Anita Desai’s new characters search for wholeness
Delhi: At the age of 74, Anita Desai`s prose and storytelling seem to have arrived at a level that only 50 years of writing can give. So her three novellas in ‘The Artist of Disappearance’ make you want to savour the narratives and plots which few writers in English can today attempt to write.
In an interview after the book`s publication, Desai said the three stories were based on memory and past experience. This is evident in the first novella, ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ -- about an elderly civil servant narrating an incident from the 1970s, during his first posting as a sub-divisional officer in a small town in north Bengal.
The narrator, who carries the burden of his IAS father`s hope, is shamelessly prejudiced against the people he has been hired to serve. One day, an uninvited stimulation knocks on his circuit house`s door. An old caretaker from a nearby tea estate (Siliguri probably) has come to him with a long-winding story (for which the babu has no patience) and at the end of it comes an invitation to visit a bizarre museum filled with things the estate owner`s expat son used to send from across the world.
Some days later, as the stuff and a creature (kept secret till now) are unveiled room by room to the agape narrator in the dilapidated bungalow, he is trapped in this `real-life dream`, unable ever to escape.
The next story, "Translator, Translated", is about two former schoolmates. Prema is shy, middle-aged, unmarried and of mixed parentage (like the writer) and unwillingly teaches the works of George Elliot and Jane Austen at a girls college in Delhi (like Miranda House where Desai studied). Tara on the contrary is now a famous publisher and has a young lover.
Prema wants to reclaim her departed mother`s bucolic Orissa through an obscure Oriya writer she had stumbled upon -- Suvarna Devi. Tara agrees to publish her translation of Devi`s book into English. Therein comes the trepidation and rapture of working on the work of a writer who had been the axis of her life, and the reclusive writer too emerges, her character partly resembling Mahasweta Devi (living with adivasis, writing about them). But the spell starts to break as Prema begins to translate Devi`s next story. She sees flaws -- and begins to rewrite the novel, and in the end is shamed, publicly.
"When she got home on the bus and climbed the stairs...the day was sinking into its murky nicotine-tinged haze of dust with home-going traffic pouring through it like blue-black oil from a leak in the street below. The crows that spent the day swinging on the electric and telephone wires and squabbling were dropping into the scraggly branches of the lopped tree below with exhausted squawks. Would she allow herself to be dragged into the gloom by it all once again?"
The third novella, the title story, again shows Desai`s mastery over evoking nature with words, the flora and fauna of the hills above Mussoorie (where Desai was born). There is Ravi, the boy who feels closer to plants and animals than he is to his Anglicised foster parents.
Later, Ravi, orphaned, after many years in Bombay, blooms again in that old hill bungalow. Then the house burns, but Ravi stays put, spending his days deep in the forest creating a secret miniature garden, only for himself (much like Nek Chand, who created the secret `rock garden` in Chandigarh). Then one day a trio from Delhi come to make a film of ecological degradation and in the process `desecrate` Ravi`s garden, who as a result retreats deeper into himself, like a scared child.
At first reading, the stories seem unalterable, as if they could not have been written in any other way, given the forces of circumstances acting on the characters. But as the spell breaks, questions arise. Why was the IAS officer shown to be so worthless? Or why did Desai not give readers a peek into Suvarna Devi`s special prose (except for a few lines) when Desai had made her works the story`s foundation?
May be she wanted us to feel as disappointed as her characters.