Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Artists of a frozen world - on Anita Desai's new stories

[Did this for The Hindu Literary Review]

The title story of Anita Desai’s new book – a collection of three novellas – is about an introverted man named Ravi who goes to the city as a youngster, fails to adjust to life there, and returns to his Mussoorie home after his mother’s death. Back in the hills and now unmoored – but inspired by the outdoors, which he loves – he discovers a measure of peace as well as an outlet for artistic self-expression. Then this tranquil story takes an ambiguous turn: just as Ravi’s work is on the verge of being discovered, perhaps appreciated, he disappears into the shadows.

It’s a compelling portrait of the artist as hermit – someone who can be true to himself only by staying hidden from sight. But Ravi isn’t the only reclusive artist – or aspiring artist – in this triad of stories. 

In “Translator Translated”, a college lecturer named Prema attempts to bring the work of an unassuming Oriya writer to a larger readership, by translating them into English. But our perception of this well-intentioned, almost altruistic project changes when we learn that Prema is a failed writer herself and that her translations of Suvarna Devi’s work might be a pretext for realising her own suppressed ambitions. And while the unnamed narrator of “The Museum of Final Journeys” is no artist – he’s a sub-divisional officer, posted in a desolate circuit house – he has a love for books (“I had secretly hoped to become a writer,” he tells us, the “secretly” implying that this was never a realistic option) and a restlessness that one associates with creativity. However, when circumstances lead him to an immense “museum” of treasures from around the world, housed in a decrepit jungle mansion, he finds himself unable to deal with the enormity of what he is seeing, or to take responsibility for it.

In different ways, then, these novellas are about works of art that are unacknowledged or not meant for public exhibition, and eventually destined to fade into time's recesses. There are small connections – as well as telling contrasts – between the characters, and the elegant stillness of Desai’s writing helps stress these links. If Ravi retreats like a scared animal when someone comes too close, Suvarna Devi is described as “a creature who had been startled out of her forest hiding, one of those well-camouflaged birds that will dart under the bushes on being surprised”. Faced with a less-than-inspiring novel (and with her own need to be more than “just” a translator), Prema “suffered from a sense that she was struggling, like a drowning fly, to raise herself up from the dull, turgid prose before her and somehow recover the art of flying”. This in turn is reminiscent of the subdivisional officer feeling claustrophobic in his new posting, and of Ravi suffocating in the city ("in order to survive he needed to be at altitude, a Himalayan altitude, so he might breathe”).

It can be a mistake to look too closely for thematic recurrences in an author’s work – one might fall into the trap of examining each new work according to pre-set ideas. But Desai’s best writing – as in the novels Baumgartner’s Bombay, In Custody and Clear Light of Day – has always tapped the currents passing beneath uneventful or circumscribed lives. These concerns are on view throughout The Artist of Disappearance, particularly in her description of socially awkward people like the shy boy bullied in school, or the woman who runs into an old classmate (much more popular and successful than herself) and marvels that the other woman’s memories of their teachers are so happy when hers are just the opposite. The prose is characteristically vivid – notably in a lengthy description of rooms packed to overflowing – and when Desai allows herself an indulgence, it’s done with discernment: for example, “Translator Translated” is told mostly in the third person, but a couple of passages are narrated in Prema’s own voice – including a key moment where she exceeds her brief by taking liberties with Suvarna Devi’s text. The device suggests Prema’s transition from merely being a character in a story to taking over the writing of it.

These short novellas are about things of immense value (not just monetary value) that are in danger of being lost forever – whether it’s the delicate artistry of a lonesome man in the hills, the short stories of a writer who works in a marginalised language, the never-published stories of another writer who could have done with a lucky break, or a palace full of wondrous antiques that will probably rot to pieces. They ask the question, “If no one sees a piece of art, does it still exist or have any meaning?” And they get their power from Desai’s ability to depict lives and objects in stasis, as in this description of old clocks in a chamber: “No sand seeped through the hourglasses, water had long since evaporated from the clepsydras, bells were stilled, cuckoos silenced, dancing figures paralysed. Time halted, waiting for a magician to start it again.”


[An old post about Anita Desai's work - and a conversation with her - here]


  1. Jai - Isn't it the first time Anita Desai has written on India after many years? I read another review of this book in Indian Express which seemed to say that the book isn't really good. But your descriptions have kind of convinced me to read it. The one on two women having two different kind of impressions of the same teacher was indeed funny (if i can say so). I just recalled a friend telling me candidly, "if you were to ask me and my sister about my mother, I am sure you wouldn't believe that we are talking about the same person"

  2. Pessimist Fool: I thought the title story meandered a little towards the end, but otherwise no real issue - "Translator Translated" in particular was very good. But overall I think this book will appeal most to people who are already Anita Desai converts (as I am).

  3. Hey.. I've subscribed to your blog, but why is that I get an email only after hours of something new posted in this blog?

    And for this particular post, there is no email notification, till now. I just chanced upon your blog and realized you posted something new. Not sure what we can do about it, just wanted to bring it your notice.

  4. Purnima: I sometimes alter the delivery-time settings when I want to space out emails a bit (especially when I'm putting a lot of posts up in a relatively short period), but this time there must have been some internal problem.

    In any case, Feedburner operates on a 24-hour time frame, so if (for example) the emails are scheduled for 1 pm each day and I publish a post at 2 pm, it will only be delivered the next day.

  5. Jai - just read Translator Translated. While for an average writer, it is a decent story for someone with Desai's stature its really very average. I was amazed to see her observations in Baumgartner's Bombay. Translator Translated clearly shows Desai has no touch with India today. Her descriptions of Delhi take me back to 1980s. There is nothing wrong in doing that, but it gives a stale taste to you and such average recreation of surroundings like "pigeons on electric and telephone cables" clearly shows laziness in writing

  6. Translator Translated clearly shows Desai has no touch with India today.

    Pessimist Fool: I don't see why that should affect one's judgement of the story. Desai in any case has never been concerned with "topicality" as a writer. Also, I wasn't necessarily taking her stature into account.

    Bottom line: I liked the book overall. You didn't like it as much. Simple enough. Over my many years as a book reviewer, I've repeatedly been accused of being too generous - which is one reason why I always hesitate to provide "recommendations" (a silly thing for any honest reviewer to do anyway) and try to stress the personal-response angle instead.

  7. Jai - well honestly i didn't intend to accuse you...may be the manner i put it seemed to you...I guess its just that one shouldn't start with the best work of any director/writer...In Desai's case, the only book apart from the recent one that I have read is Baumgartner's Bombay so no matter how hard I try to remain objective my view of her latest work will be colored...and please Do give recommendations...

  8. Pessimist Fool: no offence at all - I didn't mean to sound so defensive either! Was just honestly saying that as a reviewer I don't believe in giving explicit "recommendations" - more like conveying my own feelings about a work and letting readers make up their own mind.

    I agree that The Artist of Disappearance is a slight work overall when compared to something like Baumgartner's Bombay.

  9. Jabber - On a different note, have you read 'Burnt Shadows' by Kamla Shamsie? Somehow the prose reminds me of Desai and it too is a story revolving around major events of 20th century like Baumgartner's Bombay

  10. Pessimist Fool: yes, wrote about Burnt Shadows here.