Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
The plot of Fire on the Mountain is relatively brief and uncomplicated, the significant action occurring within the psyches of Nanda and, to a lesser extent, Raka, her great-granddaughter. When Ila Das is raped and killed, that violent action happens “offstage” at the end of the novel, almost simultaneously with Raka’s announcement that she has set the forest on fire. While there are few important “events” in the rest of the novel, Anita Desai prepares the reader for the horrific ending by carefully embedding violence in her imagery and in her symbolism. In effect, the “fire” metaphorically smolders within her characters before it literally ignites at the end of the novel.
Part 1 of Fire on the Mountain provides the geographical and psychological setting prior to the arrival of Raka, Nanda’s great-granddaughter. After the death of her husband, Nanda has apparently chosen to live an isolated life in her retirement. Except for an occasional telephone call and a visit from the postman, which she regards as unwelcome intrusions, only the presence of Ram Lal, her cook, disturbs her solitude. Carignano, her literal and metaphorical “retreat,” is perched on the side of a cliff, and its setting suggests the precarious nature of the life she has established there. That life, free from obligations to others, is threatened by the visit of the postman, who brings her a letter informing her of the impending visit by Raka. When Ila Das, a friend since childhood, telephones Nanda and also asks about visiting her, Nanda realizes that her “pared, reduced, and radiantly single life” is in jeopardy.
The second part of the novel concerns the interaction—and lack of it—between Nanda and Raka, who, despite the generational gap, are quite similar in behavior. At first, Nanda considers Raka an “intruder, an outsider,” and resists being drawn into the child’s world. Nanda soon discovers, however, that she and her great-granddaughter have much in common, primarily their aloofness and determination to pursue their own secret lives. Raka is distant not only emotionally but also spatially, and her Kasauli is not Nanda’s: Raka frequents, despite Ram Lal’s warning, the forbidden ravine behind and below Carignano. In spite of their initial mutual rejection, Nanda comes to miss Raka during the child’s forays into the ravine; Nanda finds “the child’s long absences as perturbing as her presence was irksome.” Consequently, Nanda insists on accompanying Raka on some walks, notably the one to a peak called Monkey Point, but Raka spurns Nanda’s overtures and prefers her own secret world.
When her ploys prove unsuccessful, Nanda whets Raka’s curiosity by telling the child about her own childhood in Kashmir, where her idealized father had a zoo, including a pangolin, a “hard, scaly creature in its armour.” (Nanda’s father, in direct contrast to Raka’s brutish one, obviously interests Raka, who resembles the pangolin, also the object of the father’s loving care.) Nanda’s stories, however, succeed only temporarily, and she is reduced to thinking of giving Carignano to Raka. Meanwhile, Raka continues her exploration of the ravine and also visits an abandoned burned house near Carignano. When Raka leaves her ravine, which is associated with nature and death, to visit the clubhouse, which is associated with civilization, she is, ironically, threatened for the first time in Kasauli. At the club the masked revelers appear as “caged, clawed, tailed, headless male and female monsters” who remind her of her father returning from a party and beating her mother senseless. At this point, reality impinges upon her secret world and transforms it into a nightmare.
The final part of the novel also concerns a visit: Ila Das arrives at Carignano after being taunted and physically abused by a group of boys. Although she is aware of Ila Das’s desperate financial plight, Nanda adroitly steers the conversation away from any discussion of Ila Das moving into Carignano. When the two old women persist in the “game of old age,” Raka slips away and steals some matches. Finally, Ila Das leaves Carignano, and on her way home in the dark is raped and killed by the father of a young girl whose marriage to an old landowner she had opposed. When the police call Nanda with the news of the murder, Nanda realizes that “it was all a lie,” that her stories about her father, her loving husband, and the circumstances leading to her stay at Carignano were all fabrications. While she holds the phone, Raka announces, “I have set the forest on fire.”
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