at work where she separates herself from her own kinky hair and decayed tooth. Even in her childhood at her Alabama home, she had never felt at home anywhere, or experienced a sense of belonging to any place. Her constant general feeling was that of “separateness” and “unworthiness.” Thus, the tragedy of Pauline's alienation has its dire impact on her role as a mother. She never develops a positive relationship with Pecola. Pauline showers tenderness and love on her employer's child, and rains violence and disdain on her own.

Pecola is alienated from her own mother as she addresses Pauline as Mrs. Breedlove, a most formal way of addressing one's mother. The intimate touch of a mother-daughter relationship is non-existent between Pauline and Pecola in the novel. Occasional fights between her parents make her dream of an impossible wish for a pair of the bluest eyes. Her isolation from other members of her family and from her friends at school is aggravated by problems of appearance and self-image. Devoid of friends at school or in the neighborhood, she experiences a sick feeling which she always tries to prevent by “holding in her stomach” (Morrison 1970:39). Her brother Sammy is not a playmate at home or outside for Pecola. Besides,

she had long ago given up the idea of running away to see new pictures, new faces, as Sammy had so often done. He never took her, and he never thought about his going ahead of time, so it was never planned.


Pecola's isolation is so complete that she desperately wants to be liked, to be accepted. She is amenable to everything. But then, she becomes an easy pry to everyone's disdain, be he a black boy or a yellow dream child, Maureen, at school. She proves to be the scapegoat of the boys' own humiliation and pain.

The epigrammatic opening of The Bluest Eye reveals the trauma of the young black Pecola. The familiar opening of Dick-and-Jane reader foreshadows Pecola's devastating alienation. Jane, in a red dress, wants to play. She approaches all the members of the family. Yet the mother who is described as “very nice,” ironically, laughs at Jane's proposal to play with her. So does the smiling father. Even the cat and dog are no playmates in the story. This picture ironically reveals Pecola's destiny. She is left lonely at the family level as well as without friends in society. This accentuates Morrison's point at the centre of her novels—isolation of young black girls and disruption of the black cultural heritage—as revealed in Sula,Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby.

Pecola's tragedy is due to her alienation from family, friends and the black community of Lorain, Ohio. The so-called society of the small black town either pokes fun at Pecola or derives sadistic pleasure from her ruined state. Even Claudia and Frieda do not remain close to Pecola when she is raped by her father, Cholly Breedlove. The sympathetic, friendly pair of sisters are distanced from Pecola. Frieda and Claudia see Pecola sometimes after Pecola lapses into madness:

After the baby came too soon and died. … She was so sad to see. Grown people looked away; children those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright.


Pecola's isolation is complete when she retreats into her own world of madness, in which she deludes herself that her drunken father had not raped her; in this dreamland, an imaginary friend is her only comfort and reassurance. She loves this newly-won friend who assures her that she has the bluest eyes in the world. Pecola's deranged nerves say a lot about the socio-economic and political oppression of little black girls as they get alienated from black and white America.

In Sula, Morrison depicts the camaraderie between Sula and Nel. Simultaneously, these growing teenagers are

solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

(Morrison 1982:51)

Like Pecola, Sula too lives a solitary life in her house. Her mother Hannah is hardly aware of her only daughter Sula's need for emotional nurturance. Since the death of her husband, Rekus, Hannah refuses to live without the attention of men. Thus, Sula is the daughter of a distant mother. Nel's mother, Helene Sabat, is class conscious and precise about her manners. She manipulates her daughter and husband. Helen turns young Nel into an obedient daughter, driving her imagination “underground.” Much like Pauline in The Bluest Eye, Helene in Sula violates Nel and rubs her imagination down to a dull glow. Thus Sula and Nel are isolated from their own mothers.

Neither Sula nor Nel have any brothers or sisters. So no companion is within easy reach, as it was for Pilate. Further, both the girls are daughters of “incomprehensible fathers.” Sula's father is dead. Nel's father, Wiley Wright's presence is hardly felt in the family. He is a cook on one of the Great Lakes' Lines. He visits his family “only three days out of every sixteen” (ibidem:17). His absence from home affects Nel's growth severely. Hence Sula and Nel both resemble each other in their emotional isolation from other people. Their alienation from the larger society paves the way for Sula's rebellion against the set norms a woman is supposed to follow in the black community. She remains at best a social outsider, as she defies the role she is supposed to play socially. Sula is a rebel by nature. This rebellious spirit of Sula alienates her from her only friend Nel.

Sula feels isolated when she overhears Hannah's remarks that she does not like her. So she seeks refuge in Nel's companionship, that “version of herself.” But after Nel's wedding, Sula searches for experience outside her town Bottom, for ten years in cities, colleges and in the company of men. Her quest is to fill the empty spaces, both without and within. Once again, emotionally, Sula suffers acute isolation after the accidental drowning of a playmate, Chicken Little. A sense of guilt haunts Sula throughout her life, which does not allow her a respite.

The two experiences, Hannah's remark and Chicken Little's drowning, teach Sula that: “there was no other that you could count on; …” and “… there was no self to count on either” (ibidem:118-119). Her alienation grows intense as Sula “had no center, no speck around which to grow” (ibidem). No common denominator like ambition, affection for money, property or things, greed, desire to command attention or compliments or ego can join her with other women or men. Hence her isolation is deeper. As she refuses to undergo the usual rite of marriage and become a wife and a mother, she is outside the ken of the black women of Bottom. The alienation experienced by Sula is more psychological than existential.

Sula wants to live her life, wants to make herself. In her quest for self, she realizes that “no one would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand” (ibidem:121). The monotony and malaise of modern life in cities accentuates her alienation in urban centres. Her experiences are vividly described:

All those cities held the same people, working the same mouths, sweating the same sweat. The men who took her to one or another of those places had merged into one large personality: the same language of love, the same entertainments of love, the same cooling of love. Whenever she introduced her private thoughts into their rubbings or goings, they hooded their eyes. They taught her nothing but love tricks, shared nothing but worry, gave nothing but money.


Thus, Sula is a heroine who realizes the dire consequences of alienation. Even in lovemaking, which seems to her, in the beginning, the creation of a special kind of joy, she gradually feels that “in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning” (ibidem:123).

After lovemaking, she wants her partner to turn away and leave her “to the postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony” (ibidem). Such isolation of Sula culminates in her confession to Nel while dying. Sula's life may not be a tale of success. Yet she leads an independent life, pursues her own course to freedom. In doing so she is destroyed, yet achieves a rare personhood which none of the Bottom women ever dared to achieve by defying the role models set for them. In her last conversation, she reveals to Nel that though alienated, she is aware of what goes on. Nel's response is typical of a woman shackled by phony values. She senses Sula's reply to this which evinces her sense of being as she replies: “But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. … A secondhand lonely” (ibidem:143).

Like Pecola, Sula is also alienated from the black community. Although the Bottom community proclaims Sula a pariah, after her death that very community changes like a chameleon. Ironically enough, Sula's alienation sets the pace for reversal in the life of the Bottom community. The compassion and warmth of the neighborhood no longer sustains Bottom. In the sixties after the war, a new order in society was established: “Now there weren't any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by” (ibidem:166). The malaise seems all-pervading under the garb of progress. Alienation of human beings reflects the sickness in all societies.

In Anita Desai's fiction too, female alienation stands out in bold relief. Anita Desai's heroines are a study in female psyche alienated due to a lack of compassionate companionship. Their predicament is all the more touching as these female protagonists long for the human touch, sensitivity and companionship of their husbands. Maya in Cry, the Peacock reflects on her husband's non-attachment as she fervently longs for his affection. Right from the start, she intuitively feels that “he [Gautama] knew nothing that concerned me” (Desai 1980:9)

Gautama, for the most part, is hardly aware of Maya's misery. He does not know how to comfort her when she experiences agony after her pet Toto's death. His relentless attitude to Maya's needs is voiced by Maya thus:

Telling me to go to sleep while he worked at his papers, he did not give another thought to me, to either the soft, willing body or the lonely, wanting mind that waited near his bed. …


Repeatedly, Maya realizes her loneliness in the house. Her agony and pain of being left all alone after Toto's death reminds us of Sula. Both these heroines associate the impact of a felt experience of the past. Maya remembers her pet's wild, thrilled bark as he sees her return from a morning in town. Affectionately, he flings himself upon her and the feel of his body is enduring to Maya. Likewise, Sula cannot disremember Chicken Little's laughter as she swings him, and the warm, hard touch of his little fingers on her palm before he drowns in the river. To Gautama, such moments and experiences do not matter. Thus, there exists a gap between Maya and Gautama. Maya never asks him whether such remembrances are as important as his “facts.” She just thinks her inner thoughts, and “having thought them was sufficient” for her. This instance gives an idea of Maya's psychological and emotional alienation from her mate. Maya's meandering thoughts reveal her alienation as she broods over the prophecy of death by the albino magician. Toto's death brings back the memory of her fear of the early death of one of them—hers or Gautama's. Gautama is no romantic, and this makes her all the more forlorn beside the dark space and starlit sky. The lyrical rendering of Maya's alienation enhances the poignancy of her predicament. As she lives through four years of her married life, the prophecy haunts her day and night. Gautama, being a rationalist, does not share Maya's sentiments or her fear. As a result, Maya has to face, as Naik notes, the “ferocious assaults” of her existence single-handed. Her despair and isolation ultimately drive her to insanity in the same way as Pecola loses her mind. Maya remains on the horns of a dilemma. She cannot reveal the secret of the prophecy to her lawyer husband. They live in separate universes—Maya, a very sensitive and imaginative person, and Gautama, a fastidious person like Buddha beneath the Bo tree.

Even at the familial level, Maya experiences a void, as her brother Arjuna has run away from home long ago, and her father is on a long tour to Europe. At Gautama's house, neither his mother nor his sister are compassionate enough to share Maya's sorrow. Instead they mercilessly suggest that Maya needs therapy.

Maya knows that her friend Leila lives a full life in spite of her tubercular husband. Maya is denied such fulfillment in marriage. Likewise, she is denied the warmth and the nurturance of motherhood that Pom, her other friend, exhibits. Besides, both these friends are preoccupied with their own lives, and no longer serve as anchors to Maya. Again and again, the albino's dire prophecy drums in her fevered brain. She is unceremoniously dismissed by Gautama when his friends gather to appreciate Urdu poetry. There is no one to ward off the horror of the prophecy. Maya thus feels totally defenseless and utterly lonely. Maya feels alienated in his family as “one did not speak of love, far less of affection” (ibidem:46). In a house full of several members, Maya does not see a single member to whom she can express her joy at the sight of a “great moon of hot, beaten copper, of molten brass, livid and throbbing like a bloody human organ …” (ibidem:51). At that point in time, Maya resolves that she will never visit those relations. Yet when she experiences utter alienation, she longs for the same household teeming with “many voices, their gay inflections, their varied tones, their loud, quick rasping” over her ear-drums (ibidem:52). She is overwhelmed by the shadow of the dancer springing to life. She realizes that there was no time left, no time left at all.

At every stage, Maya feels herself alienated from society. The battle between the two worlds, the receding one of grace and the approaching one of madness, breaks her physically and mentally. She is aware of her schizophrenic state. The pathos is in the fact that Maya loves life intensely and it is not easy to give it up. She recalls her father's soothing reassurances, the golden girlish days spent at Lucknow and Darjeeling. When she can no longer bear her isolation, she thunders at Gautama: “the world is full—full, Gautama. Do you know what that means?” (ibidem:118). Ultimately she gives up. In the end, what is left of their marriage is a feeling of pity, of regret, a wanton waste for she is conscious of “the great passage that always had and still existed between us, like an unpassable desert” (ibidem:201). Yet as Rao (1970:213-214) sees it, the “predatory instinct in Maya is to save her own life.” Her alienation reaches its high point when she argues within herself:

She had more right to live as she rejoiced intensely in the physical world that was mobile, vivid, explosive, full of sounds, senses, movements, odors, colors, tunes to all of which Gautama was insensitive.


Maya goes insane when Gautama dies. The cause of her anguish lies in her alienation. She has no human contact, no friendly touch to tide her over her spiritual crisis, and she passes before our eyes as agitated as a nightmare, an illusion. Desai has aptly named her heroine “Maya,” that is, illusion, as her quest for a more meaningful life proves to be illusory.

Monisha in Voices in the City is also a study in female alienation. Against the backdrop of the huge, palpitating city of Calcutta, Monisha stands out as a modern Indian woman, uprooted from her natural surroundings in Kalimpong. She has no kin in her new abode at her in-laws' place. As she is educated, intelligent, sensitive and well-read, she cannot fit into the worn-out pattern of joint family and convention. A woman at her in-laws' place is regarded in terms of her utility value and as a progenitor of future heir and not as a living, pulsating human being. Desai deals sensitively with, as Krishnaswamy (1983:252) observes,

the social problems caused by the tensions of modern womanhood rather than the crisis in mental health as such. The remedy lies not in individual therapy but rather in social reconstruction.

The malady afflicts Desai's female protagonists like Monisha, Sita and Bim as the adult sex roles of women in Hindu society need to be redefined in greater harmony with the socio-economic and ideological character of modern society. “Until then, neither the formal education nor the unverbalized sex roles of the adolescent woman can be cleared of intrinsic contradiction” (ibidem).

Monisha's alienation ensues as she, like Bim and Sita, lives not in defeatism but in absolute negation. She, unlike Maya, confesses, in her diary, that she does not have faith in religion. In olden times, women in India were bolstered by faith to endure in order to survive. With the urbanization and industrialization in modern India, the lack of devout faith and the ceaseless questioning and questing pave the way for women's annihilation. Women like Monisha and Sita, Bim and Nanda Kaul, endowed with ability and feminine sensibility, are disposed to battle against the degradation in store for them. What Desai depicts is the very essence of female existence in Hindu society where women, either out of ignorance or intent, offend the relentless requirements of a religious and social order. Finally, their subversive independence stands trapped.

Monisha and Maya, Sita and Nanda Kaul, can be interpreted as symbols of female imagination and sensibility. These protagonists are pitted against the dehumanizing forces abroad in Indian society. When these heroines seek a higher communion of free spirits, they are compelled to conform and yet are denied even the ordinary comforts in marriage and motherhood that lesser beings are blessed with. The compulsion to succeed in conformity leads them to despise themselves. Monisha too, like Maya and Sita, is faced with negation. She too becomes an image of isolation, fear, bewilderment and potential violation.

Monisha is alienated from her equally sensitive brother Nirode and younger sister Amla. Hers is not a marriage of choice. Her servile existence within the rigid, stifling confines of a traditional Hindu family robs her of her privacy. Finally she feels so crushed and alienated that she commits suicide. Her husband Jiban is hardly a companion to Monisha. He is totally unaware of the needs and aspirations of his wife. Her “round and secure keepers” do not allow any respite while Nirode and Amla visit her. Her communion with her affectionate brother and sister is monitored so closely that both of them are aghast “at the damp pressure of critical attention impossible to avoid in any corner of this house” (Desai 1978:158).

Monisha has no friend at her in-laws' house. She feels cut off from her kin and the outside world. Often she catches herself thinking about Kalimpong. She longs for the “solitude of the jungles there, the aqueous shadows of the bamboo groves and the earth laid with great fallen leaves” (ibidem:116). She relishes the solitude in her house which she has just for herself and Jiban. Besides, silence, privacy, space and time for meditation, all these, her prized friends, are lost to her when she returns to Calcutta.

There does not exist any female bonding in her new environs because her sisters-in-law crave more for material possessions than for intellectual pursuits. Monisha is of an intellectual cast among philistines. Her sister-in-law has access to her wardrobe and inspects her saris. She asks Monisha: “How many did you get at your wedding?” And adds, “I got a hundred and eleven.” This information provides Monisha with a sort of amusement at the pettiness, acquisitiveness and greed of such women. After this, she does not feel perplexed at the sheer ignorance of the women at her in-laws.' Her treasure in the wardrobe consists of the works of Dostoyevsky, Hopkins and Kafka along with her Russian, French and Sanskrit dictionaries. Yet the pity of her existence is that she is not allowed any free time to read. The women while away their time talking about their dowries, saris and jewelry, babies, and blocked fallopian tubes. Theirs are “indoor minds, starless, darkless.”

Monisha despairs, but has no support or emotional outlet. She is reduced to a woman who pours out her feelings in a diary: “… I do not like a woman who keeps a diary. Traceless, meaningless, uninvolved—does this not amount to non-existence, please?” (ibidem:140). Alienation is reflected in every phrase she writes in her diary.

She has no patronage even from her mother. Her association with her mother is tinged with an inbred and invalid sense of duty, honor and concern. Monisha discounts her from being her emotional balustrade, as she does not remain faithful to her father. Monisha faces despair. Congenital associations with brother, sister and mother have withered and died in her heart. Like many other heroines of Desai, Monisha's self-awareness leads her to anguish and suffering.

She realizes that the drama of life has gone by, neither birth nor death has touched her and there is a complete void, “an empty white distance” between her and her fellow beings. She feels she has been put away in a steel container or a thick glass cubicle without a touch of love or hate or warmth on her. Such a state of affairs throws a flood of light on women's woes and the hideous social hierarchy existing in Indian society. Monisha's death does not solve the problem of female alienation.

With Morrison's Pilate in Song of Solomon, alienation takes a different form. She too, like Sula and Pecola, is isolated but loving. Her navelless belly is the symbol of her alienation. Like Sula, Pilate is also endowed with a unique physical feature. Her alienation at the physical level from the bourgeois black society is, as Skerrett (1985:198) observes, “the ultimate cause of her radical individuality.” She exerts power and has an aura of mystery. These attributes keep her “just barely within the boundaries of the elaborately socialized world of black people” (Morrison 1978:150).

Pilate's initial experiences of alienation were harrowing. Like many a heroine of Anita Desai, Pilate in Song of Solomon has no sustaining relationship with her mother. Her mother died before she “was born.” The first intimate contact of the child after its birth is with the mother. Pilate's mother being dead before she drew her breath, she never saw her face. She does not even know what her name was. Pilate recollects disenchanted memories of her early childhood: motherless from birth and bereft of the loving father since twelve, Pilate's agony of an alienated being marks deep furrows on her psyche. One can well imagine Pilate's isolation as she was almost an orphan since her adolescent days.

As her name reflects her headstrong qualities, she sides with truth, break off with her affectionate brother Macon, abandoning gold near the cave. Since then, she led a solitary life. Her early life is the life of a wanderer with a penchant for geography. Except for three years spent in relative bliss on the island off Virginia, Pilate lived in isolation. Due to her “navel-lessness” and men's weird ideas about it, she is denied “partnership in marriage, confessional friendship, and communal religion” (ibidem:149).

Thus Pilate undergoes the trauma of alienation. It is the sheer strength of her character by which she overcomes alienation. She questions herself about the vital needs and necessities of living and leading a satisfactory life. As an outcome of her inquiry and struggle, she ripens with “compassion for troubled people” (ibidem:150).

Jadine is haunted by a sense of alienation from the time she sees the African woman in a canary-yellow robe in a shopping centre in Paris in Tar Baby. To overcome her feeling of being “lonely and inauthentic,” she retreats to Isle des Chevalier. Obviously, Jadine's alienation is due to her being severed from her people, her family—Ondine and Sydney. Further, her thinking is another cause of her being estranged because, “Nanadine and Sydney mattered a lot to her but what they thought did not” (Morrison 1981:41). Overtly, Jadine declares that she loves Ondine her aunt, and Sydney her uncle, but she hardly attaches any significance to their ideals, principles, thoughts, or their way of life. Thus, her attachment to Ondine and Sydney is a means to an end. She feels alienated because she embraces white values. She does not regard her black heritage more precious than her training as a fashion model in Paris and her superficial success in the business world. Whenever Jadine thinks of her uncle and aunt, she hardly bothers to value their tremendous sacrifice for her sake. On her visit to the island, Jadine proposes to live together like a family at last. She will accept a small assignment in New York. Such a proposition smacks of vain glory. Her uncle and aunt

smiled generously, but their eyes made her know they were happy to play store with her, but nothing would pull them away from the jobs they had for thirty years or more.


This shows Jadine's commitment and her alienation squarely. Moreover, like other heroines of Morrison, Jadine too has lost her mother early in life. Later on, she loses her father as well. Since the age of twelve she has been living with her aunt and uncle. Studying in France, staying out of the homely atmosphere, Jadine never experiences a sense of place; placelessness is a defining feature of her character. It is this rootless existence of Jadine which disturbs her when she encounters “that woman's woman—that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty” (ibidem:39). Jadine does not feel less alienated even when she runs away to Isle des Chevalier.

She is so alienated from her native culture that the black stranger—Son—understands her dilemma. He creeps into Jadine's room every night and tries to breathe into her “the smell of tar and its shiny consistency before he crept away …” (ibidem:102). But Jadine was far too removed from her original properties. Morrison symbolically uses tar as a property which joins things in original African folktale. Similarly, Son too wants Jadine to repossess this precious quality of tar by overcoming her alienation through attaining oneness with her kith and kin and her African heritage.

Tar Baby is a study in alienation of a westernized black woman, in her values, outlook and way of life. Partly, the tragedy ensues due to a thoughtless following and imitation of white male values. Morrison discerns the hideous outcome of such a blind following and creates an exquisite epiphany in Tar Baby, reinstating black values and black heritage.

In the body of black American fiction and Indian English fiction written by women, crucial issues like female alienation and oppression are mirrored and artistically dealt with. One hears and feels the chords of an orchestration too deep to be vocalized. Yet, the women novelists under study have engraved a unique filigree in literary genre in their own right.


Desai, Anita. 1978. Voices in the City. New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks.

———. 1980. Cry, the Peacock. New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks.

———. 1982a. Fire on the Mountain. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

———. 1982b. Where Shall We Go This Summer? New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks.

Krishnaswamy, Santha. 1983. Glimpses of Women in India. New Delhi: Ashish.

Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye: A Novel. New York: Pocket Books.

———. 1978. Song of Solomon. New York: New American Library.

———. 1981. Tar Baby. New York: New American Library.

———. 1982. Sula. New York: New American Library.

Moyers, Bill. “World of Ideas with Toni Morrison: A Catalyst for Change.” Video cassette, PBS (56 mins).

Naik, M. K. 1982. A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Narasimhaiah, C. D. 1970. Editor. Indian Literature of the Past Fifty Years, 1917-1976. Mysore: University of Mysore Press.

Pryse, Marjorie and Hortense J. Spillers. 1985. Editors. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rao, Vimala C. 1970. “The Achievement of the Indian Women Novelists.” In Narasimhaiah: 213-224.

Skerrett Jr., Joseph T. 1985. “Recitation to the Griot: Storytelling and Learning in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.” In Pryse and Spillers: 192-202.

Tate, Claudia. 1983. Editor. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86

Cry, the Peacock (novel) 1963

Voices in the City (novel) 1965

Bye-Bye, Blackbird (novel) 1968

The Peacock Garden [illustrations by Jeroo Roy] (juvenilia) 1974

Where Shall We Go This Summer? (novel) 1975

Fire on the Mountain (novel) 1977

Games at Twilight and Other Stories (short stories) 1978

Clear Light of Day (novel) 1980

Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story (juvenilia) 1982

In Custody (novel) 1984

Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1988

In Custody [with Shahrukh Husain] (screenplay) 1993

Journey to Ithaca (novel) 1995

Fasting, Feasting (novel) 1999

Diamond Dust: Stories (short stories) 2000; also published as Diamond Dust and Other Stories, 2000

Pippa Brush (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Brush, Pippa. “German, Jew, Foreigner: The Immigrant Experience in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): 277-85.

[In the following essay, Brush examines Desai's articulation of the largely neglected European emigrant to India in Baumgartner's Bombay, emphasizing the multiple marginalization of the protagonist's character.]

In her essay, ‘Writing the Immigrant Self: Disguise and Damnation,’ Canadian critic Aritha van Herk identifies the various stories which are often told in the literature of immigrants: ‘There is first of all the overt story. Then there is the much more complex and multi-foliate covert story’ (van Herk, p. 177), which she also refers to as the ‘story under the story’ (van Herk, p. 175). The overt story of European immigration into India has been told many times, in numerous novels about the British presence in India, articulating what van Herk identifies as the ‘tempting illusion’ (van Herk, p. 178) of the overt story. What Anita Desai does in Baumgartner's Bombay is to take the covert, predominantly untold experience of European immigration into India, and articulate that through the experience of a German Jew, Hugo Baumgartner. She gives a voice to an aspect of the experience of European immigration into India which has generally been effaced, ignored, and excluded from official records—the ‘silenced story’ (van Herk, p. 185).

Desai's concern with the experience of a German living in India comes partly from her own part-German upbringing, and was given a focus through an Austrian Jew living in Calcutta. Following his death, Desai was asked to translate letters of his, and at first she believed them to be little more than ‘affectionate little notes’ (Jussawalla, p. 174). Once she realised that they were actually heavily censored correspondence from one of the World War II concentration camps—reflected in Lotte's realisation that ‘Each one [was] stamped with the number: J 673/1’ (p. 230)—their silence allowed Desai to create a story around the man who had died:

there was no information about them—the man was dead, I couldn't question him—I began to think a great deal about it and felt the need to supply them with a history, so I invented a history for this figure whom I had seen but not known.

(Jussawalla, p. 175)

Desai takes the few dislocated pieces of information she has concerning this man's life, and what she then learns about them, and writes a possible history for him. Desai's realisation that there were no official records of the internment camps that the British set up in India made it all the more important for her to undertake this project (Jussawalla, p. 175). It was the tiny pieces of information—van Herk's ‘fragments’ (van Herk, p. 185)—which pointed to a larger, untold story. After discovering these fragments, Desai invented a story to fill what she perceived as an absence, a silence. The difference between Desai's text and other historiographic texts which construct fictional lives for figures in history, is that Desai chooses a figure who is firmly on the margins. She tells the immigrant experience, not through the major events of recorded history, but through a man whose life is dictated by a history over which he has no control.

Hugo's dislocation, which identifies both his experience as an immigrant in India and as a Jew in pre-war Germany, is represented principally in terms of language. The dislocation experienced through language and as a result of difference in language seems to be a highly significant factor in the writing of the immigrant experience. For Hugo, this dislocation occurs on several levels and begins when he is ‘at home’ in Berlin. As a child, Hugo's first language is German, and his cultural identification is constructed through this initial language. As Elaine Y. L. Ho puts it, in her recent article on language and identity in the novel, ‘German is Baumgartner's first language, the language of his identity and cultural filiation.’

Hugo's experience at the Jewish school which he is forced to attend highlights the sense of dislocation which will plague him throughout his life. Hugo cannot easily understand the Hebrew which is taught at his new school (p. 49); it is a new language for him, and not one with which he readily identifies—even though it is being taught as the language of ‘his own people.’ Here, in the Jewish school, he is also cruelly treated by the other children:

The boys who shared a wooden bench with Hugo spent the morning trying to shove him off so that he had to grip the edge of the seat to keep from falling off. ‘Was ist los, Baumgartner? What's the matter?’ the teacher asked. ‘Is it the bathroom you need already?’ and the children grew pinched and blue in the face with laughter.

(p. 37)

He is sneered at for not understanding the lessons, and his marginality is confirmed for him in this sense of being an outsider, of not having access to the knowledge and language of others. He is doubly marginalised in Berlin: his ethnic background isolates him through the growing influence of Nazism; a strange language and the cruelty of children isolate him when he is placed in a Jewish school, making him marginal even within his own community.

Once Hugo gets to India, the speaking of German takes on new significance. His friend, Lotte, is someone who in Germany he would never have met (p. 65). They come from very different classes and backgrounds—he finds it hard even to believe that they both came from Berlin (pp. 66 and 208)—yet she becomes his friend partly because of their common language: ‘But what did it matter—she spoke German, had his language, nicht wahr?’ (p. 66). They also share the changes in their language which come from having lived so long without speaking it. Hugo knows that his German is not so good anymore, but he also knows that Lotte's is worse, and he can take some comfort from that (p. 95). He sees their ‘kinship’ (pp. 66 and 95) in the sunburnt rings on her neck—in the effect of the Indian sun on the fair skin of a European—and it is their common experience, as well as their common language, which cements the link. His first words to her—in German—‘How came you here?’ (p. 95), ascertain the extent of their common experience, the one thing he knows they must share; the experience of immigration, of ‘how, and why, you came here.’

