What use is Anita Desai?

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Novella cuisine Anita Desai
Novella cuisine Anita Desai
Photo: Corbis

Our times demand of everybody the bounce, or the plump botox, of perpetual adolescence, and drive to the far peripheries of attention anybody who has a slightly more realistic relationship with time. Inevitably, when novelists age and publish nothing for several years, we begin to arrange our limbs into the decorousness which presages a proper obituary, and when we talk of them the tongue seems to continually try out museum or mausoleum shapes.

The novelist Anita Desai, now in her seventies, has a new book out, wryly titled The Artist of Disappearance, after a silence of seven years. I assumed that her silence had lasted longer, and know better now only because the blurbs accompanying the book have been unusually informative, which is, I suppose, further illustration of the point I was making earlier. The manner in which the three novellas that make up this book come together thematically and form a triptych suggests that reports of her artistic demise or ordinary decomposition are perhaps greatly exaggerated

The choice of form is significant. Desai is in her element while dealing with the specific challenge that the novella offers—that peculiar demand for constraint and modulation in story-telling. This is not the first instance. It is entirely possible to read her 1999 novel Fasting, Feasting as two novellas in orbit around each other.

The Museum of Final Journeys, the first of the three novellas in this book, successfully transposes someone quite like the wedding-guest from a famous poem against the dusty otherworld which the small-time babu who plays narrator may one day govern. The babu is offered the chance to acquire an unusual museum assembled by an eccentric landowner in the middle of nowhere, and recoils from the opportunity. He spends the rest of his life dreaming of the stand-out exhibit, an elephant that travelled all the way from Burma.

The characters who people these stories are significantly out-of-place. Ravi, the protagonist of the novella which gives the book its title, lapses and falls all the way through the social hierarchy, to become a child of nature and find therein a way of being unobtrusive artist. The small-scale babu who we encountered above is so overcome by desolation that when he looks out of his car-window at an unbearably green Bengal, all his years of swotting desert him as he wonders if this expanse is all jute or rice. InTranslator Translated, Prema Joshi’s memories of a mother who died young lead her to learn her mother’s tongue. She thus comes across an Oriya writer whose fiction moves her to translation, but moves her a little too much, and so she returns to her humdrum teaching job.

The artist of Disappearance
The artist of Disappearance
Anita Desai
Random House India
176 pp; Rs 350

The India in which Desai sets these novellas is that timeless zone, somewhere between the 1950s and the 1990s, whose slowness allows for a kind of mythopoeia. The babu looks at the dilapidated structure in which the museum is housed, hoping to encounter some sign of personality, and finds nothing, “only time and dissolution”. It is against such a canvas that the human desire to resist entropy must play out its smallness. Each of the novellas is constructed to open out and reveal a fairy-tale whose neat internal mechanisms are overcome by decay, dust, and doubt.

Desai’s tales offer us a meditation on the complex processes by which people start and go before faltering, and offer thus some counterpoint to the confidence and the brashness that underlie our public, metropolitan narratives today.

This resolute anti-metropolitanism is expressed in choice of locale, in character, and in the adventures people have either on the margins of language, as Ravi does, or far away from English, as in the case of Prema Joshi. Desai offers in this story, as she did with In Custody, the same relentless chronicling of the experience of defeat that comes, willy-nilly, with being in love with a language other than English.

And for all this is, there is a peculiar restraint that defines Desai’s relationship with English. Here is a writer whose life was lived gloriously between languages—German, Bengali, English, and a couple more—and what we encounter in her writing is never polyglottal venturesomeness as it is a style best described as a precise, proper tea-spooning.

This choice may make her an embarrassing anachronism to some, or someone who fully deserves the damnably faint praise that Rushdie lavished on her when he called her “the pre-eminent Indian novelist of her generation”. The quiet brilliance of this late work confirms for me the somewhat puzzling figure that Anita Desai is, uncategorizable, and disrespectful in her work of the period-pains of literary history, a true representative of what I will grandly call the peculiar coexistence of three centuries, counting from the nineteenth, in Indian fiction.

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