But Hugo has since lost the desire to speak German as an end in itself. His time in the camp, with pro-Nazi as well as German-Jewish detainees, has distanced him from his first language to such an extent that, by the time he is living in Bombay, his language of ‘cultural filiation’ (Ho, p. 96) means very little to him:

it was years since he had ceased to crave the sound of his own language, the feel of it on his tongue … Gradually, the language was slipping away from him, now almost as unfamiliar as the feel and taste of English words or the small vocabulary of bastardized Hindustani that he had picked up over the years. It was only Lotte who kept him in touch with the German tongue—but that was not why he went to see her. He saw Lotte not because she was from Germany but because she belonged to the India of his own experience.

(p. 150)

The German language is now, for Hugo, something which connects him with the fear and persecution of Nazi Germany, and which eventually prompts Farrokh, the café owner, to push him into taking responsibility for the young German, Kurt.

Hugo lives so long in India that, inevitably, his language changes to accommodate the everyday realities of his life there. Yet even after having lived there for fifty years, which language to use is still a source of confusion for him: he ‘mumbled “Good morning, salaam,” and went down the steps into the street with his bag, uncertain as ever of which language to employ. After fifty years, still uncertain. Baumgartner, du Dummkopf’ (p. 6). He cannot be understood speaking his first language, German, so his language becomes a hybrid, a mixture of English and various Indian languages. It is not the language of a community, like German or Hebrew; it is a language adapted to the pressures of individual need and survival:

He found he had to build a new language to suit these new conditions—German no longer sufficed, and English was elusive. Language sprouted around him like tropical foliage and he picked words from it without knowing if they were English or Hindi or Bengali—they were simply words he needed: chai, khana, baraf, lao, jaldi, joota, chota peg, pani, kamra, soda, garee … what was this language he was wrestling out of the air for his own purposes? He suspected it was not Indian, but India's, the India he was marking out for himself.

(p. 92)

The language Hugo is speaking is the language of his own India, the language he needs to survive in a country where every language is unfamiliar and unintelligible to him. He is right when he says that it is not Indian, but India's, and, more specifically, it belongs to Baumgartner's India—Baumgartner's Bombay—the country and life he has constructed for himself. Van Herk writes of the ways immigrants ‘write themselves,’ constructing their experiences like a fiction (van Herk, p. 174). Hugo not only writes his own story; he constructs and speaks the language in which that story is told. Hugo fashions a language for himself, which reflects his own experience, and in this respect it is highly individual. Designed to facilitate communication with the ‘mainstream,’ with the community around him, Hugo's language serves to isolate him further by virtue of its individuality. He is dis/located by the language he speaks, identified as an outsider—a firanghi—and isolated within the India of his own experience, that of the immigrant.

Hugo's sense of otherness—constructed, in part, by his dis/location in terms of language—stays with him throughout his life. From the first impressions of his place on the margins in his German school at Christmas (p. 36), to his experiences in India, Hugo remains an outsider, aware of his own separation from the mainstream, his isolation from community, and his place as a marginal figure. Yet while Hugo is fashioning for himself a highly individual and focused language, designed to deal with the world as he finds it, others are treating him, not as an individual, but as a representative of one group or another. To the Nazis in Germany, he is a Jew; to the British in India, he is a German; and to those he meets and deals with in his everyday life in India, he is a firanghi. Hugo is defined from outside himself, in relation to particular communities, and treated as part of various groups. These ‘blanket’ definitions are not well thought out, and take no account of his individual situation or needs.

This type of thoughtlessly broad definition is painfully evident in the treatment of German nationals by the British government in India during World War II. Baumgartner spends six years in a British internment camp, detained because he is a German national. No distinction is made between those ‘Aryan’ Germans who support the Nazi government, and those German Jews who, like Baumgartner, are in India to escape persecution under that very regime (p. 106). The British authorities unwittingly recreate within the internment camp a microcosm of the situation in Germany. Hugo, then, imaginatively recreates his father's Berlin furniture showroom while he is in the camp (p. 124); with the help of Julius, another detainee, he returns to the protected world of his childhood, and also to the persecution he experienced there, which forced him to leave. After spending so long in the camp, Hugo comes to feel that it is really the Germany he left: it felt as if ‘Deutschland, the Heimat, was alive here, on this dusty soil, in the incredible sun, even if it no longer lived in its native home’ (p. 127). Despite his efforts to escape his life in Germany, Hugo is forced back into the world that he left, with all its conflicts and anger.

These blanket definitions, ignoring the particular and specific, are the basis of the kind of ignorance which breeds racist hatred and denies any possibility of knowledge of other cultures and races, and which makes the immigrant experience one of fear and misunderstanding, and they work against Hugo at every turn. Every definition, every label which is pinned on him from outside, is an attempt to identify a group to which he can belong, to provide some form of identity and, consequently, identify the treatment he can expect. These attempts at definition, imposed by others, serve only to further isolate Baumgartner by emphasising his marginality within all these various communities.

But these blanket definitions find some parallel in the way he views those around him. Certainly in India, although he is aware of the different ethnic groups, he places them all together under the title ‘Indian’ in the same way as they refer to him as ‘European’:

Muslims killed Hindus, Hindus Muslims. Baumgartner could not fathom it—to him they were Indians seen as a mass and, individually, Sushil the Marxist, Habibullah the trader.

(p. 180)

Those whom he has anything to do with are considered divorced from their race or religion; the religious conflicts are especially hard for Hugo to understand as he thinks so little of religion, himself practising only a sort of ‘wary agnosticism’ (p. 205), even though his own exile was forced by religious persecution.

In the same way that Hugo sees the people around him as ‘Indians,’ so his identity is frequently mistaken, under the blanket of ‘European.’ Habibullah, his friend and colleague, even though he knows Hugo as well as anyone in India, does not know his background well enough to be able to make the distinction between European nationalities:

‘How? Are you not English, European sahib? Have you no European connections? You can help him with export business—’

‘Europe has had a war, Habibullah,’ Baumgartner reminded him. ‘My country is—finished. What business can I do?’

But Habibullah had no more conception of Baumgartner's war, of Europe's war, than Baumgartner had of affairs in Bengal, India.

(p. 169)

The two worlds are too far apart, and the conception by each man of the other's world is too skewed by stereotypes and broad definitions which efface difference, and ignore conflicts and different groups.

It is Hugo's label of firanghi which, indirectly, leads to his death at the hands of a young German, Kurt. When Kurt arrives at the Café de Paris, the proprietor, Farrokh, immediately thinks of Hugo as the solution to his problem of what to do with the boy, and how to get him out of the café. Farrokh assumes a link between them that will oblige Hugo to take some measure of responsibility for Kurt:

Mr Baumgartner, what can I do? Please tell me—there is a man from your country … That is the only reason I fed him … I know you, I know your country must be good country, so I gave food to the boy. Then he no pay.

(p. 139)

It is a fatal repetition of the blindness exhibited by the British during the war, detaining German Jews and pro-Nazis together, and without discrimination. To Farrokh, both Hugo and Kurt are firanghi, linked by language—‘Maybe you spick same language’ (p. 139)—so there is no further distinction to be made. To Hugo, however, Kurt is a living reminder of the horrors of the Berlin he fled as a young man, and a link with a past he has tried so hard to escape (p. 21).

Both Hugo and Kurt are aware of the specificities within the blanket definition firanghi, and that the breadth of that definition is not sufficient for their situation. While pushed together as members of the same community by Farrokh, they are both aware of their positions on either side of an old conflict, which it would be useless to try and explain to Farrokh. Although Hugo may have tried to escape his past, the persecution in Germany, it is forced back into his consciousness by the kind of labelling which makes both him and Kurt ‘German,’ rather than examining the historical and political conflicts which define Germany, and the question of German nationality.

Although Hugo is still identified as firanghi, and more specifically as German, once he receives an Indian passport, after the war, he realises the impossibility of ever returning to Germany: ‘he wondered if it meant that he would now never leave India and realized that, for all that it was a travel document, it did’ (p. 181). He names himself as ‘Baumgartner, native of Hindustan’ (p. 181), and is shocked and uncomfortable at the ‘Europeanisms that he had forgotten’ (p. 180) which he sees in Bombay. In an attempt to re/locate himself, he writes to people from his past, receiving no answer from any of them. It seems to him that ‘all of Germany might have been wiped off the face of the earth’ (p. 181). The Germany that Hugo knew has gone; the Second World War changed, for ever, the politics and society of Europe, and to attempt to return to a pre-war Germany would be impossible, and self-defeating. It is important that Hugo realises that the country he left, and which remains in his memory, is now a nostalgic and ideological construction, and not the same as the country which now exists in the same geographical location. He does so to the extent that he reacts, though not openly, to Julius's regret at not having returned ‘home’ with some scorn:

‘Oh, Hugo, why did we not go back? We should have gone back long, long ago,’ he mourned, making Baumgartner want to snort, ‘Go back where? To what?’ But he did not—it was against the rules.

(p. 211)

Although Hugo can make that distinction about Germany, he still retains a dream of Venice—the one place where he felt some (limited) sense of community within Judaism, and a sense of his own identity which was not defined by his marginal relation to a dominant group. Initially, the link is linguistic—demonstrating again the strength of language in locating cultural affiliation and identity. He notices a Jewish woman in a café reading a newspaper in Hebrew and, after talking to her, attempts to follow her to the Jewish quarter:

Hugo walked along, thinking that he might find the Jewish quarter she had spoken of; if he did not see her there, he might see other Jews. Strange, in Germany he had never wanted to search them out, had been aware of others thinking of him as a Jew but had not done so himself. In ejecting him, Germany had taught him to regard himself as one. Perhaps over here he would find for himself a new identity, one that suited him, one that he enjoyed. The air quivered with possibilities, with the suspense of quest and choice.

(pp. 62-3; my emphasis)

This ‘quest,’ his search for community and a group with which to identify himself, lasts for only an afternoon, yet he carries the memory of that moment—that one moment of identification—with him all his life. Until the moment of his expulsion from Germany, Hugo has not considered himself a Jew in any positive respect. Although others had defined him as such, his own self-definition had come from his persecution—his marginalisation—under the Nazi regime. In Venice, he gets a brief opportunity to feel defined by something positive, by association with a group of people, by a feeling of community.

Hugo identifies Judaism with the East, his German upbringing with the West, and attempts to locate his own identity in a point at the meeting of East and West (p. 64):

Venice was the East, and yet it was Europe too; it was that magic boundary where the two met and blended, and for those seven days Hugo had been a part of their union. He realized it only now: that during his constant wandering, his ceaseless walking, he had been drawing closer and closer to this discovery at that bewitched point where they became one land of which he felt himself the natural citizen.

(p. 63)

He loses that ‘bewitched point’ when he leaves Venice, leaving behind that state in which he could be a ‘natural citizen.’ The moment when his identity was, in a positive way, defined by a sense of community is something that cannot survive in India, because Hugo maintains so strong an association between the geographical, physical location of the experience, and the self-definition which was briefly offered him in Venice. Hugo hangs onto his dream of Venice, even in the face of Lotte's ridicule:

‘Venice, he says,’ she said at last. ‘Venezia—no less. As if he were a duke, or a count. You a millionaire, maybe, in your dreams?’

Baumgartner laughed, shamefacedly. ‘Only an idea, Lotte,’ he apologized. ‘Once I was there—for seven days. I caught the boat to India from there. It was so strange—it was both East and West, both Europe and Asia. I thought—maybe, in such a place, I could be at home.’

(p. 81)

It is significant that Hugo feels ‘at home’ at the point where East meets West, where he is in neither one nor the other. He is, everywhere, an outsider—in Germany (the West), and in India (the East). Only where the two meet and combine in a way which neither privileges nor excludes either one, can an outsider like Hugo make his own definition, be able to feel there is a community of which he wants to be a part and which can provide him with the identity and affirmation which he lacks elsewhere.

Despite the promise of Venice, Hugo remains a marginal figure, denied the support and identification of community—a ‘man without a family or a country’ (p. 133). This is described as having haunted him all his life, as something inevitable:

He felt his life blur, turn grey, like a curtain wrapping him in its dusty felt. If he became aware, from time to time, that the world beyond the curtain was growing steadily more crowded, more clamorous, and the lives of others more hectic, more chaotic, then he felt only relief that his had never been part of the mainstream. Always, somehow, he had escaped the mainstream.

(p. 211)

Even after thirty years in Bombay—and fifty in India—Hugo still feels that he is an outsider, someone who does not quite belong:

The life of Bombay … had been Baumgartner's life for thirty years now—or, rather, the setting for his life; he had never actually entered it, never quite captured it; damply, odorously, cacophonously palpable as it was, it had been elusive still.

(p. 214)

Although Hugo claims to feel some comfort in his marginality—he has, after all, ‘escaped’ the mainstream—along with his feeling of being outside what is ‘normal’ and, in his words, ‘crowded,’ there is also a feeling of his not being acceptable. Early on in the narrative, Hugo is described in this way:

Accepting—but not accepted; that was the story of his life, the one thread that ran through it all. In Germany he had been dark—his darkness had marked him the Jew, der Jude. In India he was fair—and that marked him the firanghi. In both lands he was unacceptable.

(p. 20)

Not only does he have to flee his homeland as he becomes ‘unacceptable’ there, but he is never fully accepted in his country of refuge, in India. Even an example of his having adapted to his new country is more important in that it sets him apart from other Germans:

‘What, on your very first day you ate curry? And you did not get food poisoning? Dysentery? Not even diarrhoea?’ Lotte had been outraged when he told her, years later. ‘Mensch, it must be like a rubber tyre, your belly.’ Baumgartner laughed, rather proudly. It set him apart from others as pale as he in this foreign land. It was one more thing, he eventually realized, that set him apart from them.

(p. 88)

Even while he may seem to be fitting in with one group, he is isolated further, by that very act, from another. To Lotte, and to other Germans—Julius and Lily, for example—Hugo has become ‘too Indian.’ He has fitted in too well. Hugo has certainly constructed a life for himself in India, so he no longer sees Bombay as exotic—certainly a typical reaction for a European—but as something commonplace, normal; it is, quite simply, the place where he lives (pp. 19-20). What becomes a problem for Baumgartner is that, however much he may regard the places and people he sees as normal, he is still singled out, categorised as different, and named by them as such:

He had lived in this land for fifty years—or if not fifty then so nearly as to make no difference—and it no longer seemed fantastic and exotic; it was more utterly familiar now than any landscape on earth. Yet the eyes of the people who passed by glanced at him who was still strange and unfamiliar to them, and all said: Firanghi, foreigner.

(p. 19)

No matter how much Hugo may consider the landscape and the people who inhabit it to be familiar, he is still marked out by the colour of his skin, and by this label of firanghi. Even the landscape is seen as rejecting him. When he enters the cave, while he is waiting for a train, the cave rejects him, spitting him out as ‘Not fit for consumption’ (p. 190): ‘Go, Baumgartner. Out. He had not been found fit. Shabby, dirty white man, firanghi, unwanted. Raus, Baumgartner, raus’ (p. 190).

From the people, there is, according to the narrative, no deliberate malice in the name firanghi. The isolation which Baumgartner experiences through such a definition is not deliberately malevolent, and it comes more from a need or a desire for separation:

Their faces sneered ‘firanghi, foreigner,’ however good-naturedly, however lacking in malice. Still, the word struck coldly and he winced, hunching his shoulders and trying to avoid the contact he knew they hated because contact contaminated.

(p. 20)

Hugo's separation comes from the reactions of those around him. They shrink from him—and he from them—because of their fear of contact, because ‘contact contaminates.’ Acceptance—that which Hugo gives and never receives—comes from a willingness to make contact, to accommodate the ways of those who are perceived as different. Hugo shrinks from contact because he knows the people hate it—he is making the effort, in a gesture which is accepting, but which denies any possibility of his own acceptance. He sees himself as infinitely accepting, as always accommodating of others, but one who is never himself accepted by those others (p. 20).

Hugo remains, throughout his life, an outsider, one who is always separate, looking in to the mainstream but never participating. His only point of connection, the only person with whom he has a lasting relationship, and significantly the one who is summoned to his side after his murder, is Lotte. Importantly, they share a common language, the experience of immigration, the dislocation which accompanies that, and the knowledge that the place they left, and to which they can never return—the Berlin of pre-war Europe—no longer exists.

Bibliography and References

Anita Desai, Baumgartner's Bombay (London: Vintage, 1988).

Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World (Jackson and London: University of Mississippi, 1992).

Judie Newman, ‘History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay,World Literature Written in English, 30:1 (spring 1990), 37-46.

Andrew Robinson, ‘Out of Custody,’ Observer, 3 July 1988.

John Spurling, ‘The Wages of Ignorance', Observer, 3 July 1988.

Ramesh K. Srivastava, Perspectives on Anita Desai (Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1984).

Aritha van Herk, ‘Writing the Immigrant Self: Disguise and Damnation,’ In Visible Ink: Crypto-Frictions (Edmonton: NeWest, 1991):

Paul West, ‘The Man Who Didn't Belong,’ New York Times Book Review, 9 April 1989.

Further Reading

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Chakravarty, Radha. “Figuring the Maternal: ‘Freedom’ and ‘Responsibility’ in Anita Desai's Novels.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29, no. 2 (April 1998): 75-92.

Chakravarty examines the maternal tropes of Where Shall We Go This Summer?, Clear Light of Day, and Journey to Ithaca in terms of the novels's thematic concerns with the relationship between freedom and responsibility.

Choudhury, Bidulata. “Anita Desai: The Growth and Development of the Artist.” In Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai, pp. 37-53. New Delhi, India: Creative Books, 1995.

Choudhury provides an overview of Desai's life and career, tracing thematic similarities between Desai's short stories and novels.

Desai, Anita, and Olga Kenyon. “Anita Desai.” In The Writer's Imagination, pp. 35-43. West Yorkshire, UK: University of Bradford, 1992.

Desai discusses the influence of English language on Indian literature, the Indian feminist movement, Indian literacy, and the relevance of multiculturalism in contemporary Indian society.

Harrison, Kathryn. “When Karmas Clash.” Washington Post Book World (17 September 1995): 11.

Harrison outlines the plot of Journey to Ithaca, alluding to the spiritual and ethical questions that the novel poses.

Inamdar, F. A. “Fetters of Illusion: In Custody.” In The Fiction of Anita Desai, edited by R. K. Dhawan, pp. 140-53. New Delhi, India: Bahri, 1989.

Inamdar explores how Desai develops the thematic antithesis between illusion and reality in In Custody through material objects, the characters's tones of voice, and humor.

Mani, K. Ratna Shiela. “Irony in Anita Desai's In Custody.” In Critical Essays on Anita Desai's Fiction, edited by Jaydipsinh Dodiya, pp. 130-46. New Delhi, India: Ivy Publishing, 2000.

Mani studies how irony characterizes the narration of In Custody, analyzing the effects of the male protagonist and masculine perspective on the novel's style, tone, and humor.

Parmar, Virender. “Conclusion.” In Women in the Novels of Anita Desai: The Archetypes and Patterns of Quest, pp. 171-80. Jalandhar, India: ABS Publications, 2000.

Parmar evaluates the relevance of the representation of the Indian feminine throughout Desai's career within the context of other Indian literature written by women.

Additional coverage of Desai's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 53, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 19, 37, 97; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 271; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminist Writers; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 63, 126.

Minoli Salgado (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Salgado, Minoli. “When Seeing Is Not Believing: Epiphany in Anita Desai's Games at Twilight.Journal of Modern Literature 20, no. 1 (summer 1996): 103-08.

[In the following essay, Salgado analyzes the ways the individual stories of Games at Twilight question not only the concept of epiphany but also the potential for spiritual awareness in general, suggesting that Desai treats this culturally transcendent phenomenon within a culturally specific context.]

Epiphany is a central concept in short story criticism. Defined by James Joyce as a “sudden spiritual manifestation,”1 the idea of epiphany seems to be implicitly accepted by a range of critics as one of the key elements structuring the short story. Mary Pratt, for example, claims that “the moment of truth stands as the model for the short story, the way of life stands as a model for the novel,”2 suggesting that the revelatory nature of epiphany is somehow supported by the short story form and that it serves as a principle of composition for the writer. This view is qualified by Nadine Gordimer, who argues that “a discrete moment of truth is aimed at—not the moment of truth, because the short story doesn't deal in cumulatives.”3 Yet we may question whether the short story is indeed the vehicle of epiphanic moments or if it might instead be the instrument for its subversion. Clare Hanson's argument that the short story is “a form which hugs the unknown to itself”4 suggests that the answer might lie somewhere between these extremes: the short story, while promoting the desire for spiritual insight, might at the same time work implicitly towards denying the possibility of religious certitudes.

This subtle negotiation is evident in the work of Anita Desai. Her short stories bring into sharp relief the difference between epiphany as an underlying structural principle in the short story—provided for by what Hanson has called the “elisions and gaps” in the short story5—and epiphany as a thematic concern. For while the stories in Games at Twilight6 show a common thematic concern with a moment of truth or insight, their textual construction works towards questioning the value of these insights. Therefore, in order to analyze the way in which Desai interrogates epiphany—a moment of spontaneous, sudden, and transforming spiritual insight—it is necessary to analyze her treatment of spiritual awareness as a whole. Indeed, only two of her stories, “Studies in the Park” and “Surface Textures,” describe epiphanies. Desai's subversion of these epiphanies draws upon a broader subversion—one that questions the value of all insights—evident in nearly all of the stories in the collection. In the process, beyond the thematic and structural discontinuities in her work, Desai locates and, I would suggest, localizes epiphany, giving this socially transcendent and universalizing experience a culturally specific bearing.

Illumination is the key theme of Anita Desai's short stories. Its real and metaphorical manifestations not only structure individual stories, but also serve to provide the collection's overall pattern—that element of fiction which Desai has claimed is of most concern to her.7 The stories move between the “light” of insight, however fleeting, and the “dark” of indifference, between a development towards a moment of truth and an acknowledgement of the elusiveness of individual vision. But, as the very title of the collection, Games at Twilight, suggests, the stories describe potential and partial illumination. Desai conveys this sense of partial illumination by yoking a character's renewed awareness to the twilight hours. Twilight is the time when Raghu learns about the ignominy of defeat in the title story; it is the hour of release for Basu as he finally gains some peace in “Pigeons at Dawn”; it is the best time for revision and reflection, as Suno discovers in “Studies in the Park”; it is the hour of conviviality both forced and genuine in “The Farewell Party.” In all of these stories the conjunction between time and renewed awareness is used to affirm a dream time, a time when the imagination is released, a time when Scheherazade can begin her work of storytelling. It is, in other words, a time for the suspension of belief. This is significant, for it allows Desai to throw into doubt the value if not the validity of the insights gained by her characters.

Desai creates ambiguity in her depiction of spiritual insight by combining disruptions of form with implicit social commentary. Thus, she successfully uses various methods to convey a twilight quality: the tense changes in the first-person narratives of “Studies in the Park” and “The Accompanist” emphasize developments in the state of mind of the central character, and the restless shift of focus from one character to another in “Games at Twilight,” “The Farewell Party,” and “Scholar and Gypsy” draws attention to the temporality and transience of a suspended state of consciousness. This fluid form destabilizes the potential for a unified focus or moral center to the texts. Yet Desai does not stop here. She highlights the divergence between twilight and daylight awareness, exploring the spiritual and emotional conflicts generated by the urge for the fulfillment of self-reflection and the need to meet social obligations and material demands.

This conflict is explored in the story of Mr. Bose, who continues to provide private tuition despite finding it “intolerable, all of it—except … for the seventy-five rupees paid at the end of the month” (p. 16). He discovers that “the two halves of the difficult world he had been holding so carefully together, sealing them with reams of poetry, reams of Sanskrit, had split apart into dissonance” (p. 17). The fragile harmony at the end of “Private Tuition by Mr. Bose” is conveyed in suitably aesthetic terms—literature and music providing the idiom for an uneasy reconciliation and acceptance:

… the grammar re-arranged itself according to rule, corrected itself. The composition into quiet made quite clear the exhaustion of the child, asleep or nearly so. The sounds of dinner being prepared were calm, decorative even. Once more the radio was tuned to music sympathetically sad.

(p. 19)

The harmony created between Mr. Bose and his environment is quite clearly an aesthetic construct—his newly acquired tranquillity described as a fabrication, a “composition into quiet,” and it is this overt aestheticism that draws attention to the author's presence. It is as if Desai has stepped out from the shadows to reveal that Bose's state of mind is constructed from an awareness that lies outside his own. The passage provides a gloss of unity and harmony, delineating an aesthetic resolution of material conflict. Yet this exposure of the artifice that goes into the construction of a character's awareness not only draws attention to the external presence of the writer—thereby disrupting a hitherto seamless narrative—but also emphasizes the very exteriority of this moment of reflection, calling into question its authenticity and value.

This technique for destabilizing individual insight through self-conscious aestheticism is carried over into Desai's treatment of epiphany. In “Studies in the Park,” Suno, a stressed student, tries to concentrate on reviewing for his exams in a provincial park. There he sees something that, in his words, “burnt the surfaces of my eyes so that they watered” (p. 31). The exact import of his insight is, significantly, left unclear; what dominates is the form which his vision takes. It is a vision of a young woman whom he believes to be dying. The sight of her makes him feel as if he “were gazing at a painting or a sculpture, some work of art” (p. 30). Suno compares the woman's face to “a flower, wax-white and composed, like a Persian lily or a tobacco flower at night” and sees in it “a beauty I had never come across even in a dream”; he assumes that her paleness indicates that she is dying and even attempts a diagnosis—“she was very ill, with anaemia, perhaps, or t.b.”—and wonders if the old man accompanying her is “her husband, her father, her lover?” interpreting the intimacy between them as “inhuman” and “divine” (p. 30). Upon this brief glimpse of strangers in the park rests an undefined insight that liberates Suno from his social responsibilities, leading him to abandon his forthcoming exams and his familial commitments.

There is clearly an ironic distance here between the immanent author and the central character—a disjunction allowed for by the use of a first-person narrative rich in hyperbole and melodrama. Although the epiphany is undoubtedly a genuine experience for the central character, Desai's depiction invites the reader to make judgments about it. She not only shows the epiphany to be based upon a vast number of suppositions, but the overtly romantic rendition of her character's experience suggests that it is shaped by an aesthetic idealism that renders it immature and vacuous—the product of a highly romantic, self-serving imagination. What is more, his vision of death in life so closely corresponds to Suno's own sense of futility over his exams that it suggests that his epiphany draws upon a desire to escape from exam pressures.

This depiction of epiphany as an escape from social pressures is supported by Desai's treatment of spiritual awareness in general. In “Scholar and Gypsy,” Desai wryly juxtaposes an American woman's self-discovery and newly awakened religious awareness with the rationalist perspective of her unimaginative husband. Pat, the American woman, describes her experience in typically extravagant terms as an “escape from India,” an escape from “all those Hindu horrors” and all “the greasy Indian masses, whining and cajoling and sneering” (p. 128). This escape involves a reductive, childlike impression of the mountain folk whose harsh life is idealized under Pat's new visionary awareness: “all they have is a black old kettle and a pack of wood on their backs, rope sandals and a few sheep, but they laugh and sing and go striding up the mountains like—like lords” (p. 129).

Yet again Desai has developed a storyline that upholds the importance of individual insight while simultaneously creating a formal dissonance that questions the value of this insight. Destabilization is furthered by the context within which spiritual experience occurs: if the only option for a spiritually transformed person such as Suno is to opt out of society altogether (a pattern also found in the epiphanic story “Surface Textures”), it implicitly calls into question the viability of the spiritual experience to penetrate the real contradictions of existence. In “Studies in the Park,” it is as if Desai self-consciously locates Suno's epiphany in a tangibly godless world, exposing the experience as a self-indulgent fabrication and thereby subverting its transcendental potential to break the boundaries between spiritual and material worlds.

These boundaries form the subject of over half of the Twilight stories, in which Desai repeatedly draws attention to a character's failure to find a link between spiritual and material worlds, exposing the fragmentation of experience that is the very antithesis of epiphanic awareness. Art and artifice, she suggests, can provide a means of overcoming this fragmentation. Yet even in stories such as “The Accompanist” and “Sale,” in which Desai explores the liberating potential of an artist's awareness, she simultaneously reveals its limitations. In “Sale,” for example, an artist who paints imaginary birds and flowers is shown to be hopelessly misunderstood by a couple of prospective clients. They withdraw with embarrassment upon interpreting his enthusiasm for personal anecdote as a sign of pressure to buy his paintings. In crossing the boundary between solitary genius and ordinary man, the painter's work, too, is called into question by these devotees of High Art who wish to maintain their romantic view of the artist as gifted genius despite the ample evidence of the symbiotic relationship between material and spiritual need. Art has been created out of the “rags and grime” of the city studio and is less an “inspired act of creation” (p. 43) (as the prospective clients believe) than an habitual way of seeing, a way of surviving both physically and emotionally in the filthy city. The underlying logic of “Sale” is that the truth of imaginative insight, the path toward epiphany, must be publicly denied in order for the artist to achieve material success.

The depiction of spiritual awareness in Desai's short stories, then, is destabilized through a combination of plot—focusing on the failed attempts of an individual to permeate the boundaries between material and spiritual worlds—and disruptive formal techniques. This combination works to take the reader out of the text and dissipates the potential for creating the single, reunifying effect of epiphany. It is as if the compression imposed upon the short story from invites not the integrative vision of epiphany but the dissipation of partial insights. This is substantiated by Desai's disavowal of epiphany in “Surface Textures,” in which she brings together several of the techniques found in her treatment of spiritual awareness in a ruthless interrogation of the value of the sudden, spiritual revelation.

“Surface Textures” centers on Harish, a civil servant who is permanently transformed when he observes the contours of a melon that his wife has brought for lunch: “from the start [he] regarded it with eyes that seemed newly opened. One would have thought he had never seen a melon before” (p. 35). From that moment on, he is captivated by the sight and shape of everyday objects, paying no attention to anything else. His eyes “slide about” over the surfaces of things, “taking in things normally considered nondescript and unimportant [such as] the paving stones on which … feet momentarily pressed, the length of wire in a railing at the side of the road, a pattern of grime on the windowpane of a disused printing press” (p. 36). This trance-like state and aestheticized awareness is clearly induced by an epiphany. Yet it leads him not merely to lose his concentration—so that “the people in the queue outside went for another day without rice and sugar and kerosene for their lamps and Janta cookers” (p. 36)—but also to lose his job, his wife, his family, and his home.

Harish's epiphany dislocates him socially and psychologically. His worship of surface textures induces a trance-like state that leads him, in turn, to be the object of devotion. He, therefore, comes to be socially relocated as a Swami. But we may question whether Harish is mad or simply a mystic. Desai's ironic detachment leaves us little room for doubt. Harish's exclusive contemplation of external reality, including the objects of devotion brought to him, and the contentment of his devotees to interpret his silent form as a manifestation of divinity, reveal that both worshippers and worshipped are deluded by appearances. For Harish and his devotees, spiritual awareness is founded upon exteriority. By creating a disjunction between truth and the absolution of spiritual insight, between meaning and its individual interpretation, Desai seems to contend that all truths, including those that are founded upon epiphanic experience, are partial, personal, and plural. In “Surface Textures,” Desai has not only made epiphany relative by exploring the difference between objective reality and subjective experience and creating an ironic dissonance between the two; she has provided it with a context as well. In doing so, she has come to interrogate the cultural value placed upon manifestations of divine insight.

Seeing may literally be believing for the characters of Anita Desai, but the textual disruptions in her short stories question the possibility for lasting, meaningful insight. Indeed, her work seems to promote what Dominic Head has described in his analysis of Joyce as the multi-dimensional “non-epiphany,” one in which epiphany becomes “a nexus of a variety of forces rather than a single effect.”8 Such a plural and disruptive form of epiphany may well be imposed upon the short story by the exigencies of the form. Not only does the very length of the short story enforce omission and exclusion, liberating the text from the imposition of authorial commentary, but the very open-endedness—what Clare Hanson has described as the “tangentiality”9 of the short story—seems to invite, and simultaneously to undermine, the possible rendition of a single-effect, unifying epiphany.

What is more, unlike the unifying, transcendent epiphanies that conclude her novels Clear Light of Day and In Custody, the relative epiphanies of Desai's short stories invite the reader to question their meaning and worth. This interrogatory procedure transforms the epiphanies from a passive principle—one that extols the value of passive awareness in the character and passive acceptance in the reader—to an active force that invites the reader to inquire into the very possibility of finding true value. Desai's consistent suggestion that the path to spiritual insight is at odds with social commitments—commitments whose power can seem overwhelming even to those who are familiar with the Indian social context—is revisionary. Through it she promotes the individual's right to determine the course of his or her life. This right is no mere platitude. It gains real urgency and force when set within the Indian social context, in which Desai has gone so far as to claim that the concept of the individual does not exist.10

Whether this revisionary impact is the result of a conscious effort by the author is debatable. Desai has repeatedly drawn attention to the need to “compromise with life” and social reality.11 More importantly perhaps, she has suggested that art, the act of writing, is itself a compromise between the experience of epiphany and its articulation:

A writer who wishes to capture the spirit of place requires not the power of observation so much as a burning intensity of vision. If his vision has such intensity, his gaze will become powerful as the magnifying glass that is held between the sun and a sheet of paper, compressing and generating enough heat to burn a ring through the paper.

In the end, this is what a book is: the blackened remains of a fire lit by the writer.12


  1. James Joyce, Stephen Hero (1944; Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 216.

  2. Mary Pratt, “The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It,” Poetics, X (1981), p. 183.

  3. Nadine Gordimer, “‘The Flash of Fireflies,’” Short Story Theories, ed. Charles E. May (Ohio University Press, 1976), p. 180.

  4. Clare Hanson, “‘Things out of Words’: Towards a Poetics of Short Fiction,” Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson (Macmillan, 1989), p. 30.

  5. Hanson, p. 25.

  6. Anita Desai, Games at Twilight (1978; King Penguin, 1983). All subsequent references are cited parenthetically.

  7. Atma Ram, “Interview with Anita Desai,” World Literature Written in English, XVI (1977), p. 100.

  8. Dominic Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 54 and 49.

  9. Hanson, p. 23.

  10. K. Minoli Salgado, Interview with Anita Desai, “Towards a Definition of Indian Literary Feminism: An Analysis of the Novels of Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal and Anita Desai,” doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 1991, pp. 10 and 312.

  11. Salgado, pp. 302 and 307-08.

  12. Anita Desai, “‘Feng Sui’ or Spirit of Place,” A Sense of Place: Essays in Post-Colonial Literatures, ed. Britta Olinder (Gothenburg University Press, 1984), p. 109.

Rajeswari Mohan (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Mohan, Rajeswari. “The Forked Tongue of Lyric in Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32, no. 1 (1997): 47-66.

[In the following essay, Mohan explores the effects of English literary studies on the subjectivities of the postcolonial urban Indian middle class in Desai's works, suggesting that the unspoken gendered and imperialist premises of colonial culture limit the potential and aesthetic growth of the colonized.]

Over the last few years, ambivalence has emerged as the paradigmatic stance of postcolonial theory. While this might be attributed to the ascendancy of poststructuralist theory in academic discourses, from a materialist point of view one might argue that this ambivalence is symptomatic of the problem that decolonization is more than the physical displacement of the colonizer, itself not a tidy and punctual process. Colonization forces a fundamental rearticulation of culture and reconfiguration of social priorities. As a result, liberation struggles, after winning political independence, get re-directed at decolonizing the mind, in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's memorable phrase, resisting the blandishments of the emergent neo-colonial world order, and working towards a revitalization of national cultures. So it is that Ngugi has suggested recently that “the complexity of postcolonial politics and culture … cannot be properly understood outside the framework of the neo-colonial economic and political structures, which in effect means, colonial structures under another name.”1 Working from the belief that a critical awareness of the political implications of colonial culture is essential to a fuller realization of the dream of postcolonial freedom, this essay explores the mixed effects that the cultural apparatus of colonialism, specifically the study of English literature, has on gendered subjectivities of the urban middle class in postcolonial India. It begins by noting the ways English literature provides women with compelling discourses, narratives and tropes by which to make sense of their circumstances. Alongside these world views, the essay suggests, literary texts slip in their unsaid or understated gender and imperialist premises which set limits on what their readers can envision as possible, as just, right and beautiful. The same process may be seen with some variations in other realms of culture such as music. Also the hegemony of colonial culture either enshrouds alternatives, including indigenous traditions, in a pall of disrepute, or so alienates subjects from their own cultures that they appreciate them only as mediated and sanctioned by colonial cultures.

Writing about the dilemmas of women caught between colonial and patriarchal structures, novelists such as Anita Desai, Jamaica Kincaid, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Buchi Emecheta have acknowledged the mixed blessings of colonial education.2 Female protagonists in their novels often turn to English education to secure economic independence and cultural capital, thereby gaining some leverage in the traditional patriarchal systems within which they live.3 Education is narrativized as the process that brings women out of their homes and into the public sphere as economically able subjects who gradually gain critical consciousness of the forces ruling their lives as women in postcolonial societies. Though this process cannot by any means be exclusively attributed to the workings of schooling and literature, the significance ascribed to them is the focus of this essay. In these narratives, while education empowers women it also locates them at the nexus of contradictory gender ideologies, because it often valorizes an individualism that puts pressure on indigenous constructions of femininity that emphasize nurturing, self-denial and filial piety. Further contradictions are engendered by its advocacy of Western ideals of femininity based on the nineteenth-century middle-class figure of the “angel in the house” and subsequently that of the housewife-consumer.

In the general story of women's emancipation, the birth of the nation is of special narrative significance, metonymically suggesting an epistemological break and an originary moment. But the contradictions that bedevil attempts to narrativize this birth suggest that this moment foregrounds the ambiguities of all beginnings, always already inscribed as continuations of a past that is agonistically set aside to inaugurate a radically new future.4 Cross-hatched with assessments such as the one by Ngugi above, this textual ambiguity can lead to a historicizing and politicizing recognition not only of the pervasiveness and intransigence of colonial structures, but also of their informing presence in patterns of desire and doubt in narratives of postcoloniality. Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day tracks the orbit of this ambiguity. The novel interweaves the tales of three women as they contend with adulthood and its responsibilities with oblique accounts of the traumatic events of India's independence and partition. Through its engagement with personal memory and the collective memory recorded in history, the novel encourages a parallel, even allegorical, reading of the story of the nation and the status of its women. Bim, the novel's protagonist, is a woman forced to assume the mantle of responsibility for the family even though that would traditionally have been the prerogative of her brother Raja. At one point she declares, “There is never anybody except me,” and this becomes a poignant central plaint of the narrative.5 In a society where tradition guarantees several patriarchal buffers and protectors for women, protection being but the other side of control, Bim's situation swells out to imply a strong social critique. Hers is a story that makes visible not only the enmeshing family structures of patriarchal opportunism and exploitation, but also the forces ensuring her consent to what she recognizes as oppressive practices and disabling beliefs.

While the struggle for national liberation historically marks a moment when patriarchal constraints on women underwent redefinition, the narrative movement of Clear Light of Day posits an altogether different scenario. As women all over India were flocking in unprecedented numbers to join the independence movement and in the process forcing a shift in the social imaginary regarding gender, Bim remains firmly immured in the home.6 Even though she is very much an educated modern woman who has fiercely independent ambitions for her future, the opportunity to expand her horizons is closed to her, and the narrative stages this loss as a private family drama that inexorably narrows down her prospects. Her brother Raja, however, is given the option of participating in the struggle, but he is incapacitated by tuberculosis from doing so. In the way it sets up this withdrawal of the family from the torrent of historical events, the narrative embeds its points about gender in the field of upper-middle-class culture.

As the nation undergoes its fiery birth marked by partition riots, the figures of authority in the Das household inexorably pass away under bizarre circumstances. Bim is left behind in the family home, alone and unprepared, to manage the small family business, carve out a professional life for herself, and take care of her brother, Baba, who is afflicted with Down's Syndrome. The increasingly absurd circumstances by which the house in Old Delhi is gradually emptied out systematically clear the ground for the narrative's central exploration of Bim's and Tara's consciousness. The narrative thus sets up a parallel movement between British withdrawal from India and the progressive emptying out of the Das home, such that the very excess and absurdity of the family's tragedy seems to make a distinct point about the erosion of cultural frames of reference in the colonial world, an erosion that arguably threatens to unmoor the newly independent society.

To illustrate this point, one may turn to the images of disintegration with which the novel begins. The garden in Bim's house has fallen to rack and ruin. The remembered splendours of the rose walk are overtaken by dust and neglect as if to underscore the disintegration of a house once the figures of authority that bring order and regularity to its rhythms are gone. Things are not much different at the neighbours,’ the Misras. Old man Misra rails at his sons who completely abdicate their patriarchal responsibilities and live off their sisters' labours. He remembers his promises to take care of his sisters on Rakhibandan day “even if it was only a custom, an annual festival” (p. 33). His equivocation about the seriousness of his patriarchal responsibilities as mere formalities bound by custom and ritual foreshadows what is to come, for a page later, he boasts that he was no different from his sons in his own youth. It becomes clear that any promise of security the patriarchal order might offer to women is on shaky grounds from the start. Like Bim's father who, when alive, was nothing more than the “master of entrances and exits,” old man Misra too rests on the illusion of patriarchal responsibility whose benefit is that it allows him and his sons to take advantage of the women in the family without compunction. In the actions of these men, the narrative offers an axis against which we can plot Bim's anger at Raja's betrayal. Even before Raja is fully realized as a character, the narrative sets him up to be, despite his delicately cultivated sensibilities, no different from the Misras. In so doing, it seems to suggest that it is not so much that independence from the British set in motion a train of events that leave women like Bim and the Misra sisters in the lurch, but that the end of colonialism makes visible the gradual hollowing out of traditional ideologies of femininity.

As his Nandy's analysis is particularly pertinent in this context According to Nandy, colonial culture includes codes shared by both rulers and ruled: “The main function of these codes is to alter the original cultural priorities on both sides and bring to the centre of the colonial culture subcultures previously recessive or subordinate in the two confronting cultures. Concurrently, the codes remove from the centre of each of the cultures subcultures previously salient in them.”7 While the codes and conventions affecting women's lives are not Nandy's particular concerns, gender ideologies are obviously an important area undergoing reconfiguration under colonialism. Under the pressure of territorial displacement, class formation and religious identification during the independence movement, these ideologies assume complicated and indeed hardened forms that, despite their apparently liberatory potential, more often than not circumscribe options available to women. Education and culture often served as the ideological apparatus by which this change was consolidated. Clear Light of Day stages the workings of this apparatus as a polyphony of languages, literary and musical traditions, and genres that figures the contradictions at the centre of emerging ideals of nation and femininity.

This staging occurs in the midst of the novel's exploration of how finding one's voice depends on and extends clarity of vision. Voice is presented in the novel as an inescapably intertextual device that foregrounds the composition of subjectivity for, to the extent that it is distinctive, it is a web of citations, the source-texts of these citations marking characters off from one another. The fact that these texts are drawn from an array of cultural backgrounds, colonial and indigenous, is significant. As voice, that which is considered distinctive and most one's own, is shown in its impassioned and introspective moments to rely crucially on texts drawn from literary traditions that are set up in contestation with one another, the processes of subject formation in postcolonial contexts become discernible. The focus on voice and subjectivity is structurally maintained through the lyrical mode of the novel, which is sustained by the adoption of shifting points of view whereby the narration is focalized variably through different characters, through a thematic emphasis on characters' feelings that are subjective to the point of being solipsistic, and through a proliferation of citations from literary and popular cultural lyrics.

The constant eruption of music into characters' thoughts foregrounds the association of lyric with song. Baba, the silent one, asserts his presence by loudly and obsessively playing 78 R.P.M. records of the forties—hits of Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich and Nelson Eddy—on a hand-cranked gramophone. Brought to India by the American GIs and British Tommies stationed there during World War II, this music is coded as the monstrous and comic intrusion of Western popular culture into the already heteroglossic culture of postcolonial India. This coding is heightened by the association of this music with Benazir, Hyder Ali's daughter, whom Raja eventually marries. Unlike her father who is a patron and collector of high art, Benazir is an avid consumer of glossy magazines, synthetic fabric and Western music. The music thus signals by synecdoche the overshadowing of political responsibility by the emergence of middle-class consumerism in modern India and the concomitant displacement of British by American cultural products. As well, the music is a constant reminder of Raja's “betrayal” of Bim for Benazir, with its melodramatic titles—“White Christmas,” “Smoke Gets in your Eyes,” “Don't Fence Me In” and “Donkey Serenade”—serving as ironic commentaries on Bim's preoccupation with the past.

Adding to the effect of voice gone awry are the maudlin songs about nightingales and roses Mira-masi and Mulk sing when they are drunk. If Western popular music is presented as comic in its alienating effects, classical music comes in for a more complex critique. Much to Bim's and Raja's amusement, Dr Biswas, the only person to take an interest in Bim's welfare, confesses to an enduring attachment to the music of Mozart, Strauss and Bach. His description starkly reveals what is at work in this appreciation:

When I first heard Mozart … it was as if my whole past vanished, just rolled away from me—the country of my birth, my ancestors, my family, everything—and I arrived in a new world. It was a new world, a shining new world. I felt that when I heard Mozart for the first time—not when I stepped off the boat at Hamburg, or saw strange white faces and heard the strange language. … After that there was nothing in my life—only Mozart.

(p. 83)

For Biswas, Mozart signifies the moment when he is interpellated, to use Louis Althusser's term, in a manner that amounts to his renunciation of his cultural past and his rebirth as a Westernized professional. After this self-revelatory declaration, Biswas invites Bim to a concert of Brahms and Schubert. Raja and Bim ridicule Biswas perhaps because they are sensitive to the incongruity of attending a concert of eighteenth-century Western music at a time when their family is falling apart and the nation is erupting around them in riots. Yet they do not recognize that their own retreat into English and Urdu poetry is neither more nor less ridiculous than Biswas's musical tastes. Perhaps the peculiar valence of German culture in a post-World War II context in which Indian nationalism was curiously interwoven with Allied euphoria has something to do with this blindness. Perhaps, too, musical sensibility was less controlled by colonial hegemony than literary taste so that its mystificatory effects are more visible than those of literature.

This is certainly the conclusion encouraged by the evaluation of other forms of musical expression in the narrative. Bim notes the irony of the Misra sisters' giving themselves up to ecstatic song and dance about “Radha pining for Krishna” when their own lives are testaments to the betrayal of women by their husbands and brothers. Similarly, Biswas is deprecating of his mother's taste for Bengali songs composed by the nationalist poet Rabindranath Tagore, because it makes her unappreciative of his own musical tastes. Reiterating the futility and irrelevance of music, the exemplary lyrical mode, the narrative establishes affinities between the characters' difficulties in finding their voice and the paralysis of Old Delhi where every house is a “sleeping grave.”

As a personalizing metonym of the history of Old Delhi stand the relics of the Das family, especially the house with its dull, stolid colonial furnishings. The spirit of the house overwhelms Tara; its heavy burden of history pins her down. Significantly, it is a book, Jawaharlal Nehru's Letters to a Daughter, that makes tangible her sense of being overpowered by memory. Heightening her childlike sense of being a daughter of the house, Nehru's book also calls attention to the absence of links between generations and her father's failure to recognize his daughters and pass down the mantle of tradition and authority to them. If New Delhi, with its “democratic feudalism” of the Nehru dynasty, is ruled by the misappropriated legacy of one father, the house in Old Delhi is the site of a misrule born of paternal neglect. This moment anticipates Bim's complaint later in the novel about their uncaring father who never bothered to teach her about their family business. By problematizing the “responsible” father-daughter relationships of the Nehrus and the Misras, the narrative offers a response to Bim's resentment. Fathers' legacies, it suggests, are fundamentally flawed. Like the decaying relics of the Das family's lost grandeur and the hollow promises of freedom contained in Nehru's letters, the father's word leads to nothing but stale memories in an India ruled by “bribery and corruption, red-tapism and famine, caste warfare and all that” (pp. 35-6). The cost of the oppressive fullness of unrealized potential is hinted at by the stark emptiness of life outside the sagging gates of the Misras' house—in the somnolent heat of summer, everything is bare. The river is but a trickle and the nets the fisherman casts out are drawn in slack and empty. The house seems to have sucked the outside world of all promise. Significantly, the narrative plays down the connections between the paralysis of the family members and the hidden labour of servants, gardeners and clerks that is responsible for the punctual appearance of food on the family table and the monthly cheque from the business. That is, while the novel encourages an understanding of femininity as a continuum of oppression through the symbolic centrality it accords to Mira-masi, this understanding is undercut by the periodic appearance of an outer circle of unacknowledged workers who make it possible for the novel's main characters to spend time contemplating their suffering. The repeated contrasts drawn between the stasis of over-fullness inside the house and the stasis of emptiness outside, suggest a parallel or even causal connection—between the private and public, the domestic and civic, middle-class demoralization and subaltern deprivation—that remains one of the understated strands of the narrative, perhaps disclosing its own ideological blindness.

Tara's use of Nehru's letters as a reference-point to mark her re-entry into the pool of life she has left behind anticipates another similar moment in the narrative. As Bim confronts her with family tangles, Tara finds herself thinking about Sir Mortimer Wheeler's Early History of Indian and Pakistan; “how relevant such a title was to the situation of the family” (p. 28). History seems to give Tara emblematic figures, moments, events and, above all, texts by which to measure and comprehend her family life. History is no longer an account of the past, but refers to the persistence of the past—as text, discourse, and ideology—in the present. Thus the texts Tara turns to are not simply about Indian history; they are that history, exerting material influence on the lives of the characters. And the characters' tendency to render their histories intelligible through annotations throws into relief their positioning within the tangled conflicts between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, Hindi and Urdu, nationalist pride and colonial power, and men and women.

Bim shares this predilection to take stock of her life by textual references. As a child she loyally follows her older brother and idol, Raja, who in an emblematic moment declares that when he grows up he wants to be a hero, to which she assents by claiming that she wishes to be a heroine. As the children grow older, the heroic ideal assumes a distinctly literary cast. Raja assiduously follows his ambition, and the narrative relentlessly traces the bathos of his posturing, in the process making visible the complex effects of Romantic ideology on the formation of the national bourgeoisie. Enthralled by Lord Byron's fight for Greek independence and his death, Bim worshipfully identifies. Raja as a Byronic hero, an identification to which Raja is quick to accede. So well does Raja perfect this role, that his friends in college seek to enlist him to the cause of Hindu nationalism because they feel that “his idealistic enthusiasm, his graceful carriage, his incipient heroism” would lend credence to their cause (p. 57). But Raja's sympathy lies with the opposite camp, with the Muslim cause for which their neighbour Hyder Ali stands as a synecdoche. Even here, Raja's loyalty is to an aesthetic rather than a political ideal of secularism or religious tolerance, for he is awe-struck by the elegance, grace and nobility of Hyder Ali's courtly lifestyle which offers a marked contrast to his own dishevelled home. In other words, Romantic ideology in the colonial world is shown to be eminently compatible with the “Old Delhi decadence” associated with Bim's claustration. But as if to mark the political limits of this odd coalition, the narrative renders Raja's ardour impotent, since he is lain down by tuberculosis at the very time his loyalty has a chance of being tested by events. As the family and their neighbours are swept up by the political turbulence of independence and partition, Bim sees Raja with unconscious irony and insight:

His situation was Romantic in the extreme … his heavy limp body as she lifted it as spent and sapped as a bled fish, and the city of Delhi burning down about them. He hoped, like Byron, to go to the rescue of those in peril. Instead, like Byron, he lay ill, dying.

(p. 60)

As for Raja, the Byronic ideal is but the first in a series of disparate ideas he is unable to distinguish from one another, much less to arrange into political priorities. His imagination seethes with an assortment of texts that includes the Urdu verse of Iqbal, Zauq, Ghalib, Dagh and Hali; American paperbacks of Bromfield, Twain, Saroyan and Melville; volumes of Keats, Shelley, Blake, Donne, Swinburne, Tennyson and his beloved Byron; and the adventure-stories of Robin Hood and Beau Geste. Equally compelling to his imagination are his forays into the world of cinema where Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin compete for his admiration with Bombay films, especially those with songs by Seghal whose Urdu lyrics appeal to him powerfully. Faced by this array of cultural fare and aesthetic possibilities, Raja becomes the consummate dilettante, moving from one tradition to another, savouring each but always keeping faith with his ideal of intransitive heroism. The appeal of culture does not become anything more for Raja than an invitation to consumerism of a certain sort, and this latent position becomes fully realized in his eventual marriage to Benazir, Hyder Ali's daughter, who is coded as the upper-class consumer who surrounds herself with ribbons and lace, with glossy magazines and American records. In Raja, then, we are presented with a figure whose taste, culture and sensibility do not lead to nationalist, let alone revolutionary, consciousness as nationalist advocates of education had hoped. Instead, the circumstances of Raja's life, underwritten by middle-class and male privilege, result in a heroism without a cause.

Theorists of nationalism have long argued that one of the effects of colonial education was its inculcation of Western ideals of individual liberty and universal humanism in the native bourgeoisie. Ania Loomba has pointed out that the universal humanism put forward by the institutionalized study of literature “was useful in the task of hegemonizing native elite culture”; at the same time, native intellectuals from the nineteenth century onward drew upon the idea of universal humanism to point out the inherent unfairness of colonial domination and to “claim a place under the sun.”8 In the interaction between Raja and Bim, the narrative explores the effect on gender arrangements of the ideological work of literary study which produces colonial subjects who appreciate and adopt English cultural values and, as a consequence, serve as intermediaries between imperial rulers and their subjects. In this context, Raja's choice of Byron is significant because of the latter's revolutionary as well as expatriate stance exemplified in the following lines: “When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home / Let him combat for that of his neighbors.” Raja seems to have taken this exhortation to heart literally, albeit selectively, for even though there are freedoms to fight for at home, his sister's and brother's, for instance, he espouses his neighbour's cause. The narrative makes it very clear that this choice is not merely misguided romanticism or even an understandable desire to escape the confines of home, but really a sophisticated justification of his evasion of responsibility. Bim definitely sees it as such.

Romantic poetry, itself emerging in a crisis of culture provoked by the cataclysmic liberation movements in nineteenth-century Europe, met this crisis with what one critic has identified as “a psychological strategy … of cultural alienation and social isolation.”9 Critics of Romanticism have pointed out that this sense of crisis also stemmed in part from the gradual undermining of the universalism of Natural Law philosophy through the development of historical studies and the emergence of modern historical sense. As a result, human nature no longer could be seen as always and everywhere the same.10 Yet, this historicity is submerged and effaced by humanist critical paradigms that, in the context of colonial education, reintroduce universalism and aestheticism. In the words of one postcolonial critic, such education fosters the view that “literature pertained to the cultivation of certain emotions—sentimental effusions over the beauty of nature, anguish over mutability—and a high minded disdain for all rationality and abstract thought.”11 In Raja, the narrative exemplifies the middle-class products of this education, for it is precisely his high-minded disdain for rationality and historical urgency that allows him to pursue his goals undistracted by thoughts of social or family responsibility. Raja self-consciously cultivates the heroic ideal of the alienated artist. In the context of a bloody struggle for independence, Raja's aestheticism can be read as one of the sophisticated strategies of mystification deployed by the national bourgeoisie that protects it from political risk and bodily harm. Against Raja's duties to the family as its new paterfamilias, the Byronic heroic ideal bolsters individualism. So, when asked to take over the family business after his father's death, Raja, “gesturing with his hands which had grown long and thin and artistic after so many months of fever,” shrugs off his responsibilities claiming, “I am not a businessman” (p. 65). Prizing his individual freedom above all else, Raja can leave home in an act that is at once liberating (he is not caught in the stagnant atmosphere of Old Delhi) as well as irresponsible: His leaving forces Bim to sacrifice her longing for freedom emblematized by her childish fantasy of becoming a Gipsy or trapeze artist, and remain confined to her family home; what Raja has made of himself after all this is left mercifully unclear. Bim thinks that he is nothing more than a over-fed landlord and this, the narrative suggests, is the fate of heroism without a cause.

If Raja's cultivation of Romantic sensibility sets him apart from and above the others in the novel, he finds added support for his position in the politics of language. The English language is clearly given pride of place in the emotional and social growth of the characters, but it has a strong rival in Urdu, particularly for Raja's loyalty. The narrative is frank about the status that goes with Urdu. As the court language of the Moghuls, Urdu has persisted into the time frame of the novel as “the language of the learned and the cultivated.” Raja, however, dismisses Hindi, soon to become the national language of free India, as a language of no “great pedigree,” with its “modern, clipped, workaday forms.” The narrative underwrites Raja's value judgment every time Hindi is used in the novel. During Baba's brief forays into the outside world he is either commanded or cursed in the language. Operating as the medium of violent, bruising encounters with a world of exploitation, commercialization and brute power, Hindi betokens the public, social, and historical world the characters fear, shun, and avoid. It represents the graceless world of a postcolonial India bereft of the patrician, courtly elegance of Old Delhi Persian, the grandeur of Hyder Ali's Urdu, and the anglicized snobbery of the Das family.

Urdu, however, is inflected with a certain degree of nationalist, even anti-colonial resistance to English. When Raja measures Urdu against English poetry, he finds even his favourites, Tennyson and Swinburne, lacking the economy of grace he finds in the poet Iqbal. He says that “The Garden of Proserpine” is lovely to hear but is “too many words, all words, just words: Now any Urdu poet could put all that into one couplet” (p. 46). To be sure, Raja's devotion to Urdu poetry is very much caught up in his fascination for Hyder Ali, and it is perhaps this factor that turns Bim against it:

She was made shy by these verses—something in her cringed at a kind of heavy sentimentality of expression that was alien to her and also, she felt, to him … she regretted its effect on him.

(p. 82)

Bim fears the poetry's effect of fanning up ideas of heroism and loyalty which by definition, would be directed away from the family. But Bim's is also an aesthetic judgement. If Raja feels that English poetry masks its absence of meaning with an excess of words, Bim feels the same way about Urdu poems. They all seem to her to be always the same, about “death, and love, and wine, and flames” (p. 25), drawing upon the same old trite images of “the cup, the wine, the star, the lamp, ashes and roses” (p. 47). The aesthetic norms of originality and restraint implicit in Bim's judgement seem to derive from her complete indoctrination by her English education. Ania Loomba notes that the introduction of English education in India sought, among other things, “to penetrate and inform vernacular instruction … One evident result of this interpenetration is that today the critical orthodoxies prevailing in the departments of English literature and those of different Indian literatures are not entirely different” (p. 178). The nineteenth-century critical orthodoxies that inform Bim's judgement work in Raja's as well, though differently. The Iqbal that emerges through his quotes is an impassioned, sensuous, mystic, but depoliticized poet who almost warrants Bim's criticism. This is only one face of a versatile poet, every aspect of whose poetry, even his mysticism, was informed by a politically charged, nationalist and anti-colonial aesthetic. In other words, Raja and Bim's sensibilities depend upon and perpetuate a tradition whose selectivity is concealed even from themselves.

Like Raja, Bim is caught within the ideological binds of her colonial education, but without his male prerogatives and with a strongly inculcated sense of her responsibility for the family, she ends up being the one to pay the price for his freedom. Central to nationalist constructions of Indian tradition is the trope of maternity as the signal expression of femininity, evident in Gandhi's pronouncement that, “To me the female sex is not the weaker sex; it is the nobler of the two: for it is even today the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge.”12 Gandhi himself was to capitalize on this ethic of sacrifice with great success in his attempts to forge an oppositional nationalist agency that negated the very basis of colonial culture.13 But Bim's story is that, whatever its potential for nationalist resistance, this construction is pivotal to the curtailment of women's ambitions. The contradictory ideal of femininity instilled in her by colonial education is emblematized in the figures of Florence Nightingale and Joan of Arc whom Bim worships in her “private pantheon of saints and goddesses” (p. 126). This ideal is of a piece with the older Bim of the first section of the novel, whose hostility to Raja, Bakul and even Tara is matched by the equally fierce protectiveness and indeed maternal nurturing she shows towards Baba. But in depicting her childhood, the narrative presents Bim as a model student who fiercely upholds institutional order and social hierarchy. The narrative thus casts Bim as the site of contradictory desires to be free (like the Gypsy and the trapeze artist) and to be the pillar of a society whose gender norms are all about the curtailment of feminine power (she is the headgirl who idolizes Florence Nightingale). Bim's ambivalence about authority is symptomatic of the effects of English education on women. The emphasis on women's education was, from the nineteenth century, an important strand of the reform movements which accompanied the struggle for national liberation. Nationalist reformers believed that social evils could be wiped out with education, but women's education aimed to produce good home-makers and companionable wives and thereby revitalize orthodox gender ideologies.14 As such, education was designed not so much to emancipate and empower women, as to provide updated supports for the reorganized patriarchal and class system that followed independence.15

Like Raja, Bim leans upon English literature to voice her sense of who she is and how she will face the world. Figuring prominently in the novel are swathes of quotations that Bim has memorized from the poetry of Byron, Swinburne and Tennyson. These are the poets she is trained to appreciate under Raja's tutelage, and they are associated in the time-scheme of the narrative with the summer of 1947. The texts that come in for special emphasis are significant. Of Swinburne, we are treated to lines from “The Garden of Proserpine,” which Bim reads to the invalid Raja. Their fondness for this poem, which celebrates withdrawal from a state of “too much love for living,” from a world of hope and fear, into “sleep eternal,” assumes an almost macabre irony when we turn to the fact that the world outside the walls of their house was literally exploding with life, with history and politics, with hope and fear, at the very moment the two characters seek refuge in the forgetful Lethe of literature.16 Another work that is a special favorite of Raja's is Tennyson's “The Princess,” a poem that undercuts the potential of a feminist utopia organized around learned, independent and articulate women by casting women's quest for knowledge as a destructive, indeed fatal, aberration. In its reassertion of women's place in a domestic sphere ruled by the ideals of heterosexual love, marriage and motherhood, the poem enacts a profound anxiety over the possibility of women gaining voice and mobility.17 Also, its conclusion links women's rebellion to social chaos and national disintegration. Bim's adoration of Raja when transferred to his literary tastes leaves her defenselessly open to the poem's ideological agenda. It is precisely the reassertion of traditional ideals of feminine domesticity in these works that ensnares Bim. However, she accedes to the role of caretaker thrust upon her with an ill-grace that flows from her conflicted recognition that the values she lives by dictate the containment of her desires.

Poetry is thus the woof to the wrap of history and memory in the narrative. The pattern of this weave is revealed well before the novel begins in the epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “memory is a strange bell—Jubilee and knell—.” For Bim, poetry serves as a mnemonic device, the incantation of old favorites bringing back to mind the momentous events of the summer of 1947 when the fate of the nation and that of the family were cast by events sweeping up both. More importantly, poetry revives old feelings and registers the extent to which Bim has allowed herself to be confined by the events of long ago and by her growing burden of bitterness. Her habit of relying on poetry to express intense feelings and powerful insight does not seem to help much, as can be seen in the references to the sisters seething with “unspoken speech” (p. 10) and the house being bloated and swollen with “things left unsaid and undone” (p. 13). Indeed, the narrative suggests that the habit of taking colonial literature as a blueprint for life depends on and encourages a state of intellectual passivity. Tara and Bim are avid readers as children but, we are told, “they hadn't the vitality that Raja had, to participate in what they read—they were passive receivers, bulging with all they read, sinking with its weight like waterlogged rafts” (p. 120). The image of death by water implied by this comment firmly imbricates Bim and Tara in a web of associations that explains their lives through the articulated effects of gender, class and colonialism.

Central to this chain of associations is the accidental drowning of a “bride-like” cow in a well at the bottom of the garden. Ever afterwards, we are told, the horror of that death lingers “like a mad relation, a family scandal or a hereditary illness waiting to re-emerge” (pp. 107-8). This simile becomes literalized in the horrific circumstances of their aunt Mira-masi's gradual death from drinking. In keeping with her penchant for seeking literary analogues to her experiences, Bim envisions her as having drowned:

Bim dreamt night after night of her bloated white body floating naked on the surface of the well. Even when drinking her morning tea, she had only to look into the tea-cup to see her aunt's drowned face in it, her fine-spun silver hair spread out like Ophelia's, floating in the tea.

(p. 99)

That Bim should choose the image of the drowning Ophelia, a figure of iconic significance to the Pre-Raphaelites, is in keeping with her literary tastes. But the image subtly erodes her defences against the insight that Mira-masi's death is nothing less than a hideous drowning. At the same time, it protects her from the full force of the recognition that her aunt's death, especially the eruption of her dementia, stages a return of repressed family secrets. Michael Taussig points out that “things such as the signs and symptoms of disease … are not ‘things-in-themselves,’ are not only biological and physical, but are also signs of social relations disguised as natural things, concealing their roots in human reciprocity.”18 That is, Mira-masi does not passively succumb, Ophelia-like, to the combined weight of her betrayal and disappointment. Instead she plays out in her symptoms her anxiety, confusion, and above all, anger at her situation. In so doing, she becomes the riveting point where the obscene violence of the postcolonial conjunction of indigenous and colonial patriarchy stands exposed.

Mira-masi's downward spiralling begins with the gradual loosening of the ties that bind the Das children to her. As first Raja gravitates towards Hyder Ali and then Tara leaves to marry Bakul, she takes to drink “as if to hide from the intolerable prospect” of losing her only reason to live. But Mira's feeling is less of anxiety than of anger. This point is forcefully made in her hallucinations of herself as a drudge, a weary worker bee, that satisfies the unremitting demands of the larvae that “swelled on the nourishment she brought them” (p. 89). In contrast to the enraged recognition of exploitation in this passage are others where Mira adopts the ideal of maternal sacrifice:

Soon they grew tall, soon they grew strong. … If they choked her, if they sucked her dry of substance, she would give in without any sacrifice of will—it seemed in keeping with nature to do so. … she was the soil, she was the earth.

(p. 111)

But the circumstances surrounding her death and the lingering shadow of her presence long after her death suggest anything but her capitulation “without any sacrifice of will.” She may have entered the Das family “like a discarded household appliance they might find of use” (p. 105), but her death throws into relief the silken filaments of duty, responsibility, helplessness, fear and guilt that bind all the female characters in the novel.

The narrative achieves this effect by establishing a series of metonymic relations between characters with Mira-masi at the emblematic center. As Bim takes stock of her life towards the end of the novel, she, like her aunt before her, resorts to naturalistic tropes that conflate parasitism and nurturing. She thinks of her family with anger as swooping down on her like mosquitoes to torment her and sip her blood (p. 153). So it comes as no surprise that by the end of the novel, like Mira-masi, Bim remarks, “I always did feel that—that I shall end up in that well myself one day” (p. 157). But Bim is not alone. With the comment that the “secret, hopeless suffering of their mother was somehow at the root of this subdued greyness, this silent desperation that pervaded the house” (p. 130), the narrative provides even Mira-masi with other antecedents in the family.

Curiously enough, the narrative deprives Bim of any recognition of the consistently gendered pattern of this anger and rebellion. Indeed, the poetic allusion to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land that accompanies every reference to the persistence of Mira's-masi's presence poses this coherent pattern of feminine resistance as a baffling enigma. In response to the question, “Who is the third who walks always beside you?,” we only have the poem's bewildered “Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman” (pp. 41, 100). In relation to Mira-masi's life, Bim invokes another modernist poem as well. If Romantic lyric puts forth an ideal of passionate and ardently imaginative subjectivity whose effects we have already traced in Raja, Bim's choice of modernist articulations of the crisis of that subjectivity is singularly appropriate. D. H. Lawrence's “Ship of Death,” helps Bim deal with her aunt's death through a fatalistic acceptance of oblivion and helplessness. Whatever might be the emotional, indeed subversive, charge of the poem as an expression of Lawrence's modernist revolt against a world ruled increasingly by technology, instrumental reason and man's will to power, the poem only serves to overdetermine and rationalize Bim's already disempowered and alienated condition. So, murmuring lines of the poem, “upon the sea of death where still we sail / darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port,” as her aunt slowly slips into death, Bim too wishes “that she could herself lower herself into that dark tunnel and slip along behind the passage made for her by the older, the dying woman” (p. 98). The ambiguity of Bim's longing, in its conflation of birth and death, is in keeping with the tenor of Lawrence's poem. But Bim reads the poem in conjunction with another text, the Tibetan Thodol Bardol, to arrive at a mystical, ritualistic interpretation of the lingering trace of her aunt's agony: “I felt Mira-masi was lingering on, in the garden, not able to leave because she hadn't been seen through all the stages [of death] with relevant prayers and ceremonies” (p. 42). The combined effect of these interpretive moves on Bim is the obscuring of a reading the narrative itself encourages. The uncanny lingering presence of life-in-death makes visible, to those who will see, the death-in-life that is the fate that the peculiar circumstances of national culture impose on women. Homi Bhabha has argued that the trope of such unhallowed haunting signals the manner in which “the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history's most intricate invasions. In that displacement the border between home and the world becomes confused; and uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.”19 The disorienting effects of Mira-masi's haunting is heightened by the split between the sympathy with which Bim's tortured self-knowledge is portrayed and the narrative's unflinching focus on the inescapable flaws of that knowledge.

A similar dynamic is played out in Bim's reactions to Baba. After Mira-masi's death the sole reason for Bim's remaining in the family home is her responsibility for Baba. At one point in the narrative, she vents her frustration on Baba by resentfully asking him to go away and live with Raja in Hyderabad. But as soon as she makes this demand, guilt and remorse set in, once again mediated by literary references. It is as if her visceral reaction, rooted in her recognition of the conditions of her existence and the ways of her family is over-ridden by the ideological imperatives of a literary discourse that, in advancing ethical as well as aesthetic norms about the way things ought to be, also fills her with guilt for having transgressed those norms:

It was Baba's silence and reserve and otherworldliness that she had wanted to break open and ransack and rob, like the hunter, who, moved by the white bird's grace as it hovers in the air above him, raises his crossbow and shoots to claim it for his own—his treasure, his loot—and brings it hurtling down to his feet—no white spirit or symbol of grace but only a dead albatross, a cold package of death.

(pp. 164-5)

Bim's admission of guilt is contradicted by the narrative's representation of the Das family. The first three sections of the novel trace the ways Tara and Raja have retreated further and further away from the old house and have arranged their lives so that it becomes impossible for them to share Bim's responsibilities. Raja's patronizing grandeur, Tara's insecurity and guilt and Bakul's bureaucratic bluster have also been identified as psychological defences that protect their life-styles. The narrative thus establishes the groundwork that allows Bim's request to Baba, if not its manner, to seem altogether justified.

The overdetermined effect of Bim's literary sensibility and her affinities with the tragic history of feminine suffering in the narrative is that of wearing down her resistance and undermining her confidence in her understanding of her life. So it not altogether surprising that as she clears out the detritus of the past from her room, it is not of new beginnings she is thinking, but of death. Once again she marks this turning point in her feelings by a textual citation from “a book that would draw the tattered shreds of her mind together and plait them into a composed and concentrated whole” (p. 167). This time her training as a historian takes her to a biography of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, and “as if by instinct” she opens the book to an account of the emperor's death. In this elegiac mood, Bim recants her anger towards her family and accepts her position with a messianic fatalism:

Bim could see as well as by the clear light of day that she felt only love and yearning for them all, and if there were hurts, these gashes and wounds in her side that bled, then it was only because her love was imperfect and did not encompass them thoroughly enough, and because it had flaws and inadequacies and did not extend to all equally.

(p. 165)

Bim's misplaced acceptance of guilt, smoothed over by the allusion to Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is now contradictorily secured by this conjunction of sacrifice and sacrificer in the figure of the flawed messiah. Having played out the various nuances of connection between voice and vision, the novel reverses itself at this point, offering vision only at the obliteration of voice and will.

As Bim represses her previously angry resistance to her family's dependence on her, and accepts her place with a Christ-like abnegation of self, a series of revisions occur in the dense semiotic network the novel has painstakingly established. These revisions lead to a closure where anger is transfigured through the agency of lyric. While this change in narrative direction starts with Bim's resignation to her lot, it emerges full blown in the context of a concert that her neighbours the Misras organize to celebrate the birthday of Mulk's guru. Through the novel, this celebration is periodically discussed by the Misra sisters who worry about the expense it entails—they, after all, are the ones who are going to have to find the money and time to organize it. Coinciding with Raja's daughter's wedding, the concert is described in ways that highlight the theme of feminine sacrifice the novel has built up through its pages. However, the description subtly recodes and transvalues sacrifice by advancing an interpretation of lyric subjectivity different from the ones previously advanced. We have seen how Raja's and Bim's privileging of nineteenth-century English lyric forms installs a norm of inviolate, individualistic subjectivity that allows Raja to pursue his dream of heroism selfishly and breeds resentment in Bim. We have also seen that Bim's aesthetic sensibility blinds her to the subversive potential and empowering aspects of Iqbal's Urdu lyrics. In her new-found state of resignation, however, Bim can hear cadences that eluded her in the past. So, when Mulk begins to sing, it is not maudlin phrases leading nowhere that she hears, but a voice of pride and triumph that succeeds where others could not. In contrast to “The Ship of Death” Mira-masi could not launch, “He had launched their boat, now they were all in motion. Now they rose upon a crest, now they moved forward upon a wave of sound” (p. 179). In one stroke, music breaks the stasis and the solipsism that encased Bim up till this point. At the same time, however, the lyric mode converges and resonates with her frame of mind and validates her sacrifice where previously it released oppositional desires. Instead of the impassioned heroic ideal she and Raja found in their beloved poetry in their youth, Bim now hears an elegiac acceptance of the flow of life. In the voice of Mulk's guru, she hears “the bitterness of his experiences, the sadness and passion and frustration” (p. 182).

The narrative thus gradually moves Bim away from a position of feminine resistance to one of existential acceptance where she locates herself in a circle of pain that is not so clearly gendered as before. But this circle is less discriminating only insofar as lyric agency, voice, is completely surrendered to men. In a fitting rendition of Iqbal's ghazal, Raja's favourite, the guru sings, “Your world is the world of fish and fowl. My world is the cry at dawn” (p. 182). At this point, however, the ubiquitous poetry of T. S. Eliot steps in. Listening to the old singer, Bim is reminded of the line from the Four Quartets, “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,” itself a paraphrase of one of Krishna's lessons in the Bhagavad Gita. The irony of Bim's invocation of a central tenet of Hinduism only as it is mediated by the modernist anxiety of an English poet is heightened by the novel's earlier criticism of the “eternal India” associated with certain constructions of the Gita. This text, which is often characterized as a Hindu “Gospel of Action,” is invoked here to rationalize a mystical abjection whose implication in the bureaucratic hypocrisies of the everyday political life of the country has already been exposed in Bakul. Bim is thus positioned analogously to the nation, both being subject to opportunistic manipulations of texts and traditions.

Spurred by this allusion, the narrative moves towards a reconsideration of the entire complex of imagery in which Bim and Mira-masi are enmeshed:

With her inner eye she saw how her own house and its particular history … [was] not binding them within some dead and airless cell but giving them the soil in which to send down their roots, and food to make them grow and spread, reach out to new experiences and new lives, but always drawing from the same soil, the same secret darkness. That soil contained all time, past and future in it. It was dark with time, rich with time.

(p. 182)

In its acknowledgement of the hope of new lives and its reaffirmation of the family's roots in the house and its history, the narrative makes a move towards reconciliation and closure. But the ghost of Mira-masi and the obstinate memory of her troubled recognition that “she was the soil, she was the earth” (p. 111), snags this move. Bim's self-division is marked by the imagery accompanying her reconciliation. She and her family are rooted in and nurtured by the dark secret soil of their history; but the thematics of encryptment so powerfully explored in the preceding pages also reminds us that the source of this rich fecundity is nothing less than the female labour and sacrifice embodied in Mira-masi and Bim herself. Thus, as deeply felt as the need for closure, resolution and reconciliation might be, the narrative spins out of control with each attempt Bim makes to install herself as the still centre of the family.

Gayatri Spivak's provocative exploration of the question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has impressed upon us the discursive mechanisms and institutional pressures working to close out subaltern self-representation. In the wake of her argument, readings of novels such as Clear Light of Day make it abundantly clear that agency in postcolonial contexts is often predicated upon the ability to say the “impossible no” to structures one inhabits intimately.20 This promise of agency, however, is fraught with the fear of psychic death. Thus, despite its poignant attempt at reconciliation, what the novel leaves us with is a sense of the crippling paucity of choices available to middle-class women, such that even glimmerings of possibility of a different life are quenched by the relentless demands made on them and the circumscriptions on their lives. The most insidious of these limits, the novel suggests, are the tantalizing effects of lyric sensibility which stirs up desires for freedom and self-fulfilment even as it sets up checks to those desires.


  1. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. “Postcolonial Politics and Culture,” Southern Review, 24 (1991), 11.

  2. On the importance of English education as a source of moral and intellectual suasion in matters of colonial governance, see Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

  3. Of the several examples that come to mind, I cite the eponymous heroines of Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Lucy, and Ada in Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen. The contradictory construction of femininity is powerfully represented in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions.

  4. For an influential articulation of this position, see Homi Bhabha, “Dissemi-Nation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi Bhabha, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322.

  5. Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day, New York: Penguin, 1980, p. 61. Subsequent references to this edition are given in the text of the essay.

  6. For a recent engaging account of this process, see Radha Kumar, The History of Doing, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1993. See also Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, London: Zed, 1986. On the contradictory alignment of women with modernity and tradition, see Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi, Daughters of Independence, London: Zed, 1986.

  7. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self under Colonialism, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 2.

  8. Ania Loomba, “Overworlding the ‘Third World,’” Oxford Literary Review, 13, 1-2 (1991), 178.

  9. Morse Peckham, “On Romanticism: Introduction,” Studies in Romanticism, 9 (1970), 218.

  10. Jerome J. McGann. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 67.

  11. Arun Mukherjee, Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Cultural Imperialism, Ontario: Williams-Wallace, 1988, p. 4.

  12. Quoted in Jana Matson Everett, Women and Social Change in India, New Delhi: Heritage, 1979, p. 76.

  13. Nandy, op. cit., p. 54.

  14. Vina Mazumdar makes this point succinctly: “Education would not turn the women away from their familial roles, but improve their efficiency as wives and mothers and strengthen the hold of traditional values on society, since women are better carriers of these values,” “The Social Reform Movement in India from Ranade to Nehru,” in Indian Women from Purdah to Modernity, ed. B. R. Nanda, New Delhi: Vikas, 1976, pp. 49-56.

  15. See also Jayawardena, op. cit., pp. 73-108.

  16. Equally relevant is the poem's celebration of a myth that is widely regarded as marking “the male usurpation of the female agricultural mysteries in the primitive times,” Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. I, New York: Penguin, 1960, p. 93. In view of the references to Tennyson's “The Princess,” this strand of meaning gains in importance.

  17. On this point, see Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land 1: The War of the Words, New Haven: Yale UP, 1988, pp. 3-16. Kate Millett's assessment of Tennyson is particularly relevant to Raja's containment of Bim's ambition: “Masculine security appears to depend on Tennyson's ability to turn the rebel's head from learning to love.” See Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, New York: Ballantine, 1987, p. 108.

  18. Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 83.

  19. Homi Bhabha, “The World and the Home,” Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 141.

  20. Gayatri Spivak, “Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value,” Literary Theory Today, eds. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990, p. 225; “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988, pp. 271-313.

Uma Parameswaran (review date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

SOURCE: Parameswaran, Uma. Review of Journey to Ithaca, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 221.

[In the following review, Parameswaran praises the complexity of the human relationships in Journey to Ithaca but finds their resolutions “too simplistic.”]

Over a span of two decades and ten novels, Anita Desai has built up a solid repertoire and a reputation for sensitive insights into human behavior and finesse of language appropriate for expressing them. Journey to Ithaca is a story of the European “flower children” of the 1960s and 1970s who flocked to India and Nepal in search of a kind of spirituality that their lives seemed to lack. Armed with idealism, they reached out to the gold at the end of the rainbow. But their journey took them through the phase of substance abuse—as we now euphemistically call it—and many never came out of that phase. A few went on to find a “guru,” and some wrote songs that set their generation ablaze with another wave of idealism that was more often than not as misplaced as the first beatnik wave.

Journey to Ithaca is the story of a young Italian, Matteo, who leaves his aristocratic European home, armed with Hesse's Journey to the East and ideals of free love and free spirit, fed by his English tutor. His equally ideal-inspired wife Sophie comes to a point when she wants to settle down with their children to a more traditional life, but Matteo has found his mission: service at the ashram of the Mother an enigmatic and charismatic woman who runs the ashram on the precept that hard work is the way to salvation.

The story so far is rather stereotypical: the much-inflated spirituality of India, and its equally inflated dirt and filth and promiscuity, all encapsulated in the final night that Sophie spends in Bombay when a businessman breathes filthy innuendoes down her neck. But then in the second half Desai has Sophie embark on her own journey of discovery, unearthing the life story of the Mother. Without divulging details of this part of the novel, one can say that the narrative takes on a journalistic slant and gallops on to fill in the blanks of the Mother's past: the 1920s in Cairo, stays in European capitals, then on to India.

To say I was disappointed without giving my reasons would be unfair to the author. But a review must be more than a blurb for the book being reviewed, though its length precludes analysis. The disappointment comes from the narrative's being too pat, too easy in its resolutions. There are very complex human relationships, but their resolutions are too simplistic. For example, Krishna, the dancer who gives Sophie the Mother's diary, is an abridged version of the self-centered poet of In Custody, and he parts with the diary too easily. There are philosophical questions being posited, but the answers are too naïve. For example, the Mother, whose prototype can be found in the Mother of Aurobindo Ashram, has a string of philosophical discourses that can be read as just that—a string of flowers, a circle that leads nowhere. But maybe that is the point of it all—typical of Desai's acerbic distancing of herself, much like Sophie—from answers to spiritual and artistic questions. The title makes clear this stance: the Ithaca of C. P. Cavafy (whose lines are used as epigraph) and of Tennyson's “Ulysses,” which affirm that the journey is more important than the origin or destination.

Katharine Capshaw Smith (essay date April 1997)

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SOURCE: Smith, Katharine Capshaw. “Narrating History: The Reality of the Internment Camps in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 2 (April 1997): 141-57.

[In the following essay, Smith contrasts the experiences of the imprisoned protagonist of Baumgartner's Bombay with the similar autobiographical account of Heinrich Harrar in Seven Years in Tibet, demonstrating not only the historical veracity of Desai's representation but also its effects on the development of Baumgartner's conflicted character.]

Baumgartner's Bombay is a text deeply concerned with intrusion of history into an individual's interior life. Desai weaves Hugo Baumgartner's experience of Kristallnacht and pre-Holocaust Germany with descriptions of India's partition riots in order to create a realistic—and historical—image of “[t]he clash between the inner and the outer [worlds]” of Baumgartner's sensibility (Desai, Interview 166). Much critical study of the novel focuses on discovering the foundations for its events and perspective in Desai's German lineage and multicultural background.1 Moreover, such critical attention mirrors the novel's narrative structure, for just as Lotte attempts to piece together the fragments of Baumgartner's postcards in order to imagine his life story,2 scholars seek further resonances and connections among the novel's events and biographical particulars. In fact, Desai explains that her narrative structure contains “a certain mystery, a puzzle at the heart of it” (Bliss 529) which compels the reader to tease out its sources and associations.

More significant than such narrative puzzles, however, is the historical context needed to understand Baumgartner's situation. The pivotal historical situation that frames the central section of Baumgartner's Bombay is the phenomenon of the Indian internment camps. Nonetheless, it is difficult to provide historical context for Baumgartner's six years in confinement; little record remains of British India's wartime sequestration of foreigners whose nationality rendered them enemies of the British Empire. In an interview with Lalita Pandit, Desai describes the frustrating process of uncovering substantive information about the conditions of these internment camps: “All I had to go on was the material about the detention camps in the West. … There was material about internment camps in Canada and England, and I read all of those” (170). Faced with the surprising paucity of information, Desai relied on conversations with former captives for information to create her depiction. However, one major chronicle does record a prisoner's experience in the Indian detention camps. The first two chapters of Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet (1954) recounts his own confinement in and escape from these camps.

In fact, although criticism of the novel registers no debt to Harrer, Desai clearly drew on Seven Years in Tibet to create her vision of Baumgartner's camp. Many events in Desai's novel parallel those found in Harrer's account. In fact, Harrer himself, an Austrian mountain climber, actually appears as a character Baumgartner encounters, the “Hüber” who later writes of his confinement experiences. Desai hints at the intertexuality by directly alluding to Harrer's record near the end of her narrative, when a former captive exclaims to Baumgartner, “‘Did you know that the man who escaped, that fellow Hüber, he wrote a book about the whole experience? But, Hugo, it must be read—a man we knew, shared the camp with, he goes and writes a book about it—is it not fantastic?” (198). In a fictional world composed largely of actual events, this textual reference signals the novel's intertextuality and provides historical authentication for Baumgartner's experience in the camp. However, Seven Years in Tibet is important not only for the positive information it provides about internment but for rendering salient the particular purposes of Desai's rendition. Selectively appropriating and manipulating Harrer's events and characters, Desai forges a vision of Baumgartner's camp which resonates with the larger themes and issues of her novel. First, Desai's use of Harrer can be read as part of the novel's insistence on narrative repetition and circularity,3 for such allusions point back to Harrer again and again. Second, intertextual allusions to Harrer cohere in general with the text's other references to global historical events, like the holocaust and India's independence, for both work to establish the narrative's historical rootedness. But while Harrer's text records the sociohistorical event of internment, it also chronicles one man's response to the experience; thus, Desai draws also on Harrer's personal experience, just as she includes her mother's German lullabies along with world events. By using Harrer, Desai speaks at once of both the public historical experience and the private; this double-voiced intertextuality is especially significant in echoing and underscoring the tension between the “inner and the outer [worlds]” (Desai, Interview 166) of Baumgartner's sensibility.

Not only is this layer of intertextual reference important in establishing the novel's larger themes, but a contrast of Desai's text with Harrer's brings into relief critical aspects of Baumgartner's characterization. First and most obviously, awareness of Harrer's vigorous physical reaction to confinement stresses Baumgartner's tractable and submissive nature. More important, the contrast between the texts sheds new light on Baumgartner's character by revealing the precise nature of his passivity. Baumgartner's compliance with captivity derives not from a listless insensibility to his surroundings—what one might commonly associate with passivity—but from an overwhelming absorption in the camp's sensory detail. Enthralled by the camp's auditory and visual attributes, Baumgartner cannot imagine physical escape from internment, unlike Harrer's character, who conducts several escape attempts. But by concentrating on his senses, Baumgartner is able, if only temporarily, to evade his troubling past. What appears as passivity, then, becomes a mode of action, Baumgartner's means of escape from a history that is always with him. Finally, however, Desai uses Harrer's escape attempts to call into question the efficacy and pragmatism of Baumgartner's escapist contemplation.

In establishing the historical veracity of Baumgartner's internment, Desai models the broad outlines of his confinement on Harrer's account, but with important differences in perspective.4 Both Baumgartner in Desai's novel and Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet spend time at “the great internment camp at Ahmednagar near Bombay” (Harrer 20), or “the central internment camp in Ahmednagar” (Desai 106). Both are transported to a “final internment camp” (Desai 107) in eastern India, which Harrer explains is “a few miles outside the town of Dehra Dun” (21). In describing the setting, Desai significantly excludes details from Harrer which Baumgartner could not know, such as the presence of a “summer residence of the British and rich Indians” (Harrer 21) on a hilltop community outside the camp. Desai offers little sense of the size of the compound at Dehra Dun or its relationship to other internment facilities, presumably because Baumgartner's perspective and experience precludes such knowledge. Unlike Baumgartner, Harrer recognizes this final camp as the “greatest P.O.W. camp in India” (21) and, looking down on the compound during an escape attempt, describes the prisoners as numbering “two thousand” (25).

Not only is Desai's selection and reinterpretation of Harrer's material contingent on Baumgartner's limited perspective, but it also contributes to Baumgartner's characterization. Desai appropriates many of Harrer's reactions to the camp and reimagines them to create Baumgartner's individual response to confinement. Early in the text, Desai emphasizes Baumgartner's tendency to rely on sensory impressions for conclusions about his surroundings. Baumgartner is often “[r]avished by the sights, the sounds” (91) of his various environs. Ultimately, this becomes Baumgartner's mechanism for coping with confinement. In depicting Baumgartner sensory absorption, Desai transmutes Harrer's idealistic response to his environment into Baumgartner's preoccupation with the camp's new and immediate sensory perceptions. For example, Desai recasts Harrer's awe of the Himalayas into Baumgartner's heightened sensitivity to his surroundings. To Harrer, the mountains represent freedom and reflect his own integrity and courage in the face of incarceration in a valley: “‘No,’ I thought, ‘this atmosphere is too different from the sunlit, lonely heights of the Himalayas. This is no life for freedom-loving men’” (Harrer 20). In contrast, when Baumgartner contemplates the Himalayas, he loses himself in a sensitive apprehension of the scene: “There they were—an uneven line of smoke wavering against the pale glass of the sky, leaving upon it a faint smudge. The Himalayas. He thought he could smell them: sap, resin, wood-smoke, a tingling freshness, from that immense distance and height sending down some hint of ice and snow and streams” (107).

In addition to applying Harrer's material to Baumgartner's characterization, Desai also manipulates Harrer to underscore the risks and limitations of Baumgartner's sensory preoccupation. Harrer reacts to the “steep, straw-thatched roof[s] that had been put up to protect the sentries against the tropical sun” as an avenue to escape: “If we could climb over one of these roofs we should have crossed the two lines of barbed wire at a single bound” (23). Drawing on Harrer's description, Desai also allows Baumgartner to contemplate the same enclosure, but with a vision circumscribed by his trust in sensory impressions: “Baumgartner, looking about him, seeing the barbed wire fencing, the gates guarded by guardhouses on stilts, the barracks and the cinder paths and water tanks, knew that no one would leave, that they would all be staying” (107). Of course, Baumgartner concludes incorrectly, for the group of mountain climbers in Desai's text eventually do escape the compound. Misled by his senses, Baumgartner cannot imagine that physical confinement could be avoidable.

Baumgartner's reaction to the mountain climbers in the novel similarly emphasizes this contrast in perspective. Including Harrer and his compatriots as individuals Baumgartner observes in the camp, Desai incorporates details that accord with Harrer's text:

He heard a mixture of German and Italian voices and turned to see two or three men in lederhosen, thick boots and woollen stockings, standing in a group and talking of the mountains—Nanga Parbat, Nanda Devi, Kanchenjunga—in strangely technical terms, and he gathered they were actually mountaineers who had climbed some of those peaks before being arrested in Karachi where they had been waiting for a boat back to Europe.


Much of this description, especially that of the climbers' arrest, comes from Harrer's account, which again indicates Desai's interest in realism, historical authenticity, and narrative circularity. Additionally, Baumgartner's impression of the mountaineers coheres with Desai's construction of Baumgartner as a man engrossed in his senses, for he is “[b]affled by the mountaineers' terminology” and puzzles “at their naivete, their unshaken belief that they would climb the mountains again” (107), considering the solid physical barriers between the climbers and freedom. Both intertextually (in Desai's reinterpretations of Harrer's text) and intratextually (in Baumgartner's response to the climbers as characters), Baumgartner is estranged from the mountaineers and their belief in possible escape, for his reliance on physical impressions prevents him from imaging a physical liberation from the camp.

Interestingly, Desai inflects her portrait of Kurt, another countryman from whom Baumgartner is psychologically alienated, with intimations of the mountaineers. Kurt carries a rucksack, like the climbers, and walks “heavily as though he were struggling up a mountain” (144). Additionally, Farrokh fears a kick from the young traveller's boot, “the boot in which he climbed Himalaya” (13). Desai also employs Harrer to construct portions of Kurt's psychedelic and mythological personal history. Harrer mentions encountering “deep footsteps in the newly fallen snow” (85) of the Himalayas. He speculates, “They might have been made by a man. People with more imagination than I possess might have attributed them to the Abominable Snowman” (85). Kurt, a character with an excess of imagination, also allegedly contacts such a creature: “In the Himalayas, in the snows beyond the monastery where he stayed, he had met and grappled with a yeti. The yeti had picked him up by his ears, lifted him off his feet, and hurled him down” (160).

Desai conflates two of Harrer's tales in depicting another of Kurt's “memories.” On a few occasions, Harrer speaks of the Tibetan tradition of bodies “dismembered” (228) and “bones of the dead … broken to pieces, so that they too could be consumed by the birds and that no trace of the body should remain” (80). In an unrelated phenomena, Harrer also describes “lamas who could hold up hailstorms or call down showers of rain” (155). Desai draws on these suggestive images to design portions of Kurt's history, for Kurt tells Baumgartner that in Tibet he witnessed

corpses laid on the rocks under the sky, being cut into quarters with knives, into quarters and then into fragments, and the bones hammered till they were dust. When the men who performed this ceremony for the waiting birds saw that he was watching, they drew clouds into the clear sky, lightning out of those clouds, and made the thunder roll … they had loosed a storm upon Lhasa, hailstones the size of eggs, rain in sheets.


Desai's allusions to Harrer lend if not a glimmer of realism to Kurt's fantasies, at least a suggestion of historical antecedents which might help us read Kurt's hallucinations as, in some sense, grounded in an experience of Tibetan myth and mysticism. Moreover, by colouring Kurt with shades of mountaineering and elements from Harrer's text, Desai draws an implicit connection between the Aryan climbers in the internment camp and the German youth who murders Baumgartner. Although not ideologically similar to Kurt, the climbers are just as estranged from Baumgartner as is the German wanderer. Both Kurt and the mountaineers perplex Baumgartner, leaving him “confused” (160) and “[b]affled” (107) by their alien concerns and goals.

While Baumgartner's dependence on sensory impressions distances him from the mountaineers and their aspirations for physical freedom from the camp, he employs this attention to detach himself psychologically from his traumatic past. What at first glance appears as a passive reaction to confinement becomes a vital tool for Baumgartner's mental and emotional escape from history. Baumgartner finds that in the camp “there was too much time and emptiness now, and into that vacuum thoughts flooded in that would have been better not to have” (118). Unlike Harrer, who often discusses his desire for the “empty spaces” (22) of freedom in Tibet, Baumgartner finds that the camp's own “empty spaces” (108) of unfilled time provide room for his troubling memories to resurface. To escape the presence of history, Baumgartner labors in the fields, observes village women make fuel from cow dung, and fastens his attention on his immediate environment: “he tried to tear his mind from the nightmare by focusing it on whatever he saw, sometimes the wasps that were building a nest in the rafters” or “the columns of ants” (119). In this situation, Baumgartner's immersion in sensory experience becomes a constructive attribute; while before confinement Baumgartner is often tricked by his trust in appearances, in the camp he can, in a sense, trick his own consciousness into forgetting and suppressing the past by immersing himself in the physical details of his environment.

To develop Baumgartner's dependence on physical sensation as a means to elude disturbing memory, Desai relies on details from Harrer's account. Interestingly, Harrer's text does not discuss Baumgartner's form of coping mechanism. Instead, Desai appropriates particulars of camp life from Harrer and imagines Baumgartner's specific responses to them. In Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer describes his companion's reaction to Indian cigarettes when they escape from the camp: indigenous people offer them “those small Indian cigarettes which Europeans find so distasteful. Marchese … could not resist the temptation of asking for one; but he had barely taken a couple of puffs when he fell unconscious, as if he had been poleaxed!” (27). Baumgartner also partakes in these powerful diversions and reacts in a way similar to Harrer's companion: “his cigarette stank—it was a local one, wrapped in a tendu leaf, fierce enough to make his head swim” (110). Baumgartner, however, soon utilizes the cigarettes' intense physical sensation to avoid reliving his memories. When, arrested by worry about his mother in Germany, Baumgartner sinks into disconsolate thoughts of

Nacht und Nebel. Night and Fog. Into which, once cast, there was no return. No return. No return. … Then he would heave himself up, search for a cigarette, go and look for a match. Extraordinary how a cigarette could retrieve a man from the lip of hell and insanity. Drawing upon it for his life, he watched the others, lying on their bunks, smoking, playing cards, talking and talking.


Baumgartner's sensual attention, his desire to make “his head swim” (110) in order to forget the past, appears an active and deliberate attempt at imaginative escape.

Temporarily safe from history by focusing on his senses, Baumgartner begins to imagine his environment as secure, homogeneous, and comforting. In this new stage of responding to his locale, Baumgartner draws on his observation of people who surround him in order to envision them as characters from mythologized versions of Germany. Judie Newman's article, “History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay,” convincingly delineates the ways in which Baumgartner imagines the compound as an idealized pre-war Germany. In addition, Desai takes details from Harrer to construct one dimension of this image, the camp's safety and its homogeneous population. Desai's most drastic divergence from Harrer's account is her omission of the numerous ethnic details Harrer includes. While Harrer describes the camp at Ahmednagar as “a babel of conflicting opinions and talk” (20) and describes the diversity of nationalities in the camp, Desai speaks vaguely of the “‘hostile aliens’ from all over the country [who] poured like ants from a closed fist into a bowl of dust, and swarmed there in a kind of frenzy” (106). Although Desai retains Harrer's sense of chaotic activity, she virtually eliminates mention of non-German nationalities, with the exception of one brief reference to an Italian accent. Instead of highlighting the variety of peoples confined in the camps, Desai characterizes the camps as a great confluence of German Jews and Aryans. The English authorities in Desai are even more homogeneously minded; as one character says, “[t]hey don't even know there are German Jews and there are Nazi Germans and they are not exactly the same” (106). Such omissions help Baumgartner escape his past, for Baumgartner is able to fix his attention on the homogeneous population that surrounds him, to lose himself in the German community that forms around him.

In Desai's attempt to construct the camp as nationally uniform, the novelist excludes much of Harrer's description of the Italian camp residents. Harrer talks at length about his companion on his first major escape attempt, “an Italian general” (23) named Marchese, one of nearly 40 Italian officers confined in Harrer's camp. Not only does Harrer chronicle Marchese's particularly “Italian” traits, such as his physique and “warm southern temperament” (24), but he also describes stilted attempts at communication with the general: “At the outset we had difficulties in understanding one another. He spoke no German and I no Italian. We both knew only a minimum of English, so we conversed, with the help of a friend, in halting French” (23). In Harrer's text, prisoners struggle to accommodate each others' dissimilar ethnic, national, and linguistic traits; such labours and differences are notably absent from Desai's version. In fact, Desai further underscores her camp's unvarying German population by altering the name of Harrer's companion. Desai changes Marchese's name to Galitsino, a designation which at first glance implies Italian nationality. However, Galitsino is not simply an Italian appellation; it is actually the name of an Eastern European region which was a former crown land of Austria. A site for conflict between Russians, Austrians, and Germans in World War I, Galitsino was divided between Germany and the USSR in 1939 and fell to the Soviets after World War II.5 Considering this area's history, Marchese's name change becomes particularly suggestive, for Desai not only eliminates Marchese's Italian heritage, but also transforms him into an emblem of German and Austrian historical empire, a dominion which, like Baumgartner's impression of the camp as an idealized Germany, collapses at the end of the war.

In addition to constructing a nationally homogeneous camp, Desai also manipulates Harrer to create an image of the compound as predictable and comforting, a characteristic which permits Baumgartner to use the camp's details to avoid memories of the holocaust. One detail Desai appropriates from Harrer is the availability of publications in the camp. Harrer, naturally, uses the texts to prepare him for escape: “I now set to work to learn a little Hindustani, Tibetan, and Japanese; and devoured all sorts of travel books on Asia, which I found in the library, especially those dealing with the districts on my prospective route” (22). Desai employs the reading materials to create the camp as an “extension” (116) of pre-war Germany, for prisoners use the texts to continue developing and pursuing their interests as though no conflict had interrupted their lives. Schwarz, a scholar, “pored over books night and day, Sanskrit and Pali dictionaries, Buddhist scriptures, the Vedas, and Upanishads, and even more esoteric and lesser-known titles that he ordered through the library” (123). Although both Harrer and Schwarz read works which expand their cultural knowledge, Harrer is motivated by his desire to escape while Schwarz uses the texts to make the camp his “natural home and setting” (124). Similarly, books become crucial to Baumgartner's escape into the camp's details, for the prisoners “all became involved in some occupation that might give them the sense of continuing the life that they had led in the world outside. Some had ordered and obtained books and were studying Sanskrit, Arabic, astronomy or homeopathy” (125). By surrounding Baumgartner with characteristics of a stable and homogeneous Germany, Desai assists Baumgartner in his attempt to escape the camp psychologically; Baumgartner loses himself in the immediate detail of his idealized, depoliticized surroundings.

With the diversity and multiplicity of Harrer's camp in mind, the image of Baumgartner's psychological escape from holocaust history becomes much more explicit, for Desai also ignores images and particulars from Harrer's account that would threaten her vision of the camp as a homogeneous community. Primarily, Desai downplays the presence in Harrer of a hostile English military force which, if included in her narrative, would undercut the progressive isolation and protection of Baumgartner's Jewish community. In Desai's novel, the “laxness of the regime” (108) of English military rule enables Nazi Germans temporarily to assume authority over the Jewish inmates. An ensuing conflict between the Nazis and Jews results in the segregation of Baumgartner's Jewish community, a critical protection from the threat of Nazi violence which enables Baumgartner to concentrate on the details of a community that is truly safe and homogeneous. Harrer describes the compound's guards and their inviolable power: “The sentry's rifle was made fast to his belt with a chain, so that no one could snatch it away” (20). Harrer's text emphasizes the English military force to such a degree that, if included in Baumgartner's Bombay, it would prevent the scenario which isolates the camp's Jewish population and enables Baumgartner's temporary escape from history.

Similarly, Desai excludes Harrer's account of his dangerous initial escape attempt. Harrer explains that on the road to the final settlement at Dehra Dun, he and a friend attempt to flee from the transport trucks:

At the head and at the tail of the column was a truck full of soldiers. … We jumped off and I ran twenty yards off the road. … Then to my horror the whole convoy stopped—I heard whistles and shooting and then, seeing the guard running over to the far side of the road, I had no doubt what had happened. … I saw Lobenhoffer: he was standing with his hands up facing a line of bayonets. I felt broken with the deadly disappointment of our failure.


Desai's exclusion of this scene results from two analogous impulses; first, as with the general descriptions of English military might, this stunted escape attempt highlights the strength of the English personnel, a potency which, if included in Desai's narrative, would frustrate her progressive isolation of Baumgartner within a Jewish community; second, such a military presence would significantly alter the tone of Desai's depiction, for its existence would prevent Baumgartner's impression that “Deutschland, the Heimat, was alive here, on this dusty soil, in the incredible sun, even if it no longer lived in its native home” (127). The absence of military force escalates Desai's construction of the camp as a uniform entity; by the middle of the internment camp section the scope of nationality has constricted to an exclusive depiction of the German Jews' camp experience. Isolated and secure, Baumgartner can trust in his impressions of camp life and imagine himself at home in pre-war Germany.

Desai, in her most extensive appropriation of events recounted in Seven Years in Tibet, recreates Harrer's two major escape attempts, initially to emphasize Baumgartner's sense of belonging in the camp's Jewish sector. The most obvious alteration Desai makes is chronological; Harrer's second major escape attempt, in which he and his compatriots disguise themselves as Indian laborers working on the camp fence and walk unnoticed out of the compound, is first in her narrative. One fundamental reason for placing this escape before the other is dramatic: the worker escape, in which Harrer and Marchese use the thatched roofs to climb over the wire fence, is much more inventive and unusual, and by foregrounding it Desai presents a novel and intriguing version of prisoner flight. But more important, Desai's description of the worker escape highlights Baumgartner's imagined membership in his community.

Desai takes much of the detail in this scene from Harrer, for the mountain climber explains, “[o]ur plan was to disguise ourselves as a barbed-wire repairing section. Such working parties were a normal sight. … Two of us carried a ladder. … We attracted no attention. … [one of us] was swinging a tar pot energetically” (38-39). In Desai's version, Baumgartner, an observer rather than participant, witnesses Harrer—or “Hüber”—and his friends walk out of the compound, though Baumgartner does not realize who they are:

He noticed some of the camp guards, in their uniforms, walking along the path at the end towards the guard house. He shrivelled into himself, trying to become less visible, but they did not look his way. They were carrying a ladder and some paint pots and from the way they examined the fence posts, he could see they were there to do some of the perpetual repairs that went on. He stood still, staring through the shimmer of heat at the barbed wire, and watched as they turned out of the gate, past the guard house into the dust road.


Of course, Baumgartner believes his eyes and takes the climbers' costumes at face value. When the guards announce that the climbers have been caught, Baumgartner shares his fellow prisoners' visceral reaction: “no one gasped or said anything. There was a silence, the kind that follows a blow on the solar plexus, a kick in the stomach” (131). The community's reaction to the climbers' capture in some ways mirrors Baumgartner's response to confinement: the captives respond silently, focusing their attention on the physical, sensory effects of the climber's return.

In addition to participating in the community's collective emotional response, Baumgartner assumes a privileged position as a witness to the escape, for when the community welcomes the climbers back to the camp, it simultaneously embraces Baumgartner. As the prisoners attempt “to get close enough to clap one or the other of [the climbers] on the back,” the community also overtly acknowledges Baumgartner's membership: “Baumgartner basked in momentary glory, having actually witnessed the escape” (131). Together the camp laughs “affectionately, even proudly” (131) at the climbers' failed disguise, a laughter which “provided enough of a base for friendship” (125). Interestingly, in Harrer's text, the mountain climbers' “comrades in the camp find it hard to recognize” (36) the returning escapists. In Desai's vision, however, Baumgartner's community unites around the climbers, and as a witness Baumgartner shares in the communal affirmation.

However, Desai's version of the worker escape omits a number of arresting details, which, if included in the novel, would have undermined her vision of the camp as homogeneous and sheltered. Just as Desai eliminates ethnic diversity in characterizing the inmate population, she also eradicates Harrer's many references to an Indian presence at the camp. Specifically, Desai minimizes the racial implications of Harrer's disguise. While Baumgartner sees a group of “camp guards, in their uniforms” (130), Harrer explains that “[w]orking parties consisted of Indians with an English overseer” (38). To achieve transformation into Indians, Harrer and the other climbers shave their heads and don turbans while “make-up artists” (38) color their faces black. Harrer describes their reactions: “We could not help laughing when we looked at one another. We looked like masqueraders bound for a carnival” (38). Desai's description contains none of this ethnic detail, nor its pejorative implications. Instead, Baumgartner explains that the climbers used injurious black dye to color their hair (presumably in an Indian disguise), which eventually causes their hair to fall out. Instead of having the climbers laugh at becoming Indians, Desai has the other camp members chuckle good-naturedly at the climbers' foolish baldness. While Desai does not invent these particulars (in an earlier escape attempt Harrer describes a similar experience with harmful dye), she revises the disguise scenario to eliminate laughter at Indian stereotypes; she also omits the “comic” detail of one dilatory mountain climber suddenly appearing as a black-faced Indian “swinging his tar pot energetically” (39). Additionally, Desai erases any sense that Indians are complicit in the confinement, that they exist as guards or camp workers.

Even the English fade into the background of Desai's worker escape scene. Desai omits the threat of capture Harrer endures, as he focuses on the omnipresent fear of discovery by English. Emphasizing his success in eluding the guards, Harrer explains they were “only stopped once, when the sergeant major rode by the main gate on his bicycle” (39). Harrer is proud that their disguise attracted little attention: “it was comforting to see [the guards] saluting smartly and obviously suspicious of nobody” (39). In contrast, when it mentions the English presence, Desai's account underscores the feeble character of the English: “The men were given twenty-eight days in solitary confinement. That was not too bad, they thought, typical of that boneless British commandant. Everyone sniggered, delighted” (131). Just as Desai eliminates descriptions of camp guards and Harrer's first brief escape attempt, she downplays the proximity and command of the English military force in order to emphasize the autonomy of the German community. Desai's neglect of both ethnic and military detail together demonstrates Desai's interest in crafting a specific image of her internment camp; her concern is not exclusively with historical accuracy, but rather with creating her camp as a uniform, self-sufficient community, one in which Baumgartner is able to use his immediate perceptions to escape the past.

The final escape attempt in Desai similarly amplifies Baumgartner's sense of safety in the camp, but also implicitly questions his narrow vision and impression of the community's legitimacy. In contrast to the captives' wonder at the first escape effort, the hearsay surrounding the second attempt generates a disturbing, unresolvable communal fantasy: “The rumors were wild, fearful. They had been eaten by tigers in the forest, trampled by elephants” (131). Ignorant of the mountain climbers' fate, Baumgartner recognizes a similar nescience of his fellow prisoners' attitude toward incarceration: “What was frightening was that [the climbers] had disappeared without a trace. It was like a death. How many men in the camp would have chosen that? Baumgartner wondered, knowing he was certainly not one” (131). But just as Baumgartner realizes that his outlook may not be akin to that of the men around him, he simultaneously reaffirms his estimation of the camp as a secure, protective environment: “He huddled on his bunk, finding its familiarity a comfort. He knew it was craven not to desire freedom, but it was true that captivity provided him an escape from the fate of those in Germany, and safety from the anarchy of the world outside” (131).

As Baumgartner turns to tactile sensation for reassurance, his comfort is upset by his countrymen's desire for literal freedom. Just as Baumgartner's initial estimation of the mountain climbers reveals his limited sensory perspective, their escape and the reaction of his fellow captives reveal Baumgartner's sensory perspective as narrow and question his assumption of the camp's uniformity. Compared with the mountaineers' intrepid escape, Baumgartner's reversion into the details of camp life appears retrogressive and impotent.6 The successful escape attempt highlights Baumgartner's inability to elude the pressing reality of his past, a motif that repeatedly surfaces in the novel. Just as through Kurt the holocaust Nazis finally murder Baumgartner, through the climbers Desai terminates Baumgartner's mental and emotional escape from his anguished history.

A reading of Baumgartner's Bombay through the lens of Seven Years in Tibet illuminates Anita Desai's specific designs in constructing her version of the historical internment camp. While knowledge of Harrer's account stresses the homogeneous constitution of Desai's camp, it also brings into relief salient aspects of Baumgartner's characterization. With knowledge of Harrer, the quality and significance of Baumgartner's passivity appears much more complicated and provocative than it might at first glance. His response to the camp has little to do with the apathy or insensibility commonly associated with passivity; Desai herself has repudiated critics who argue that Baumgartner's submissiveness perpetuates “the myth of the passive Jew who walked willingly into the internment camps, a willing victim of Hitlerism” by explaining that Baumgartner represents a member of “the human race … hoping to escape the notice of history” (Desai, “Conversation” 523). The nature of Baumgartner's passivity, his attention to sensory detail, enables Baumgartner to stage his own temporary escape by using his mind to avoid an agonizing history. Ultimately, however, Baumgartner's escapist contemplation is effective only to a point. Just as the narrative's various intertextual allusions traverse the boundaries between art and history, forcing its reader to confront the historical substance undergirding the fiction, the mountain climbers' successful escape attempt impels Baumgartner away from his invented community back into a world of historical devastation.7


  1. See, for example, interviews with Desai which plumb the depths of Baumgartner's historical allusiveness: Libert (54-55); Pandit (155-56, 164-65, 170-71); Bliss (521-23, 526-27, 533-34); and Jussawalla and Dasenbrock (174-76).

  2. Judie Newman notices the parallel between the narrative structure and the reader's experience of the text; she explains, “As Lotte's co-readers, we become equal partners in the enterprise of decipherment” (38).

  3. The progress of Baumgartner's life is epitomized in the text's epigraph from T. S. Eliot's “East Coker,” “In my beginning is my end,” for there is a sense of circularity in Baumgartner's futile attempts at connection and communication with the various communities he encounters. Newman notes that in the novel, “Mirroring, copying and repeating are important motifs” (39).

  4. Although the novel is not exclusively from Baumgartner's perspective, he functions as its central consciousness, especially in the internment camp section.

  5. Many geographical indexes describe Galitsino; my information comes from Webster's New Geographical Dictionary (425). Galatsino, also known as Galicia, had a large Jewish population.

  6. In characterizing the mountaineers' final escape, Desai notably avoids any details from Harrer's text, primarily excluding a description of Harrer's first major escape attempt with the Italian general Marchese. As mentioned, this escape emphasizes the mountaineers' difference in nationality, a feature Desai deliberately excludes from her homogeneous internment camp.

  7. Many thanks to Patrick Colm Hogan and Veronica Makowsky for their helpful comments on early versions of this essay.

Works Cited

Desai, Anita. “Against the Current: A Conversation with Anita Desai.” With Corinne Demas Bliss. Massachusetts Review 29.3 (1988): 521-37.

“An Interview with Anita Desai. 1 August 1989. Cambridge. England.” With Florence Libert. World Literature Written in English 30.1 (1990): 47-55.

“A Sense of Detail and a Sense of Order: Anita Desai Interviewed by Lalita Pandit.” Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. New York: SUNY P, 1995. 153-72.

Baumgartner's Bombay. London: Penguin, 1988.

Interview with Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1992. 156-79.

Harrer, Heinrich. Seven Years in Tibet. Trans. Richard Graves. New York: Dutton, 1954.

Newman, Judie. “History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.World Literature in English 30.1 (1990): 37-46.

Webster's New Geographical Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1984.

Tony Simoes da Silva (essay date July 1997)

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SOURCE: da Silva, Tony Simoes. “Whose Bombay Is It Anyway?: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 3 (July 1997): 63-77.

[In the following essay, da Silva focuses on the use of an Indian setting in Baumgartner's Bombay to represent the protagonist's existential crisis, contending that colonial appropriation of Indian cultural values persists in the postcolonial novel.]

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz has long been associated with a shift in the discipline of anthropology that stresses its own arbitrary nature and argues instead for a more modest approach, seeking “what generality it can by orchestrating contrasts rather than isolating regularities or abstracting types” (Local Knowledge 13). In a particularly felicitous turn of phrase, Geertz elsewhere writes of the anthropologist's job being akin to “strain[ing] to read over the shoulder of those to whom they properly belong … [the] ensemble of texts” which constitute their cultural self (Interpretations 452-53). This is a description of the anthropologist's craft which at once evokes a sense of childish innocence and a potentially less benign tendency to stick one's beak where it is not wanted. In stark contrast with that other, more conventional civilizing quest for the erasure of alterity, Geertz's view of anthropology speaks then of a rather civilized search for the Other. His metaphor seems to suggest that this kind of anthropologist always refrains from running away with the Other's texts.

In an essay entitled “Being There?: Literary Criticism, Localism and Local Knowledge,” David Simpson provides a valuable critique of Geertz's stance, focusing on his views of this new, humbler, streak of anthropological scholarship. Noting that “anthropology is among the most ethically fraught of all disciplines” (13), Simpson goes on to note that today's anthropologists are wary of the “real consequences”—presumably to others but possibly also to themselves—of the sort of work they do. In contrast, he asserts, no “literary critic need worry overmuch about the results of his or her bad writing, since the text remains potentially a blank space for new readings once the necessary demystifications are achieved” (13). I am not sure that I agree with Simpson here. For whatever “real consequences” any “Other” cultures and peoples have been exposed to over a period of centuries, they have, more likely than not, been the result of a capitalist need for markets, rather than of any immediate anthropological faux pas. That is not to say, however, that anthropology and its practitioners on occasion have not been directly involved in the translation of the Other into a capitalist commodity, albeit unintentionally. Furthermore, literary critics such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Gauri Viswanathan, to name but a few, have themselves spent considerable amounts of time and energy seeking to demonstrate precisely the level of noxious involvement of literature in the process of colonization. Finally, I am not sure that agreement on the ways in which the “necessary demystifications [may be] achieved,” or indeed what they may actually be, would be easy to reach.

It is not the purpose of this essay, however, to take issue with either Geertz or Simpson. Rather, I am interested in the implications raised by their comments in relation to the literary practices of fictional writers. In particular—and with the work of critics such as Said, Viswanathan, and Spivak, among others, in mind—I am concerned with their usefulness for reading postcolonial works of fiction. At the risk of stretching Geertz's analogy a bit thinly, I argue in my reading of Baumgartner's Bombay that the postcolonial writer at times not only looks over the shoulder of the colonized subjects of his or her novel but, finding the strain of the acrobatics perhaps too exacting, simply opts for taking the texts right from under their noses. Why bother to listen when you can simply make it up, “fiction” it? This essay contends therefore that the “ensemble of texts” of Indian culture Desai offers in Baumgartner's Bombay is one in which India, both as a body of texts (that is, as a culture), and as a textual body (the feminized Orient), is re-written, but then simultaneously written over.


Baumgartner's Bombay tells the story of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jewish refugee who leaves Berlin just as Adolf Hitler comes to power and is now living in exile, in India. As such, the novel contains the “ensemble of texts” that comprise his life, past and present, and offers a perceptive study of the sense of alienation, despair, and utter fragmentation that are endemic to the conditions of displacement and exile. These are clearly themes common to Desai's work, as readers of her novels will recognize. “An avowedly subjective writer,” in the words of Harveen Sachdeva Mann (76), Desai herself might have said of the novel that it deals simply with “the elements that remain basic to our lives. I mean the human condition itself” (Interview, Dalmia 13). She returns repeatedly to such concerns both in all her novels and in numerous interviews. In her conversation with Yashodhara Dalmia, Desai again remarked that to her “only the individual, the solitary being, is of interest” (Interview 13). Indeed, speaking more recently with Jussawalla, Desai accepted the interviewer's assertion that she “‘mothered’ the psychological novel in India” (Interview 173).

Given the novel's thematic focus, its (Modernist) ancestry and particularly Desai's own philosophical preoccupations, Baumgartner's Bombay can therefore be read as quintessentially “universal” in its analysis of Baumgartner's quest for his “solitary being.” Echoes of Virginia Woolf's work abound; and E. M. Forster's A Passage to India is never far off from the work's ambience. Within this context the emphasis on India's chaos and disorder can be seen as objective correlatives for the despair and hopelessness in Baumgartner's life. Moreover, and like Nirode in Voices in the City, Baumgartner is yet another of Desai's weak and troubled male characters, revealing the feminist edge to her work, which Mann explores. Consequently, the fact that Baumgartner lives in Bombay would seem if not totally irrelevant at least secondary to the story. Bombay and India are simply the setting of Baumgartner's existential crisis. There is a sense, however, in which it is precisely through the use of this setting that the novel becomes problematic. In what follows I will focus on Desai's use of an Indian background in Baumgartner's Bombay, a novel of which the author herself somewhat revealingly has said that its success in America was due to the fact that “the key to the work is a European key, a Western key … India is really superfluous as far as American readers are concerned” (169). She adds: “It seems such eccentric material when you consider the Indian background” (174).


Desai's use of India as a setting for the novel appears at the outset a logical one. Although she now divides her time between India and the US, she was born in India, and her work reflects an “Indian subjectivity.” In Geertz's terminology, she is therefore particularly well qualified: she possesses “local knowledge.” Ironically, it is perhaps a reflection of the author's own cultural “inbetweenness” that the novel is simultaneously “thick” with cosmopolitanism.1 It is a “novel of the world,” so to speak. For one, it is narrated in a number of languages. Foreign words are Baumgartner's Bombay's most pungent quality, an over abundance of words, a wealth of Other languages—English, German, French, Portuguese, Bengali, Hindi, Hebrew—words that “talk” of Baumgartner's life, that tell of his naiveté, of his fragility. Sara Suleri's assertion that “the ghosts of writers like Kipling and Forster still haunt the contemporary Indian novel in English” (178) seems here to be a rather apt commentary. For while the novel does not necessarily presume a readership fluent in all the various languages used, it would seem to appeal to that readership's sophisticated cosmopolitanism in order not to feel threatened by its inability to follow all that is being said. One of the ironies of life in the latter part of the twentieth century is that the status of languages such as English or French is constantly eroded by the “return home” of thousands of would-be assimilés. Thus even those to whom these languages traditionally “belonged” now use them without conscious realization of the effects of this “colonization in reverse.”2 For the readership Desai has in mind is one obviously familiar with the Indian curry houses at Harrow on the Hill, the Chinese dim sum outlets in the Chinatowns of this world. It is, in sum, an audience to whom the Quebecois's screams of horror and despair in the face of the threat posed to their culture by outside influences would sound rather emotional in these days of “globalization.”

The paradox, however, in Baumgartner's Bombay is that in stark contrast with the sparing use of Hindi or Bengali, the German language is used to convey moments of extreme significance in the main character's childhood, identifying it thus as a language deeply endowed with the emotional strength capable of denoting the richness of the “human condition” in all its nuances. And this is the point I want to stress in Desai's linguistic melting pot—the privileging of certain languages over others. German is, in other words, a language of reason, a language of civilization.3 For it is significant that while the German stanzas often take up large sections of consecutive pages in the novel, Indian languages such as Bengali and Hindi are sprinkled much more sparingly throughout the work, rather like a spice too strong for the frail stomach of a Eurocentric readership. “Why,” as Frau Baumgartner points out to her son, “should your mother read a Bengalische poet when I can read the beautiful verses of my dear friend Friedmans?” (56). This is not an entirely rhetorical question. After all, as recently as 1988, Saul Bellow, the American author, could comment in a report in The New York Times: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them” (26). As Mrs. Baumgartner's comments imply—and Bellow's underline—whatever the works of any Bengalische poets might be, they can hardly be expected to equal those of her “own dear Friedmans,” the unknown poet—whose work is by no means equal to Bellow's idols.

Clearly a certain mockery underlies the above passage. In fact the use of an ironic viewpoint is a constant in Desai's work. Yet it is arguable that English too occupies a privileged position in the narrative. It is much more than just the medium through which Baumgartner's story is told. It is instead a language of “thick description,” a language that portrays for a middle-class readership, essentially Eurocentric in its view of the world, the horror, the misery, the despair of real India. For as Simpson noted in his essay, “thick description presumes thin description” (11). In other words, despite the wealth of detail, the overall picture remains still rather sketchy. In Baumgartner's Bombay, English is a language which echoes uncannily the horror of that other “real” Africa of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Once those Conradian boxfuls of allusions are unpacked, once the adjectival rhizome that so thickly underpins the narrative is unstitched, there is really very little about Africa or about Africans. Conrad too was concerned with the “solitary being.” In this way, Desai's novel presupposes a shared intellectual background, a common cultural heritage in which the self is at home anywhere, but a self which at the outset renounces the allegiances imposed by nationalist demands. While it is wise to be aware of the multilayered ironies of a novel that “remains Indian” and that as such might be said to want to engage in a “writing back” to the Orientalist discourse of colonial texts, the sense of detachment through which these levels of subversion are articulated appears much too effective—unwittingly if not overtly condescending. The narrative appears in effect to legitimize a discourse of complete negation in which India is not modern, not developed, not civilized, not Western.4 Thus “poor” Baumgartner escapes the Nazis is buffeted by the dreary nature of the “human condition” and survives only to confront the dangers of a faceless but undeniable dentata, India. It is indeed the contrast between the portrait of Baumgartner's gentleness and humility in the face of the inhuman environment in which he lives that seals most convincingly the cruel and unsympathetic picture of India and its people. What is proposed in Baumgartner's Bombay is a Manichean dichotomy that relates Baumgartner's survival to being able to remain continually alert to the mischievous and dangerous ways of the Other. His relationship with India is one in which he needs not only to identify the Other but also to ensure that he himself remains an Other. The point is not that he should have survived the adversities inherent in his human condition at all, but that he should have done so in India of all places. That Conrad's Kurtz should have survived all those years does not at all surprise—indeed men were made of sterner matter in those days. And that he should have done so in darkest, ‘inscrutable’ Africa, amongst those “streams of [half-naked] human beings” (Heart 99), however, speaks volumes on the courage of the white man.

The fact that the narrative is largely presented through Baumgartner's viewpoint thus becomes the central point of contention. For the subversion of colonial discourses of “othering” implied by the emphasis on an anthropological language is ultimately undermined by his unstable place in the narrative. The language, the metaphors, and the tone of the novel remain those of an outsider's discourse. That Baumgartner himself already appears to be too much a product of India to be still bothered by those factors that are intrinsic to the narrative's portrait of his discomfort—the heat, the flies, the poverty—compounds the inconsistencies. Indeed, Baumgartner's suitability to be (in) India is underscored by the fact that even his stomach remained indifferent to the proverbial terror of the European subject in the Orient: dysentery and diarrhoea. As Lotte exclaims in amazement, “What, on your very first day you ate curry? And you did not get food poisoning? Dysentery? Not even diarrhoea?” (88). If irony is to be read in the lampooning of the “civilized” Western subject's fears of the dangerous sites of “Otherness,” it is clearly preempted by Lotte's quasi-tragicomic role in the narrative.

Perhaps a more successful attempt at ridiculing the white subject's portrait of India is captured in the following passage:

Was it not India's way of revealing the world that lay on the other side of the mirror? India flashed the mirror in your face, with a brightness and laughter as raucous as a street band. You could be blinded by it. But if you refused to look into it, if you insisted on walking around the back, then India stood aside, admitting you where you had not thought you could go. India was two words, or ten. She stood before him, hands on her hips, laughing that blood-stained laugh: Choose! Choose!


This personification of India as a “bewitching,” seductive sorceress, itself now a major character in the novel, is reminiscent of “[t]he Orient [as] a living tableau of queerness” (Said 103), a symbiosis of mystery, danger, and bestiality. In this way, the novel addresses the archives of colonialism, for while India is still female, and willing to cooperate (an Asian La Malinche?)5 it is now much more clearly in control. Yet while the ironic emphasis on the colonial discourse of demonization revealed in the passage is fairly obvious, it is also undermined by the fact that it is voiced through Baumgartner's skewed view of the world as a whole. For Baumgartner, it is worth recalling, is depicted largely as a man-child, his flawed perspective pathetically peripatetic. Paradoxically, therefore, while the linguistic playfulness, the allusion to mirror images of India and self, and India as Other than yet equal to self, appropriate and abrogate a colonialist view of India as sly and untrustworthy, they also underscore a reading of the novel as subscribing to a Eurocentric psychoanalytical framework.

Baumgartner's Bombay is a novel that speaks primarily of the demise of an old, ordered world—that of pre-1939 Europe—and of the consequences of such an event. It is in this context that the existentialist nature of its message ultimately problematizes the issue of its Indian setting. For the narrative endorses a discourse that confirms, in spite of its playful attempts to satirize it, the view that the white man/woman can enter India (as a sign of the Orient) only at the expense of his or her fall into chaos. Baumgartner's and Lotte's descent into the hellish worlds of Bombay and Calcutta illustrates the point: “[w]hen he overcame and left behind his initial bewilderment at lives so primitive, so basic and unchanging, [Baumgartner] began to envy them that simplicity, the absence of choice and history” (111). Despite the derisive tone implicit in the allusion to “the absence of choice and history,” India signifies still an inescapable pitfall, as Baumgartner suggests when he comments: “‘Where could we go, Lotte? Where could you and I have gone?” (80). Europe and Europeans are discursively portrayed within a dichotomy that identifies them either as heroes or victims, depending on whether they succeed in their mission civilisatrice or are absorbed into the destructive vortex which Asia, or Africa, or South America, constitute.

When, in spite of his daily encounters with the locals, Baumgartner is depicted as believing still that the “natives” are “cruel and [with] a malevolent look” (19), there is a sense of ironic overkill. That the colonizer's relationship with the colonized might be echoed in Baumgartner's own case, does not, per se, explain the appropriation of the narrative device. That Baumgartner himself has long become a symbol of impotence, physical and psychological, does not seem to explain the Indian women's indifference: the “women themselves never gave away their consciousness of his presence by so much as a glance or a giggle” (110). Within the context of what appears to be a narrative tension between the act of “writing back” and the search for the “solitary being” that so interests Desai, it is possible moreover to read the cats which Baumgartner brings home from time to time as metonymic of the trap in which he finds himself in India. They are emblematic of a raw India, their chthonic nature suggesting that India and its subjects remain still (perhaps irremediably?) too deeply inscribed with animality. Indeed, as Baumgartner feeds the cats each night, there is always a suggestion of imminent danger, the sense that they may turn against him (he is once actually bitten). Forming a menacing circle around his legs, they demand in their incomprehensible babble their own share in life—the scraps of food Baumgartner procures from local cafés and food stalls.

The scene is especially significant for the way in which it parallels Baumgartner's own encounters with his Indian neighbours. As he walks in and out of his squalid apartment, Baumgartner moves carefully through a maze of mendicants, and others, fearful that they, too, may pounce on him (7, 145, 204). As Indians, they remain also out of his reach, since after 50 years in India he has learnt little more than a smattering of words: “chai, khana, baraf, lao, jaldi, joota, chota peg, pani, kamra, soda, garee” (92).

[Baumgartner] had to look down and watch his feet as he picked his way past the family that lived in front of Hira Niwas. They worked constantly at reinforcing the shelter they had built here, flattening packing cases for walls and tin cans for roof, attaching rags to the railings around Hira Niwas and stretching them onto their rooftop; … He had to avoid the gnarled and rotting feet of the man who always lay in a drunken stupor at this time of the morning, his head inside the shelter and his legs outside, like pieces of wood flung down, as well as the pile of cooking pots that the women washed in the gutter so that they shone like crumpled tinfoil in the glare, and the heaps of faeces that the children left along the same gutter, and the squares of greasy paper from which they had eaten their food the night before. It was a familiar sight to Baumgartner, as he was to them, with his plastic bag in his hands and his shoes slit at the sides for comfort, but they still had to watch each other, to be vigilant.


This is a truly pre-Geertzian portrait, articulated in an anthropological language still miles away from its later angst-ridden phase, totalitarian and totalizing. Immersed with the natives, the real subjects of analysis, the scientist got by speaking odd bits of their language, friendly yet always wary of the “innate” ability of the savage to resort to its chthonic state. Thus,

Baumgartner knew that family as well as a devout Christian is familiar with the Holy Family in the cattle stall … but he never walked past them, never turned his back without feeling the hairs on the back of his neck rise, a brief prickle of—not fear, but unease, an apprehension.


It is a fear that he experiences repeatedly: “As always, he felt his hair stand on the back of his neck, and sweat break out as he passed them” (144). The narrative of classist constructs is now interwoven with, and underscored by, a Darwinian one. It implies a distinction between the civilizable savage (the native middle-classes) and the “noble” savage, those whose state of utter abjection places them beyond the reach of the white man's benevolent influence. How else to explain the fact that the only Indians whom Baumgartner perceives as a threat are those people whose own “low self-esteem” has prevented them from working hard enough towards a mythical notion of self-improvement and the financial rewards it entails? Thus, although living among the poor for nearly 50 years without ever escaping his condition of outsider, Baumgartner soon finds in Chimanlal, the middle-class businessman, a good-natured companion with whom to share on an equal footing their mutual “human condition.”

The point is emphasized when we juxtapose the world in which Baumgartner only just survives with the account of the life the Jewish prisoners endure in the camp in which they were detained in India. There, despite the adversities he faces, both physically and psychologically, the white man, albeit in the more complex figure of the marginalized Jew, proves why he is different. The difference is reflected in the genteel—and gentle—nature of the prisoners' pastimes—reading, “studying Sanskrit, Arabic, astronomy and even homeopathy” (125), games, philosophical and political discussions, concertos at which the music of Bach and Beethoven is performed (134)—suggesting the mild but clearly undeniable nature of their character, their ability to remain human in the most inhumane conditions. While Baumgartner's Indian counterpart passes his days sitting up against the walls of the frail and decrepit contraptions he calls home (6), unable to fight back, the white man simply refuses to lie down. Even within the abhorrent confines of an internment camp he reveals the essence of his civilization—a genuine and unstoppable desire for knowledge, progress, and development. It is not a portrait of meekness and abjection we are offered, rather one of civilized defiance and resilience. Instinct, it is obvious, has long been tamed by the European. As David Spurr notes, in his comments on the racial assumptions epitomized by de Gobineau's “Essai sur l'Inégalité des Races Humaines” (1854):

Superior to the black and yellow, the white race is characterised by energetic intelligence, perseverance, physical strength, an instinct for order, and a pronounced taste for liberty which despises, on the one hand, “the rigid social forms under which the Chinese willingly sleep, as well as the severe despotism which alone can retain the blacks.”


Indeed Spurr's work provides a useful frame through which to read Baumgartner's Bombay. As he notes earlier: “[u]nder Western eyes, the body is that which is most proper to the primitive, the sign by which the primitive is represented. The body, rather than their speech, law, or history, is the essential defining characteristic of primitive peoples” (22). For the Indians in Baumgartner's Bombay too are identified largely by their “naked skin, oiled and slithering with perspiration, the piscine bulge and stare of so many eyes” (18), and India as “damply, odorously, cacophonously palpable” (214).

Occasionally the satire of a Western gaze is somewhat more successful, as when the narrator notes: “It was this matter of feeding the cows, collecting their dung, turning it into fuel, and using it to cook their meals that seemed to rule their lives—at least the part that Baumgartner watched with such bewilderment and fascination” (111). For the passage highlights the Western obsessive attention to that which is odd, in sum, different, in the Other's ways. Later, the German drug addict Kurt too is used to identify and subvert the totalizing tendency of ethnographic disciplines. His focus is not only on the exotic but on the bizarre, the macabre, the reductive strangeness the tourist carries back home. This is stressed through the telegraphic manner in which the young hippie retells his stay in India: “‘Sick in Goa?’ the boy spat at him. ‘Yes, sick in Goa. Sick in Benares. Sick in Katmandu. Sick in Sarnath, sick, sick everywhere.’” (156). Kurt speaks here through the voice of the spoilt Western tourist, adventurer, or researcher who willingly risks his or her life in order to get to know the Other—cultures, peoples, civilizations. “In Benares he had lived with the doms in the burning ghat”; in “Katmandu's dust was mingled his blood” (157); and in “Calcutta he had lived with the lepers” (158).

In Tibet, in Lhasa, he saw the sight no man was meant to see. The corpses laid on the rocks under the sky, being cut into quarters with knives, into quarters and then into fragments, and the bones hammered until they were dust.


The use of a language of conquest so familiar to the colonial discourses of physical and textual dispossession can be seen as a subversion of the trope of the indefatigable European in search of Otherness. In his (re)naming of the experiences he endures, the young hippie (re)claims them as his own—they are no longer those of an Other outside of his self, rather he is now the Other to the Other's alienated self. But Kurt—the name itself echoes Conrad's Kurtz—is not a credible figure. Whatever potential for subversion this picture of India through the eyes of a Westerner might have offered, it is itself thwarted by the fact that the narrator is so hopelessly demented. It fails when it is revealed that he was throughout his journeys in a drug-induced state of hallucination: in Goa “he had bought and sold and lived on opium, on marijuana, on cannabis, on heroin” (158), and he expects that in Delhi, Lucknow, Mathura, and Rajasthan there will be drugs and religion. By preempting the satire of ethnographic discourse it sets out in the first place, the narrative in effect compounds the view that India is all that Kurt experiences and perhaps much more of the same.

Baumgartner's Bombay culminates with the death of Baumgartner at the hands of Kurt. The symbolism is, if anything, transparent. It would seem inevitable that Baumgartner, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, should be murdered by a modern-day heir to Adolf Hitler's poisonous legacy. The manner of his death, however, and particularly the carnivalesque quality of the scenes that ensue, are less straightforwardly obvious. For the fact that Baumgartner, a German Jew, should now be killed by (an)Other German is consistent with the novel's larger, “universal” tone. However, Kurt's credibility had long been destroyed by his drug addiction. Indeed, the man whom Kurt kills is not the real Baumgartner, the gentle and civilized European subject who once sought refuge in India. He had long been devoured by an India whose identity Orientalism has always inscribed in terms of inscrutability and threat.6

Finally, Baumgartner's Bombay is about India but not of India, Indian and other than Indian. For its account of Baumgartner's existential crisis is only made possible by an appropriation of an anthropological discourse in which India and Indians are the stage and actors for Baumgartner's show. As Sawid Ahmad Khan may have put it, “What can they [the future generations] think, after perusing this book and looking at its pictures, of the power and the honour of the natives of India?” (qtd. in Suleri 23). For although set in India, the novel ultimately silences the polysemic nature of Indian society, the multifaceted reality of its being by the imposition of a monologic narrative frame in which civilization equals development and progress. Whose Bombay is it, anyway? I doubt whether the Bombay depicted in Baumgartner's Bombay really belongs to Hugo Baumgartner rather than to the Indians we see in the background.


  1. Desai describes Baumgartner's Bombay as a book which evolved from her journeys abroad; she notes that the novel was written during her one-year stay in Cambridge (Interview, Jussawala 177-78).

  2. “Colonisation in Reverse” is the title of a poem by the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett; it explores precisely the subversive power of the “return home” of thousands of Caribbean people in the 1950s and 1960s.

  3. Talking with Feroza Jussawalla, Desai explained the novel thus: “For years, I had wanted to write a book about the German part of my background and to put to use the German language which was a part of my childhood [but] I had no idea how to do it. … It seems such eccentric material when you consider the Indian background.” She goes on to reveal how she came by “a packet of letters in German” that had belonged to an old German, whom she herself “used to see shuffling around [Bombay] and feeding cats the way I have described” (174).

  4. Interestingly, Desai herself has remarked in her interview with Dalmia that contemporary India is a much less tolerant society than her older (colonial?) self.

  5. La Malinche was the Amerindian woman who served Columbus as an interpreter; she remains a symbol of submission to European (and American) values (cf. Todorov 1984).

  6. Desai has commented that she wrote two different endings for the novel. In the alternative version, Baumgartner is killed by the beggar who lives outside the door of his apartment building. Desai notes, “The reason for his sadness through the book is this death that he escaped [by fleeing Nazi Germany] … I had to have it catch up with him in the end, and it seemed right and justified in the Greek sense if that death would be the death by a Nazi, by a German” (Interview, Jussawala 176). Curiously, in response to Jussawalla's comment, “I didn't pick up on the aspect of that German hippie travelling through India with his dirty feet, etc. being a Nazi. I thought of him just as being representative of the Germans,” Desai replied, “He is simply a German. He probably doesn't see himself as a Nazi, he's too young to have been a Nazi” (176). To Desai, all Germans seem interchangeable with German Nazis; so although Kurt did not “see himself as a Nazi, he's too young to have been a Nazi,” he can still be used as if he were one. Does fiction ever matter? Salman Rushdie, for one, might want to reply in the affirmative.

Works Cited

Bellow, Saul. Interview. The New York Times 25 Sept. 1988: IV: 26.

Bennett, Louise. “Colonisation in Reverse.” The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse. Ed. Paula Burnett. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986. 31.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (1899). London: Penguin, 1989.

Desai, Anita. Baumgartner's Bombay. London: Heinemann, 1988.

———. Interview. With Yashodhara Dalmia. The Times of India (Sunday Bulletin) 29 Apr. 1979: 13.

———. Interview. With Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Interviews with Writers of the Post-colonial World. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1992. 156-79.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

———. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Mann, Harveen Sachdeva. “Going the Opposite Direction: Feminist Recusancy in Anita Desai's Voices in the City.ARIEL: A Review of International Literature in English 23.4 (1992): 75-95.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985.

Simpson, David. “Being There: Literary Criticism, Localism and Local Knowledge.” Critical Quarterly 35.3 (1993): 3-17.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing and Imperial Administration. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Harper, 1984.

Gabriele Annan (review date 27 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Sugar-Sticky.” London Review of Books 21, no. 11 (27 May 1999): 35.

[In the following review, Annan discusses Fasting, Feasting within the context of contemporary Anglo-Indian literature, focusing on its characterization and themes.]

When Tim Parks reviewed Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, in the New York Review of Books he grumbled ‘that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind's attempt to grasp the half of them.’ By the end of his piece he is thoroughly exasperated: ‘By making the double gesture of appearing clear-sighted and then filling his pages with supernatural incident and metaphysical muddle that could mean anything or nothing, Rushdie, and many like him [my italics], play to those who, while understandably unwilling to subscribe to any belief so well defined as to be easily knocked down, nevertheless yearn to have all the mystical balls kept perpetually spinning in the air before them. Closet New Agers will be thrilled. The potential readership is huge.’ So boo squish to Vikram Chandra too, and a reprimand even for Vikram Seth, who doesn't go in for mystical mythography, it is true, but might be accused of narrative plethora; he certainly fits in with the idea of fiction held by Rushdie's naive hero: ‘I always thought story-telling was like juggling … You keep a lot of different ideas in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you're good you don't drop any.’

Well, anyone who agrees with Parks should be happy with Anita Desai. Her plots are minimal, her characters few, her voice low, her style and structure traditional, and, best of all, she is a sensitive analyst of what Parks calls ‘the inner life’; and funny, besides. But she does have one thing in common with the mythomaniac school of Indian writing. The Indian writers we read are almost all explainers. English or American-educated, they write in English. So whether they want it or not, they have a mission to explain their world to us, and, deliberately or not, that is what they do. They are guides.

Desai's last novel but one was the melancholy biography of a German Jew who escapes to India in the Thirties, is interned there as an enemy alien for the length of the war, and lives out the rest of his life, poor and lonely, in a Bombay slum. His only friend is a feisty German who was once in cabaret in Shanghai—the kind of woman who might have been sung by Lotte Lenya or played by Marlene Dietrich in her Touch of Evil days. The title, Baumgartner's Bombay, is a rueful allusion to Baedekers—Baedeker's Italy, Baedeker's France. In a sense, all Desai's novels are Baedekers. With Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, she is the best of guides to what it's like to be Indian, and maybe that is because she is half-German—Prawer Jhabvala is Indian only by marriage, and Polish by birth. It is usually foreigners who write guidebooks, and their access to the multitudes, of whatever nation, lends to be limited—as it would be, one imagines, for an Indian woman of Desai's sophisticated cosmopolitan background. So she writes about educated India. She tells you what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like, what the traffic is like, and what people do in the evenings (they play bridge). She re-creates the social structure, and sometimes illumines a stretch of recent history: Partition, for instance, in Clear Light of Day (1980); the battle to keep Urdu going as the language of poetry in In Custody (1984); or, in Journey to Ithaca (1995), the hippie invasion and the Western misapprehension of Indian mysticism (which is also covered in Prawer's agonising and wildly funny How I Became a Holy Mother). Most of all, Desai makes you understand and feel what it is like to be part of India's middle class; especially an unsuccessful part. Her heroes (not the best name for them) tend to be losers: Baumgartner; In Custody's failed schoolmaster-poet Deven in his dismal suburb ‘of low-paid employees’; and Arun in her new novel.

Women are born to be losers anyway; though it could be said that Desai's portrait of Indian womanhood, all restriction and frustration, is beginning to go out of date for the middle classes. But then it also has to be said that the anguish of spinsterhood made very good material for novels in the 19th century: so why not exploit the theme as long as there is still some life left in it? Its particular pathos suits Desai's particular manner particularly well: submission, loss, resignation—those are the melancholy themes she does so well, the mournful rhythm of her prose occasionally (quite often, really) broken by an ironic jolt.

Fasting, Feasting is a reduced variation on the elegiac Clear Light of Day, in which two sisters (not three, though their situation and state of mind invite a comparison with Chekhov) look back from the present to the time when it was still the future and they were waiting for it to come. There are two parts to Fasting, Feasting. The first centres on Uma, the eldest daughter of an ambitious, conventional and conventionally ambitious lawyer and his equally conventional wife. The parents are known as Papa-Mama, because they always agree, especially in disagreeing with almost everything their children may do or want to do. They are ‘enemies of abandon,’ and regard even the convent school to which they reluctantly send their daughters as a sink of modernity. Uma adores school, though she is a dismal failure there, being plain, shortsighted, clumsy, and not very bright. She is 17 and her sister Aruna 12 when their mother becomes pregnant again: a terrible embarrassment at her time of life, until it turns into a triumph—the late child is a son!

Uma is immediately removed from school to help the ayah look after little Arun: what's the point of school, say Papa-Mama, when she fails all her exams; and anyway, it's time she was married. As ‘a sign of the family's progressiveness’ (an explanation that wouldn't be required for Indian readers), Uma is allowed to see photographs of possible suitors. Terrible humiliations follow: the first suitable boy comes to visit and prefers pretty 12-year-old Aruna: the second goes through with an engagement, but breaks it off and his father refuses to return the dowry. At the third attempt Uma is married and packed off to live with her in-laws in a strange town. They treat her like a servant, and she never sees her husband again after the wedding. He is on business in Meerut, his parents say; but it turns out that that is where he lives with his wife and children Uma has married bigamist. She returns home with another dowry lost and in permanent disgrace. So she becomes the family housekeeper, exploited and criticised, though efficient enough.

Aruna, on the other hand, is clever and pretty, and has no problem finding a husband. His main attraction is that his family lives in Bombay, a shopper's paradise. So Aruna is happy, shops till she drops and goes to lots of parties; when she comes to visit her family, Uma has to look after her babies while she goes out with her friends. There is a poignant moment when Uma glimpses a possibility of escape. Dr Dutt, the daughter of a former Chief Justice, arrives on her bicycle. She runs a department at the hospital, and has come to ask Uma to help out in a crisis: the newly established Institute of Nursing needs a domestic supervision to run it for the 22 trainees who have already moved in. Would Uma do it? ‘Papa was quite capable of putting on a progressive, Westernised front when called upon to do so—in public, in society, not within his family of course—and now he showed his liberal educated ways by rising to his feet when Dr Dutt dismounted from her bicycle.’

But that's as far as his liberalism goes. Of course Papa-Mama refuse to allow their daughter to go out to work. So the prison gates close, and the closing coincides with the suicide—a traditional India suicide with kerosene and matches—of Uma's beautiful, talented cousin Anamika after seventy years in an unhappy arranged marriage, for which her parents forced her to renounce the Oxford scholarship she had been offered. At this point, perhaps, the sad lot of unemancipated Indian women is rather too heavily underlined by coincidence: Part One of the novel ends with Uma among the mourners watching Anamika's ashes being scattered in the sacred river. After that, Uma disappears from the story as completely as her cousin.

Part Two is less than half the length of Part One. It is a Baedeker's United States for Indians. Compared to the subtle, atmospheric, perceptive first part, it is crude: a familiar caricature of small-town America. The central figure is young Arun. He is not autistic like the brother in Clear Light of Day, but almost as uncommunicative and withdrawn. His life is ‘a deep well of greyness,’ a never-ending academic grind from his earliest childhood on. Ambitious Papa has him coached daily after school his own parents were so poor, he likes to remind his son, that he had to do his homework under a street lamp.

Arun duly wins a place at an East Coast college in the US. He doesn't mix with the other students or talk to his equally taciturn roommate. When the vacation comes, he goes to lodge with a family nearby. This is where the caricature begins. The Pattons are a cartoon family. The son is a loutish health freak, his only interests being fitness, games, exercise and jogging. The daughter is bulimic: she stuffs herself with peanuts and chocolate, then vomits it all up. Occasionally she emits an obscenity, but otherwise refuses to speak. The mother is a shopaholic, not for jewelry, like Aruna, but for food. She takes a shine to Arun and makes him accompany her on her daily expeditions to the overpowering supermarket where she stocks up the overflowing freezer. There are no family meals of the kind that cheer (or torment) Indians insofar as the Pattons eat at all, they help themselves to snacks from the fridge. There is plenty of tension just the same—‘on the other side of the world, Arun is caught up again in the sugar-sticky web of family conflict.’ When the hot weather comes, Mrs Patton gives herself up to sunbathing, and toys with yoga, astrology, numerology, gemmology, Karmic lessons. Arun is relieved when the vacation draws to its end, and one sympathises: the send up of America is perfunctory, déjà vu, and weary.

Fasting, Feasting is described on its cover as ‘a dazzling Novel of Conflicting Cultures’: it has no new light to shed on this well-documented subject, though. Uma would be better off if she had her touching and fastidiously written novella to herself, and Arun were consigned to the sacred river.

Shirley Chew (review date 28 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Chew, Shirley. “Acting as Sita Did.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5017 (28 May 1999): 23.

[In the following review, Chew assesses the familial subject matter of Fasting, Feasting, implicating the text in the perpetuation of patriarchal society.]

In an article in the TLS of September 14, 1990, entitled “A Secret Connivance,”; commenting on the general oppressiveness of women's lives in India, Anita Desai noted that “Even if in reality [a woman] is nothing but a common drudge, first in her father's house and then her husband's,” she must, bearing in mind accepted role models, conduct herself “as Sita did, as Draupadi did.” While this is a situation created by men to serve their own purposes, it is, Desai recognizes, a form of imprisonment at which women have connived. Believing that one of the purposes of literature is to show us “the plain face of truth,” she returns again and again in her fiction to the subject of the family, the role it plays in perpetuating a patriarchal society and the way it can blight the lives of its members, both women and men. Undeceived, unsparing, yet tender and funny, Desai's new novel, Fasting, Feasting, takes another look at the subject; the two parts of its narrative move from “the family,” as it is known to Arun and his sisters, Uma and Aruna, in their provincial town in the Gangetic plains, to the “plastic representation” of it in the suburbs of Massachusetts.

Unlike many of Desai's earlier novels, the imaginative focus of Fasting, Feasting has been kept insistently narrow, concentrating on the “dull actuality” of the characters' lives. Missing here are the rich resources of landscape and literature to be found in, say, Fire on the Mountain, or Clear Light of Day, or In Custody, domains which impinge on but lie outside the strangle-hold of family routine, its terrible boredom, careless neglect and harsh sexual politics. It is as if the moment Uma is taken out of school to spend her days helping Mama and the ayah with the new baby—a son born to parents late in life and requiring “proper attention” by way of food, education, a foreign degree and career opportunities—she can only watch helplessly as her world shrinks to veranda, bedroom and kitchen. Housebound in her movements, Uma's mental life is likewise circumscribed, her cherished possessions being a collection of bangles and old Christmas cards, a second-hand volume of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's verses, a small store of hymns learnt at the convent school, and stories of Lord Krishna remembered from the days when Mira-masi, a widow aunt, would come to stay between pilgrimages.

Equally limited are Uma's notions of freedom: a month in an ashram with Mira-masi, a night out with cousin Ramu in a local restaurant, a day at the convent bazaar, a coffee party, an offer of a job, quickly quashed by Mama, as housekeeper of a local nurses' hostel. Even the two attempts to marry her off turn out to have been cruel hoaxes, aimed at cheating Papa of dowry. Yet bleak and futile as it often is, Uma's existence is hardly exceptional, to judge by the several stories of women's experiences circulating within the extended family: clever, beautiful cousin Anamika, who, married, and reduced to a kitchen slave, was driven to take her own life; Mrs Joshi, who managed to survive the rule of her tyrannical mother-in-law; the ayah's daughter who gets beaten for running away from her husband to find work.

If imagination is under restraint in Fasting, Feasting, Desai has relinquished nothing of her inimitable talent for making us see the human significance of lives like Uma's. In her early forties, a dogsbody, something of a laughing-stock, she is nevertheless spirited and astute, harbouring against all odds the “troubling, secret” hopes of being independent, yet more than anyone else around her, conscious of her own and other wasted lives. Within the plainness and economy of Desai's narrative, the moments of recognition, fleeting though they may be, are the more poignant when they occur, not least because her prose can hover on the edge of sentimentality without actually tipping over. On the day of Arun's departure for Massachusetts, for example, brother and sister are helpless in their dismay at seeing each other as if for the first time, the one “ground down” by years of relentless study to a “blank face” and a uniform greyness, the other, noticeably ageing, “already beginning to stoop and shrink.” Later, amid the grief at Anamika's funeral ceremony, and reduced along with other mourners to “a common huddle” by the fact of death, there is a rare moment of intimacy between mother and daughter:

Uma suddenly finds a hand clasping hers tightly. … “Mama,” she whispers, and squeezes the hand back, thinking, they are together still, they have the comfort of each other. Consolingly, she whispers, “I told cook to make puri-alu for breakfast and have it ready.” Mama gives a sob and tightens her hold on Uma's hand as though she too finds the puri-alu comforting; it is a bond.

But how close can we get to understanding the needs and hungers of others? This is a question Arun wrestles with the first summer he spends in Massachusetts, lodging with the Pattons. Desai's story leaves us with no easy answers. An observer and an outsider, Arun sees the likenesses and differences between his new life and the one he has left behind, yet he does not necessarily understand what he sees. Why does Mr Patton's expression when thwarted remind him of his own father, or Mrs Patton's complaisance towards her husband recall his mother's more evasive tactics? Why does Rod's assiduous pursuit of health resemble the pressure he himself is under “to perform a role,” to be “worth all the trouble and effort and expense”? And why does Melanie's anger have “the contorted face of an enraged sister who spits and froths in ineffectual protest”? In a country “where so much is given, where there is both licence and plenty,” are these no more than “a plastic mock-up” of the real thing he has known at home? And, at the end of the novel, even when the crisis has come to a head and there is no turning aside from the real pain and real hunger of Melanie's disorder, the question still remains as to what are the terrifying needs she knows which must be so desperately confronted and so violently denied.

Subtle, moving, a finely achieved work, Fasting, Feasting is a curiously worrying novel, and for this reason. If what it reveals is “the plain face of truth”—and the dedication, “To Those Whose Stories I've Told,” must be taken as an attestation of this—can Desai herself also be said to connive at women's entrapment? For one of the questions we take away with us is: what freedom can there ever be for women like Uma, since the routes laid down so undeviatingly are marriage, which either casts one as a victim or a tyrant, or, outside marriage, the religious life? What else? Unless it is “the burning ground,” or the deep river where, swept by the current, Uma feels not fear or danger but “something darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of exultation.”

Frederick Luis Aldama (review date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Aldama, Frederick Luis. Review of Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 240.

[In the following review, Aldama outlines the plot of Fasting, Feasting, suggesting that the change of settings for the novel' s conclusion compromises the integrity of the narrative.]

Anita Desai's novels typically gravitate around women (mostly middle-class South Asians) who come of age in the sweltering clime of India's outback and within households heavy with patriarchal oppression. In her new novel, Fasting, Feasting, the protagonist Uma, much like Desai's earlier characters Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain (1977) and Bimla in Clear Light of Day (1980), dares to dream of a life beyond her estate's closed gates. Unfortunately, also like her predecessors, Uma finds that her desires—“A career. Leaving home. Living alone”—meet with unscalable walls at every turn.

Deep in the Gangetic plains, Uma grows up with her younger brother Arun and sister Aruna. Through a series of coming-of-age snapshots, Uma comes into focus. We watch, for example, as she is forced to drop out of Catholic school so as to better serve her brother and father. When Uma grows up, we see her filled with angst as “MamaPapa” (her father's tyrannical personality envelops her mother's) try to pimp her out to a variety of well-to-do men. Superannuated Papa, fond of his white cricket fatigues and “whiskey and water,” requires a good marriage to keep up the family's upper-middle-class image. After a local photographer airbrushes a photograph of Uma, giving her “pink cheeks and almost-blue eyes,” she is forced to meet a coterie of seemingly wealthy, over-the-hill men. The arranged encounters, however, all end disastrously. One groom-to-be runs off with Uma's dowry, investing it in a real-estate scam; and when Uma finally does marry, she discovers that her new husband, Harish, is already married. Like the other rogues, he was only out to get her money.

All along, the last thing Uma desires is a man. She is familiar with the fate of her beautiful cousin Anamika, who, even after winning a scholarship to Oxford, was married off to an old curmudgeon. After several years of turmoil living with a jealous mother-in-law, Anamika douses herself in kerosene, sets herself on fire, and throws herself off a balcony. This is not the fate Uma wishes for. Rather, she hungers for a world without men and seeks companionship with other women, like her widowed aunt, Mira-masi. Mira-masi seems to be an appropriate role model for Uma; she too is an outsider. Her grand holy pilgrimages, Hindu chants, and frequent ashram sojourns make her the family outcast. However, like other socially different female role models Uma looks to, Mira-masi turns out to be so self-centered that she ultimately fails to give Uma the attention she thirsts for.

Anita Desai's lyrical yet pointed prose powerfully draws the portrait of a woman who can never blossom into her own in such an arid social landscape. Unfortunately, Desai's sudden shift in the last chapters from Uma's Gangetic plains to her brother Arun's experiences in suburban Boston takes away from an otherwise heartfelt, sobering story. In Boston, Desai haphazardly sketches encounters with an ineffectual cardboard cutout, taciturn Mr. Patton, a weight-obsessed, nagging Mrs. Patton, and a bulimic daughter, Melanie. Perhaps a little more complex fleshing-out of Uma would have proved a more subtle and effective way to infuse the story with human breadth and universal appeal.

Still, in spite of the novel's half-baked denouement, Fasting, Feasting remains an exquisitely told, powerfully tragic story of the Umas, and the Melanies, of the world who are born gasping for air in a gender-imbalanced social order.

Sarah Curtis (review date 26 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Curtis, Sarah. “Aunts and Daughters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 21.

[In the following review, Curtis compares the themes and characters of Diamond Dust to other works by Desai.]

With her customary quiet confidence, Anita Desai establishes her territory in the opening paragraph, sometimes in the opening sentence, of each of the nine stories in [Diamond Dust]. From the start of “Royalty,” we know not just that the Indian household is off to the hills to escape the summer heat of Delhi but that they are rich and Oxford-educated: not only have so many of their clothes been packed away but so have their books and papers. In the next story, “Winterscape,” a young woman with a baby in her arms is standing in front of a refrigerator looking at some photographs. Immediately we sense this story is set in a land of green lawns and new cars, not serviced by the dusty old Ambassadors with which Desai often evokes India. “‘That dog will kill me, kill me one day!’ Mrs Das moaned,” is the first sentence of the title story, “Diamond Dust.” It is a good enough summary of the plot, though the victim is different.

Desai's style does not change. She continues to pile up the sensuous descriptive details as background, while retaining an almost icy lucidity in her narrative of plot. The first of her three novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Clear Light of Day, published twenty years ago, etched with finest strokes every aspect of Tara's decaying childhood home and of the domain of her family's rich Muslim neighbour.

Now, in “Underground,” Desai's eye lingers over the tacky displays of the shops selling everything from flip-flops to fudge in a Cornish seaside town, and the bare mattress in the ghastly hostel in Iraq, remembered by the reluctant owner of the Cornish boarding house, too weighted down by previous loss to let his rooms. The tourists who provide the framework of the story are the excuse for him to recall his past on the way down to opening the door to them. Sometimes this listing of items becomes tedious. The courtyard, hung with birdcages, some of them empty, of the house in a provincial Mexican town to which young Louis returns to visit his Chekhovian aunt, sets the scene admirably, but there is the facile feel of the tourist's notebook about the Sunday market later described, full of young girls with “tinted hair, painted nails and laughing mouths.”

It is clear from these stories that Desai's interests are the same as ever, but over the years she has refined and elaborated them. When she started writing about loneliness, loss and dislocation as it affected people born in India or with Indian connections, she was one of the first in the field (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala being another interpreter across cultures). Today, there are many writers, men as well as women, who describe with similar intensity the nostalgia of exile, the disappointments of returning home and the conflict between the old and the new which torments India. Thus Rakesh in “Winterscape,” a subtle and touching tale, lives with his wife Beth in Toronto and has difficulties in reconciling past and present, difficulties shared with characters in the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, who has recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

Younger authors also hold up for wonder fading aspects of Indian family culture, in particular the bonds between sisters and the role of the aunt. Beth in “Winterscape,” an apple-pie Canadian girl, shudders at the thought of handing her new baby over to her sister, Susan. This is what Rakesh's mother, Anu, did to her sister Asha, for a number of complicated, sad reasons which Beth begins to understand. Aunts and sisters were the theme of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's 1999 novel Sister of My Heart, but no one paints the role of the aunt as tellingly as Desai. There was a pivotal Mira-masi in Clear Light of Day and a mystic Mira-masi in Fasting, Feasting. In addition, Desai does not front her works crudely with mythology, but it is there in the background. She makes reincarnation and the attraction of disappearing from one's present life compelling in “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” an idea which was important in Sunetra Gupta's recent A Sin of Colour.

The struggle of women for a separate identity is at the heart of the longest and perhaps most impressive of these stories, “The Rooftop Dwellers.” It is a theme explored by many but none better than Desai. She delicately suggests that Moyna is timid at heart, despite her bid for independence. (Uma, the plain, almost backward daughter in Fasting, Feasting is another reluctant Desai heroine.) A recent graduate in English, Moyna is living by herself in Delhi as assistant on a struggling literary journal. Books is financed by an MP from Calcutta who misses the intellectual atmosphere of his home city. The small establishment is a masterly comic creation, drawn with wit, love and a measure of bitterness.

Throughout the story, Desai uses humour to engage her reader and pinpoint the dilemmas. The terrible Bhallas, who rent to Moyna at an extortionate rate their rooftop barsati or shed, are first seen all sitting on the big parental bed watching the Sunday-evening episode of the Mahabharata on television, like the rest of Delhi. To most prospective landlords the idea of a young, attractive lone female renting their property is as dangerous as a fiery arrow in the epic, but the Bhallas are too greedy, and their barsati too ramshackle, for them to care. The others in Moyna's life, from the forbidden kitten she adopts, to her emancipated boss and friend (another Tara), to her own mother who comes on a visit and forges an unwelcome alliance with Mrs Bhalla, all put her choices into perspective. Desai is easy to read, but the under-currents beneath the surface of her stories are dangerous.

Shyamala A. Narayan (review date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Narayan, Shyamala A. Review of Diamond Dust: Stories, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 104-05.

[In the following review, Narayan prefers the stories set abroad in Diamond Dust to those set in India, objecting to the latter's discomfiting perspective on contemporary Indian society and inappropriate use of Indian idiom.]

Author of ten novels, including Fasting, Feasting (1999; see WLT 74:1, p. 240), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Anita Desai is also a short-story writer. The stories in Diamond Dust, her second collection, are quite different from those in Games at Twilight and Other Stories (1978), her first collection. The earlier stories were set entirely in India, but three of the nine stories here are about life in the USA, while one is set in Mexico. The stories set abroad are better than the Indian ones. “Underground” is an unusual love story: the husband finds himself unable to welcome guests to his hotel after the death of his wife; instead, he spends his evenings feeding a family of badgers. A young schoolgirl finds her illusions about artists shattered when she observes the plight of the tenant living on their property.

The last two decades have witnessed the growth of a new category of Indian English writing, one which could be called “N.R.I.” (the non-resident Indian as opposed to the stay-at-home Indian, a writer of the earlier generation, like Raja Rao, even if living abroad physically, was in spirit still in India). Their work focuses on the “imaginary homelands” which Rushdie posits, migratory identities, and hybridity. The primary concern of their writing is the life of the immigrant; day-to-day life in India is not so important. Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and beyond (1999; see WLT 74:2, p. 365) is perhaps the best (certainly the most famous) book in this category. Anita Desai moved to America in the early nineties (at present, she is a member of the faculty at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and her work since then belongs to this category as well.

The best story in the collection, “Winterscape,” deals with the relationship between a young American girl and her Indian mothers-in-law. The women come all the way to America because they wish to help at the birth of their grandchild. They realize soon enough that they are a burden rather than a help to the American mother. The plight of the Indian man trying to bridge two worlds is depicted with feeling, though Desai introduces an unnecessary touch of the exotic by making him have two mothers: the biological mother who bore him, and her sister, who brought him up.

An Indian reader feels vaguely uncomfortable when reading the stories set in India. The descriptions are not completely false; it is more as if we are seeing things through a lens which is slightly out of focus. Here is a passage explaining “barsati,” from the long story “The Rooftop Dwellers”: “But now that Delhi was far too unsafe for sleeping alfresco, these barsatis were being rented out to working spinsters or bachelors at a delightful profit.” The word alfresco is not appropriate here, and people sleep on rooftops even today in the Delhi I know. Elsewhere, the heroine rings a stranger's doorbell “clearing her throat like a saleswoman preparing to sell a line in knitting patterns or home-made jams.” Door-to-door saleswomen are real, but in India they are more likely to be selling cosmetics or kitchenware; it is difficult to get knitting patterns in India, except in big bookshops.

The unnecessary use of Indian words is another irritant. In the story “Five Hours to Simla or Faisla” it is clear that Desai does not know the connotations of the Hindi word faisla. A truck driver stops all traffic on the highway to the hill station because someone breaks his windshield; he declares, “So we won't be moving again until the person who did it is caught and brought to a faisla.” Faisla means decision, and faisla karna (“doing faisla”) means delivering a judgment. So a Hindi-speaker cannot respond to “brought to a faisla.”

Some of the stories are quite unimpressive. “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” for example, is the kind of story published in school or college magazines; the protagonist finds himself unable to prove that he is alive. The title story, about an aging civil servant's obsession with his dog, fails because Desai does not re-create his life convincingly, the small details do not ring true (who wears a hat in Delhi nowadays?). It may be a good strategy for Anita Desai to stop writing about India.

Robin Gerster (review date 12 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Gerster, Robin. “Geographies of the Imagination.” Lancet 359, no. 9301 (12 January 2002): 178.

[In the following review, Gerster praises the themes, style, and settings of Diamond Dust.]

English-language writers from Commonwealth countries tend to be lumbered with the role of “representative” of their country of origin. Thus India's Anita Desai is usually dubbed an Indian writer. This is not necessarily a limiting description, but it is a prescriptive label that inspires those cliches beloved by western commentators on Asian writers—a “clash of cultures,” “East meets West,” and so on. Of course, the westernisation of India and the cultural consequences of the Indian diaspora is one of Desai's major fictional interests. But the map of her fiction is more than merely sociological. Desai's is a geography of the mind and the emotions, an intimate register of that most basic form of politics, those of familial relationships. Her “Indianness,” while essential, is also to some extent beside the point.

Diamond Dust and Other Stories, a collection of nine new stories, again reveals the breadth of Desai's vision, her characteristic psychological penetration, and her sense of humour. Her range is impressive in all sorts of ways. As if to proclaim her global sensibility, her settings include India, the UK, Canada, the USA, and Mexico. While certain themes recur and dominate—exile and divided inheritance (Desai herself is half-Bengali, half-German), and the quest for self-realisation—her chosen contexts are wildly divergent, each offering a fresh perspective on universal aspects of the human condition. Yet Desai is also an unerring portrayer of place. In “Royalty,” which opens this book, New Delhi in high summer is described as stinking “of somnolence, of dejection, like sweat-stained clothes.” And in the beautifully realised “Winterscape”, the reader is made almost to feel the cold of Toronto in midwinter and its impact on two elderly Indian sisters visiting their estranged son/nephew, sent abroad from his rural Indian home a decade earlier to pursue his studies.

In an even collection, “Winterscape” and “Tepoztlan Tomorrow” (about a US-educated man who returns to his native village in Mexico to find it disconcertingly engaged in new interests), stand out. Both stories explore the distance between generations created by education and cultural displacement. There is a particular gender dynamic at work here, as the stories deal with the tension between beloved, “elected” young men and their female elders. Desai's sympathies are evenly distributed, though her identification with Indian women is one of her defining strengths. The final story of the collection, “Rooftop Dwellers,” restrainedly but distressingly portrays the struggle of an intelligent young woman from the provinces trying to carve out an independent life for herself in the indifferent, implacable landscape of suburban Delhi.

Elsewhere in Diamond Dust, there is a startling variety of subject matter: from “Royalty,” a biting satire of male vanity and its seductive power; to the chilling “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” written in the vein of the classic horror story; to the quiet pathos of “Underground,” in which a hotel-keeper in an English seaside town psychologically struggles to survive the death of his wife; to the absurd comedy of “Five Hours to Simla or Faisla.” Black humour also marks the title story, which describes the tragic consequences of a man's obsession with his dog—the most domestic kind of cautionary tale.

Each story provides a master class in the art of short story writing. Desai is not an especially adventurous writer technically; but her narrative form is not linear either. Rather than aspiring to the concentrated, “single effect” celebrated by the genre's famous theorist, Edgar Allan Poe, her stories defy their limited structural dimensions and reverberate with meaning. Simple closure and the big climax are usually eschewed; in fact anticlimax is Desai's special forte. She has a profound sense of the elusiveness of self-fulfilment, of how life's possibilities seem to lie at the end of a rainbow but ultimately shimmer like some distant mirage. The epiphany, that moment of revelation or heightened knowledge so beloved by James Joyce and great tribes of short story writers, is noticeably absent in Desai: bafflement and ennui befall many of her main characters. But that, as they say, is life.

Diamond Dust and Other Stories is one of those books that remind one that reading is, or should be, a pleasure. Food for the heart and for the head. Indeed, these nine stories should be consumed slowly like a plate of oysters—every one with a characteristic tang but each a new and luxurious experience (and not a dodgy one in the lot).

Cindy Lacom (essay date fall 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7050

SOURCE: Lacom, Cindy. “Revisiting the Subject: Disability as ‘Third Dimension’ in Clear Light of Day and You Have Come Back.NWSA Journal 14, no. 3 (fall 2002): 138-54.

[In the following essay, Lacom examines the social contexts and ideologies of disabled characters in Clear Light of Day and Fatima Gallaire-Bourega's You Have Come Back, demonstrating the relationship between postcolonial and feminist studies and disabled persons.]

When considering the work of post-colonial scholars, it becomes apparent that missing from the list of the oppressed and marginalized are those who are doubly colonized with physical and mental disabilities. If, as Frantz Fanon has argued, Othering occurs on the basis of physical and verbal difference, then that colonized subject who is Other in terms of body and voice is made doubly Other by means of her disability. In this paper, I examine the social framing and ideological work of disabled characters in two texts, Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day and Fatima Gallaire-Bourega's You Have Come Back. Using these texts' main characters—Baba, who is autistic (Desai), and the Madwoman and the Cripple (Gallaire-Bourega)—I argue that the incorporation of a disability studies perspective in post-colonial and feminist critiques can enrich our understanding of the dialectic between colonizer and colonized and refigure our consideration of hybridity. Though Desai and Gallaire-Bourega resist simple “answers” to the question of how gender intersects with disability in post-colonial worlds, both offer provocative instances of the transgressive potential of “different” bodies.


In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said states that the work of postcolonial scholars “should be seen as sharing concerns with minority and ‘suppressed’ voices within the metropolis itself: feminists, African-American writers, intellectuals, artists, among others” (1994, 54). Missing from his list, however—and, arguably, from too many analyses of the mechanisms of oppression and liberation—is a consideration of those with physical and/or mental disabilities.1 To begin to address and “fill in” that gap, I examine characters in two texts, Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (1980) and Fatima Gallaire-Bourega's You Have Come Back (1988), to argue that the disabled characters in each text serve critical political and ideological purposes during a particular postcolonial moment in their respective nations.

It has become a theoretical commonplace to argue, as Frantz Fanon does, that Othering occurs on the basis of physical and verbal difference (1963).2 To that end, narrative desire—the impulse to tell stories—“underlies the ways we construct the so-called normal and the aberrant, and the ways we explain the disjunctions between the two” (Epstein 1995, 19). Judith Butler reiterates this point in Bodies that Matter when she writes that “the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside” (1993, 3). In a post-structuralist and post-Foucauldian world, we are all familiar with the idea that we can only conceive of normalcy by conceiving of its opposite: deviance. And in traditional readings, the colonized body has been that abjected outside against which the British body—civilized, civilizing, normal—is constituted, at both a cultural and a more literal level. Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” whose enlarged labia and buttocks, circulated in the freak shows of Victorian England, marked her as savagely sensuous and measurably different from the English angel in the house.3

But if the colonized body constitutes the abjected outside, if it is part of what Alexander and Mohanty call a “citizenship machinery which excludes and marginalizes particular constituencies on the basis of their difference,” how are we to read the disabled colonized body (1997, xxxi)? How does it fit into this dialectic between colonizer and colonized and into the transaction of the post-colonial world? From a Bakhtinian perspective, one might argue that the very grotesqueness of disability has the potential to disrupt hegemonic paradigms and revise cultural norms. Donna Haraway considers such a possibility in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” where she claims that the cyborg has the ability to transcend, transgress, and destroy boundaries (1998). And often, reading disability in terms of transgressive power provides a useful means for deconstructing the traditional paradigm of disability as tragedy.4 But in most literary texts which incorporate characters with disabilities, that liberatory and transformative potential is written in the margins and difficult to detect if it is expressed at all.


In order to do justice to the complex cultural and ideological work of disability and enrich my exploration of possible meanings of disability in postcolonial texts, I will incorporate Homi Bhabha's idea of the “third dimension” outlined in The Location of Culture (1994) in my readings of Desai's novel and Gallaire-Bourega's play.

The third dimension, as Bhabha describes it, exists in the moment of recognition that Self cannot be wholly contained within a Self/Other binary, a binary dependent upon fixed and static boundaries. In other words, as soon as we recognize that the chasm which divides us from them is artificial and reductionist, we move into a place where identity is ambivalent and mutable. As Bhabha notes, the very struggle to maintain that Self/Other binary articulates the possibility of slippage between the two categories and reminds us that “identity is never an a priori, nor a finished product; it is only ever the problematic process of access to an image of totality” (51).

In contemplating moments of potential slippage between identity categories, Bhahba develops the idea of the “evil eye,” that figure which reminds us of what is missing or invisible in a text, those figures whose gaze “alienates both the narratorial I of the slave and the surveillant eye of the master” (53). The evil eye is the outside, the margin, that “structure of difference” which blurs the gap between slave and master by making both objects of observation and judgment. In this capacity, the evil eye has power because it unsettles the simplistic polarities of Self/Other, because it resists that image of totality so important in myths both of imperial and postcolonial worlds.

I want to use this image of totality to turn now to an examination of the disabled body which, almost universally perceived in terms of lack, comes to symbolize the impossibility of totality, acting then as a sort of evil eye which reminds us of what is absent. Harlan Hahn reads the cross-cultural and ahistorical recoil from those with disabilities as an expression of what he calls “existential angst” (1988). In considering the segregation of those with disabilities in ableist cultures—and he argues that most cultures are and have been ableist5—Hahn suggests that we seek to distinguish ourselves from disabled bodies because we understand the very real possibility that those bodies can become our own. At the most basic level, then, we Other those with physical and mental disabilities in order to shore up our own very temporal sense of able-bodiedness. After all, “No one is immune from becoming disabled” (Boyle 1991, 1).

Given this, I want to suggest that the disabled body informs Bhabha's third dimension, that site where identity is negotiated, in critical ways. If, as Bhabha suggests, “the very question of identification only emerges in-between disavowal and designation” (1994, 50), then the disabled body multiplies the possible terms of disavowal for both the colonizer and the colonized; because disability can be a more evident signifier even than the color of one's skin, it becomes a visual means by which to define normalcy and, by extension, nation. And though Bhabha suggests that interstitial (in-between) spaces can foster those moments of recognition and of connectedness essential to the creation of a heterogeneous nation (because difference itself is temporal and co-exists with similarity), such moments are largely absent in the texts of Desai and Gallaire-Bourega who, in a post-modern move, negate the hope of such synthesis.


Acknowledging the prevalence of differentiation rather than synthesis in nation-building, Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his “Preface” to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth that “the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters” (1963, 26). Similarly, I will suggest, the colonized are only able to “become men,” to establish a national identity in the historical moment of decolonization, through the reification of a new category of monsters—the disabled, the deformed, the mad. To that end, disability designates a docile body upon which nationalist tensions can be arbitrated and against which a rationalist ideology can pull “a collection of disparate peoples into a self-identified nation” (Heng 1997, 31).

A second category which emerges in this moment of nation-building is woman. This is especially true in many Middle Eastern countries, where women's roles grow increasingly constricted as sharp gendered boundaries evolve in the chaos created by the colonizer's departure. As Deniz Kandiyoti notes, many Muslims draw a correlation between feminism and cultural imperialism, so that the woman who resists culturally sanctioned behaviors in a postcolonial world comes to be understood as undermining the project of nationalism (1991, 5-8). Women become, as Amrita Chhachhi puts it, “the symbols and repositories of communal/group/national identity … [so that] [t]hreats to or the loss of control over their women … are seen as direct threats to manhood/community/family. It therefore becomes essential to ensure patriarchal controls over the labour, fertility, and sexuality of women” (1991, 163-5).6

In the two texts to which I now turn my attention, I argue that the disabled body defines and delimits transformative possibilities and becomes a kind of repository for the anxiety that arises from mediation between old and new cultural norms. I also consider the meanings of a convergence between disabled and woman as identity categories.

Though Fanon has been critiqued for a too-simplistic understanding of the colonizer/colonized dynamic, his conception of the processes of decolonization and nation building is useful here. He argues that “Decolonization unifies [a] people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity, and by unifying it on a national, sometimes a racial, basis” (1963, 46). Along with postcolonial feminist critics, I would add gender to the list.

If we look around, we can see that oppressive and homogenizing impulse in, for instance, the Islamic fundamentalism gaining such power in Iran and which is becoming more of a force in certain other Middle Eastern cultures. The simplest reading of the disabled body in postcolonial cultures, then, might be that it provides the difference against which a homogenous national body is defined. Or as Rosemarie Garland Thomson puts it in Extraordinary Bodies, reading the disabled body as Other supports the belief “that each citizen is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. A well-regulated self thus contributes to a well-regulated nation” (1997, 42).

Part of this regulation is the literal and symbolic regulation of the bodies both of women and of people with disabilities. An imperative of homogeneity contributes to a social environment where bodies out of bounds are understood to have the potential to undermine the project of nationalism. At such moments, individual bodies are often imbued with the metonymic power to represent the “social body,” giving rise to a category of in/valid bodies which includes people with disabilities and women who refuse to enact “appropriate” behaviors. As Poovey puts it, “The process by which a national identity is consolidated and maintained is … one of differentiation and displacement—the differentiation of the national us from aliens within and without” (1995, 55).


In the novel, Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai explores the ambivalent role of characters with disabilities, both as sites of transgression and as repositories for cultural tensions in a postcolonial world. In it, Desai uses the family as microcosm for larger national concerns, as she does in many of her fictional explorations of postcolonial themes (for instance, in Fire on the Mountain [1977] and Baumgartner's Bombay [1988]). The novel traces the tensions of a Hindu family reunited in the family home, where one sister, Bim, who has stayed there caring for Baba, represents Indian culture, while the other sister, Tara, represents more Western values. In essence, the family dynamics as the sisters confront their differences and struggle to balance old and new worlds become a microcosmic exploration of larger national concerns, establishing a “parallel movement between British withdrawal from India and the progressive emptying out of the Das home … [making] a distinct point about the erosion of cultural frames of reference” (Mohan 1997, 49).

In the midst of their negotiations exists their brother Baba, who is developmentally disabled. At one level, Baba represents the naive dream of detachment from postcolonial negotiations of power, i.e., that one can somehow remove oneself from such negotiations. He is literally left out of almost all arguments between his sisters and thus exempt from the anguish caused by such altercations.

But the slippage of identity, which occurs when the sisters struggle to understand one another's narratives, is fostered by Baba's own fluid movement between symbolic identity categories. If on one hand he reflects Bim's passive resistance to change (he is addicted to order, ritual, to the known and familiar), he also embodies Tara's internalization of Western values, articulated in the American music to which he compulsively listens. As Rajeswari Mohan notes, “Brought to India by the American GIs and British Tommies, this music is coded as the monstrous and cosmic intrusion of Western popular culture” (1997, 51). On the surface, then, his disability marks him as uniquely able to simultaneously participate in imperial standards and to reject them by escaping reality. Because of this dual role, he becomes the focus of his two sisters as they attempt to mediate between old and new cultural norms. At one point in the first part of the novel, Tara persistently asks Baba if he is going to go into the office to perform duties of which he is blatantly incapable; later that day, when one of his records develops a skip, he rushes off the property only to witness a man beating a horse and to return, disoriented and deeply upset, “as if he were an amputee” (Desai 1980, 15). In many respects, he is: that which is absent in him serves to justify why Bim has not changed and to explain why Tara recoils from “those silences and shadows” representative of “Old Delhi decadence” (15). Literally, then, it is through his body (his silence, his compulsions, his ghostly presence) that the two sisters attempt to negotiate a balance between old and new India.

His “amputation” has gendered connotations, as well. Baba is feminized by his disability in overt ways: he is not self-supporting, he does not participate in the public world, and he is very gentle. But Baba also lives in a semiotic world, resisting entry into the symbolic by means of his music and his mutterings. Graham Huggan suggests that “silence and music in several postcolonial texts can be seen … as providing alternative, non-verbal codes which subvert and/or replace those earlier, over-determined narratives of colonial encounter in which the word is recognized to have played a crucial role in the production of and maintenance of colonial hierarchies of power” (1990, 13). Like Baba, Aunt Mira, the alcoholic aunt who cared for the siblings when they were children, retreats into the semiotic and challenges social order with wildly transgressive acts—for instance, running naked and drunk in public. Aunt Mira does not fill a culturally-sanctioned role, for she is not mother, wife, or worker. Rather, like Baba, she hovers at the edge of a “new” Indian society. Both characters act as constant irritants, refusing to fit neatly into either old or new cultural paradigms. In fact, their inability to fit in either category reminds us that such polarities (an old versus new world order) are simplistic, unrealistic, and unrealizable.

To that end, Baba and Aunt Mira have subversive potential; they function as the evil eye that observes and resists inclusion. Though Baba and Aunt Mira are in many respects passive figures upon which tensions are worked out, the novel itself resists resolution and suggests, instead, that the process of negotiation will be ongoing. After one of her final outbursts of resentment, Bim comes to recognize that “It was Baba's silence and reserve and otherworldliness that she had wanted to break open and ransack and rob” (Desai 1980, 164). And yet Baba himself—whose story is never told first-hand, whose motives and memories remain a blank in the sisters' efforts to reconstitute their pasts and thus their present—remains silent, a third space which is indeterminate and unrepresentable. He is that Stranger “whose languageless presence evokes and archaic anxiety and aggressivity” by highlighting the opacity of language in a story where language is all (Bhabha 1994, 166). Those who do not speak, or who do not speak with the dialect of the new nation, are dangerous, and their threat to nationhood must be contained. One means of containment is making static an “extraordinary body.” This, I argue, is what happens with Baba: initially dangerous because of his fluid identity, he is neutralized when the sisters fix his identity as silent shadow, recipient of their dual care, loveable burden. Thus, together they situate him in a particular role as dependent and knowable. Towards the end of the novel, Desai momentarily reconsiders the idea of Baba as fixed in his difference from the sisters, offering a fleeting hope of connectedness in place of differentiation. In this scene, Bim brings Baba his tea and

felt an immense, almost irresistible yearning to lie down beside him on the bed, stretch out limb to limb, silent and immobile together. She felt that they must be the same length, that his slightness would fit in beside her size. … Together they would form a whole that would be perfect and pure. She needed only to lie down and stretch out beside him to become whole and perfect.

Instead, she went out.

(1980, 166)

The opportunity of this moment—the impulse towards familiarity if not recognized similarity—is rejected, and the transformative power represented by Baba is negated. In the very next scene, Baba is absent while the sisters “paced the terrace” (166).

Given this, I am not convinced that the sisters accept him “as one of their own” (Huggan 1990, 15). Their tentative reconciliation is forged via acknowledgment of past memories and the articulation of shared familial bonds. But Baba's silence places him outside this reconciliation, and ultimately, he serves as an Other, an abject outside by which the sisters establish their renewed ties. If, as Bhabha suggests, “the work of hegemony is itself the process of iteration and differentiation [which] depends on the production of alternative or antagonistic images that are always produced side by side and in competition with each other,” then we can understand “a politics of struggle as the struggle of identifications and the war of positions” (1994, 29). The struggle of identifications by the sisters occurs next to Baba's increasingly stable identity against which the sisters articulate a sense of unity.

Desai recognizes the temporal nature of that unity and reconciliation—as Tara reminds Bim, “it's never over. Nothing's over, ever” (1980, 174). I agree with Trinh T. Minh-ha that “Silence as a refusal to partake in the story does sometimes provide us with a means to gain a hearing” (1989, 83), but in this novel, the “clear light of day,” that sense of community and connectedness which Bim experiences during a musical gathering at the novel's climax, tends to elude Baba, whose “face was grave, like an image carved in stone” (Desai 1994, 182). Unlike his sisters, mobile, fluid, struggling to negotiate the changing nature of postcolonial India and their roles within it, Baba ultimately is cast in stone, fixed, excluded from the dialectic of nationhood.


M. Jacqui Alexander notes that the process of colonization demands a reconfiguration of identity and, by extension, women's sexuality (1991, 134). In the wake of liberation from imperial forces, the process of nation-building often demands a reconstitution of women's sexuality as part of the differentiation which occurs in the creation of a new national identity. Such differentiation is at the heart of Gallaire-Bourega's play, You Have Come Back, in which the main character, Lella, returns to her Algerian home after leaving it twenty years before to marry a French man (1988). Having learned of the death of her father, the man who disowned her upon her act of cultural betrayal, she comes back. Welcomed by her old servants and by the younger women in the community, she is nonetheless warned to depart by Nounou, her old nurse, and by the Madwoman, an older woman despised and reviled in her community. The threat to Lella's safety is not initially articulated, but in the latter part of the play, she is visited by a group of older Algerian women, representing nationalist forces, who enact her father's will by killing her after she refuses to renounce her French, Christian husband.

The play has three characters on whom I will focus: the Madwoman; the Cripple, an old man who appears midway through the play to add his warning to that of the Madwoman's; and Lella herself. The first two characters enact a kind of chorus, commenting on the moral qualities of other characters and offering insights into the play's ethical and political dimensions.

The Madwoman does four things in the play: when one of the young women flatters Lella, she cries out, “Rock your pain”; when Lella describes her husband as a “pleasant companion and … a wonderful lover,” the Madwoman cries “Brava!” twice (183). The third thing she does is dance madly until she falls into a faint after a woman begins a song of rejoicing; and her final act is to interrupt by wildly howling a story of how one of the young women pleased her mother-in-law by having an operation that “opened [her] womb” (188). Each of the acts constitutes a cultural critique: in the first, her cry calls into question the sincerity of the young woman who praises Lella; in the second, she celebrates an act seen as traitorous by others; in the third, her wild dance ending in a transient death, a faint, undermines the celebratory ambiance of the luncheon; and finally, her howling initiates blood-thirsty anger among the young women, who say at this juncture things like “kill her” and “give her a blow to knock her out” (189). It is important to note that the Madwoman is hated, then, not only by the group of older Algerian women at the end of the play representing nationalist forces, but also by these younger women who purportedly represent postcolonial evolution.

Their response to the Madwoman reinforces Fanon's argument that violence is an often necessary element in the development of a new nation and the destruction of colonial structures. Calling into question the idea of passive resistance, he suggests that change is the result of one of two causes: “either of violent struggle on the part of the people in their own right, or of action on the part of surrounding colonized peoples which acts as a brake on the colonial regime in question” (1963, 70).

Because the Madwoman defends Lella and transgresses national and cultural boundaries, she is beaten into silence by the young women. Her silencing, re-enacted at the end of the play when Lella is herself set upon by the older Algerian women and beaten to death, signals the power of the collective against the radical individual. But she also functions, I am suggesting, as the evil eye, that disruptive figure who does not fit anywhere and who, from the margins, refuses to allow the women to take refuge in myths of harmony and totality. Like Baba, the Madwoman uses the semiotic, in itself arguably subversive; her very inarticulateness enacts a hybridity of language “associated with vacillating boundaries—psychic, cultural, territorial” (Bhabha 1994, 59). Those vacillating boundaries negate the fixed world that the first part of this play so futilely attempts to maintain.

Ultimately, Lella cannot “come back,” cannot import her hybrid identity into a culture whose nationalist fervor increasingly negates heterogeneity. Though the women attempt to make the Madwoman that Sartrean monster upon whom they might build a nation, they ultimately cannot. Their efforts fail and the tension between old and new norms reasserts itself. Thus, though the women attempt to inscribe the Madwoman's body as a repository for anxieties about national identity, to make it that Other against which they can define an Algerian identity, her disabled body cannot contain those anxieties. Failing to do so, it is expelled. The expulsion is only temporary, however, because the fluid nature of hegemonic paradigms means that subversive forces will also be changeable. Each new hegemonic paradigm is simultaneously in need of a monstrous figure against which to define a standard of normalcy and is disrupted by a new evil eye which threatens its borders. The disappearance of the Madwoman cannot guarantee against her re-appearance as a different monster, a different re/presentation of that evil eye.

To that end, the Madwoman is replaced by the Cripple, another figure who disrupts the apparently joyous reunion with warnings of danger. Like the Madwoman, the Cripple's very body is transgressive: he drags himself about with shoes worn on his hands; his posture is “twisted and ludicrous”; and he looks enough like a gargoyle to make the women scream and hide their faces when he appears. Lella dismisses him after he delivers his warning, but in the echo of “the sound of his thumping down the stairs,” her heart is “suddenly filled with sadness and questions” (194). Too late, she recognizes that her desire to come back is nostalgic, unrealizable, and dangerous. In the play's last scene, she is murdered, along with the Madwoman and the Cripple.

Like them, Lella has no place in a nation whose gendered categories are so sharply demarcated. Though her marriage to a Christian stigmatizes her in a Muslim country, her overtly-expressed sexuality marks her perhaps even more fully in a nation where women are veiled and public expression of female sexuality is taboo. I agree with Evelyne Accad that sexuality is “central to social and political problems in the Middle East” (1991, 237), and there is literally nowhere in the new dialectic of nationhood for Lella's distinctly undocile body. Gayatri Spivak examines the problematic of where women fit in this historical moment in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason:

Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling that is the displaced figuration of the “third-world” woman caught between tradition and modernization, culturalism and development.

(1999, 304)

Lella, who “shuttles” back and forth between the tenuous welcome of the younger women and the rigid judgment of the older, becomes a kind of disabled figure in the play, whose disability is marked by that physical body which resists “cultural authenticity expressed in Islamic terms” (Kandiyoti 1991, 3). I am arguing, in essence, that this collapse between the identity categories of woman and disabled suggests that those women who resist postcolonial patriarchal rules of behavior are stigmatized. Due to that stigmatization, they become partners with people with disabilities in the creation of a site where national identity is negotiated against and in opposition to their bodies.

Both the Madwoman and the Cripple embody subversive possibilities through their warnings to Lella and their refusal to be silenced as they challenge both class hierarchies and the scopic regime that seeks to regulate them. At the play's end, however, both fail to evoke overt or measurable transformation of their nation, and in that failure, their disabilities become totalizing: the Madwoman is ignored because she is mad, while the Cripple's claim, “They will not get past my body,” resonates ironically because of its complex truth; in fact, they never do get past his body. Though Gallaire-Bourega suggests that resistance to Islamic nationalist efforts is inherently disabling—the connections between Lella's and the misfits' identities becomes completely clear by the play's close—the exclusion and cultural dismissal of the disabled by both the new and the old Algerian cultural orders suggests that one's body limits one's role in either regime.

However, though the younger Algerian women do not reject Lella, they abandon her in the face of the more culturally-sanctioned appearance of the older Algerian women, whose behavior is approved (and directed) by Lella's dead father, that most literal patriarchal figure. She, like the Madwoman and the Cripple, fails to transform or transcend this moment of deep cultural anxiety; she cannot come back to a nation and homeland that marks her as deviant and dangerous.

By emphasizing the similarities between Lella and those characters with disabilities, Gallaire-Bourega inscribes into the margins of her play the potential of those interstitial spaces where difference is renegotiated. In doing so, she opens the door to possible deconstruction both of disability and woman as fixed identity categories. But their exile by death limits that subversive potential. The in-between spaces created by interaction are fleeting, subsumed ultimately by a violent expulsion of difference that is understood as threatening to a hard-won national identity.

Gallaire-Bourega, personally invested in deconstructing a homogenous national identity which excludes difference, explores issues of oppression, and hybridity in many of her plays. In Madame Bertin's Testimony, Madame Bertin speaks in a monologue of her life, her husband, and her suspicions of his pedophilia (1995). At the play's end, she discloses herself as Monsieur Bertin, dressed as his wife. An example of hybridity and symbiosis but also of complex power negotiations, the play repeats certain themes of You Have Come Back. More generally, as an Algerian who has chosen to live in France and who writes and publishes her plays in French, Gallaire-Bourega has struggled to “integrate the two languages and cultures” (Temerson and Kourilsky 1988, 165). Recognizing that such efforts may well be transitory, she nonetheless returns repeatedly to the subversive possibility of such moments.

Thus, some transgressive potential remains in the echo of the Madwoman's cries and in the shadow of the Cripple's halting figure. The recirculation of their disabled bodies suggests that, though temporarily exiled, other disabled bodies will reappear to disrupt the oppressive process of nation-building. Ultimately, the gaze of the evil eye can be only temporarily ignored. Thus, though the final stage directions show us the elder women bowing and kissing the male Elder's hand as they leave the murderous scene, the last image on stage pairs the Elder with Lella's body, which remains on stage. The ironic “call to prayer” which closes the stage directions, and the play, echoes just as does the sight of Lella's body: however still and silent, it remains before our eyes, a visual reminder that such subversive elements will not—cannot—simply disappear.


In both texts, physical, mental, and gender-based stigmas create and maintain a status quo where normal bodies do the necessary work of assimilating to new social patterns while arbitrating old power dynamics. To that end, the representation of disability, because it remains seemingly stuck in a subordinate relationship to able-bodiedness (which comes to include patriarchy) is problematic. In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison examines the ways in which Africanism has historically done the work of constructing whiteness in American literature and concludes that “Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny” (1990, 52). Similarly, the characters with disabilities in the two postcolonial texts I examine exist in a binary that excludes them even as it depends upon them to develop a status quo.

But we are reminded, as well, that that status quo is tentative, fluid, and subject to constant revision and that “out of bound” bodies foster that revisionary process in important, even radical, ways. Borrowing again from Morrison's argument, who notes that “A writer's response to American Africanism often provides a subtext that either sabotages the surface text's expressed intentions or escapes them through a language that mystifies what it cannot bring itself to articulate” (66), I want to suggest that a similar mystification occurs in Clear Light of Day and You Have Come Back. Though Desai and Gallaire-Bourega might not be fully capable of articulating the transformative potential of disability, whether physical, mental, or gender-based, their respective representations nonetheless resonate with cultural and political implications. Both return repeatedly to figures of disability and, in You Have Come Back, to the figure of the sexualized woman, to explore the unfixed nature of hierarchies, national identity, and power paradigms. For both, disability is an “echo, shadow, and silent force” which hovers at the margins of their texts (Gallaire-Bourega 1988, 48). This presence, this shadow, always there, demands a closer reading and more careful consideration. Because however concerted the endeavor to stabilize disability as the subordinate term in a normal/deviant binary, the potential of characters with disabilities to disrupt comfortable, comforting, and ultimately unreliable images of totality reminds us of their transgressive potential, however unarticulated, however mystifying—indeed, perhaps because unarticulated and mystifying.

Such potential is certainly cause for further exploration in our quest to more fully understand and enrich the field of disability studies and its intersections with feminist and postcolonial applications.


  1. Many postcolonial scholars consider embodiment and its imbrication in power dynamics in terms of race, class, and gender, but none of the most important critics in the field—Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Iris Young, Gayatri Spivak, Frantz Fanon, or Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty—consider disability. And a number of postmodern theorists writing on embodiment issues ignore real bodies, as Mitchell and Snyder note (1997); for instance, in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler (1993) only rarely considers lived bodies within concrete social locations.

    In the field of disability studies, writers explore “the metaphorical and symbolic values that disability has represented,” one of which is that of the Other (Mitchell and Snyder 1997, 12). In some instances, authors consider intersections of disability and race or ethnicity. For instance, in “Defining the Defective,” Martin S. Pernick argues that two early films, The Science of Life and The Black Stork, “linked aesthetics, disability, and race” (1997, 95). And in “Disability and Ethnicity in Conflict,” Marilyn Phillips interrogates the connections between disability and ethnicity in the transformation of a woman whose case study she discusses (1988). In a critique of similar studies of auto/biography, she notes that “The flaw in each theoretical framework is the dismissing or the disregarding of the weight that culture bears on those who are stigmatized and the extent to which the individual's coming to terms with a disability may necessitate first coming to terms with the inconsistencies in the cultural ethos” (200). The subject in her study at one point concludes that she would rather be “crippled than Polish” (205).

    Clearly, more texts are being published which complicate the disabled/ablebodied or colonizer/colonized binary, but it would enrich both the fields of disability studies, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory to consider more closely the role of disability in nation-building.

  2. Fanon discusses linguistic colonization and the distrust it fosters in the process of nation-building. The mimicry of those colonized people in positions of nominal power—dressing, speaking, and working with the Europeans—foments suspicion in the colonized and, according to Fanon, is used by the Europeans in “their struggle against the nationalist parties” (1963, 112). Other discussions of the subversive power of the semiotic can be found in the works of Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

  3. In Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson discusses the means by which visual difference in freak show displays of white women next to black, deformed/savage women worked to reinforce racist ideologies in the first half of the twentieth century (1997). And in his study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century shows in England, Richard Altick notes that the “displays of savages appealed to what was becoming [a] more and more openly and aggressively displayed aspect of the English character, its complacent assumption of racist supremacy” (1978, 279). Interestingly, as Altick notes, the display of such savages took place alongside displays of freaks—people with visible deformities or disabilities. In both cases, a white, ableist norm was established. See also Thomas Frost's The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs (1971).

  4. In The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo considers the ways in which transgressive bodies enact Bakhtin's carnivalesque, arguing that the body becomes a prototype of society; to that end, different and disabled bodies (the figure of the crone, for instance, but also the woman who breastfeeds in public) can offer “models of transformation and counterproduction situated within the social system and symbolically at its margins” (1994, 54). And in personal narratives like that of G. Thomas Couser's Recovering Bodies (1997), writers argue that disability can enrich self-exploratory narratives while revising the medical model of disability as tragic.

  5. I am defining an ableist culture as one which uses able-bodiedness as a primary means of establishing cultural norms and standards and which, by extension, excludes those who are not considered able-bodied. Some examples in modern American culture might be negative attitudes towards aging and the elderly; cuts in state and federal monies for people with disabilities; and hostility towards changes in hiring practices, educational opportunities, and architectural structures demanded by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Michael Oliver argues that cultural attitudes towards disability altered with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of capitalism. He suggests that in pre-industrial, agrarian societies, even where people with disabilities “could not participate fully, they were still able to make a contribution. In this era disabled people were regarded as individually unfortunate and not segregated from the rest of society. With the rise of the factory … many more disabled people were excluded from the production process” (1990, 27). Because factory work demanded speed and regularity, people with disabilities were often unable to do the work and thus came to be seen as a burden on the state. As Oliver puts it, “Under capitalism … disability became individual pathology; disabled people could not meet the demands of individual wage labour and so became controlled through exclusion” (47).

  6. See Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977) for a discussion on how categories of normalcy and deviance were formalized and his argument on how institutions increasingly came to manage dangerous individuals.


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Anita Desai World Literature Analysis


Desai, Anita (Vol. 19)