Anita Dasai: A Multi-talented Woman Novelist of the Twentieth Century India

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Basudeb profiles an important novelist of the 20th century, Anita Desai, a celebrated writer and a polyglot, in the weekly column, exclusively in Truths.

Anita Desai (born 24th June, 1937, in Jaipur, India), a of Sahitya Academy Award, in 1978, and a of several International literary awards including Alberto Moravia Prize (1999), Booker Prize for Fiction (1993,1983 and 1978), National Academy of Letters Award (1978), etc. is one of the leading versatile woman novelists in India. Her mother was a German lady, who married D.N. Mazumdar, a business tycoon in those days. Anita Desai may be considered a Polyglot. She knew German, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, and English. She graduated from the Miranda House and the . One of her four children is Kiran Desai, a novelist, who is also a Booker Prize Winner.

Among her two major contemporary woman novelists were Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya. Anita Desai’s novelistic focus of envisioning life through her novels is wide in terms of the both the external world as well as the world of innermost human psychology. She is also considered a feminist novelist of her time. On one occasion, Anita Desai says, “She feels about India as an Indian” but she looks and considers India “as an outsider”. The reason for her looking at India may be she has spent the most part of her life abroad. She has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moreover, her mother was a German lady, who was of Anglo-Saxon heritage that on many collide Indian views of life and the world.

Her contemporaries, both Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya delineate the outer side of Indian life, while Anita Desai records primarily the inner side of human life. She wrote a good number of novels. Her most important novels are  In Custody (1982), Fire on the (1977), Voices in the City (1965), and Cry, The Peacock (1963).  In Custody was filmed, sometime in 1984, by Merchant Ivory Productions. It is a novel which is set against the social background of India. The film is starred by Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor, and Om Prakash.

The most interesting focus of the novel, Fire on the Mountain, is its symbolic imagery and psychosomatic insights. The narrative of the novel is relatively simple and brief. The novel centres upon two senior women and a young girl. We find two parts in this novel. The first part of the novel gives us a vivid picture of geographical and mental background before the coming of Raka, Nanda’s great-granddaughter. Nanda’s husband dies and after his death, Nanda dissociates herself from everything and leads a life in her retirement. She loves her solitude. Even she abhors receiving calls and postman. Her cook, Ram Lal, is also her irritation. One day the postman delivers a letter containing the message that Raka will visit her soon. Afterward, Ila Das, her close friend calls her up over the that she also likes to meet her. These messages threaten her sense of security. She is afraid of her lonely in danger because of the arrivals of these people. In part II, we find Nanda’s love for secluded life is shattered by the arrival of her fragile and secretive great-granddaughter Raka to her place. The novel is characterised by Existential philosophy, which is of European origin. We find Nanda’s love for solitude. She wants to alienate herself from the society to which she belongs. Sometimes, Nanda looks often morbid and very much self-obsessed. The impact of Existentialism is discernible in this novel Fire on the Mountain.

Voices in the City depicts the life of the middle-class intellectuals living in Calcutta. The most interesting thematic impact of this novel upon the minds of readers is that it centres an unforgettable person and his two sisters who are basically bohemian in nature. They roam about here and there as vagabonds. And in those transitory, simultaneously the golden period of Bengal (the late fifties to the early seventies), when the city of Calcutta earned the title, ‘A City of Agitation and Violent Movement’, the relevance of this novel to contemporary readers was of utmost importance. Indeed, Calcutta was the hub of art, literature, music, and culture. The spirit of Bohemianism might have certain links with all intellectual and artistic exercises of life. And it is natural that those three characters will be snared by the currents and undercurrents of contemporary social norms and values of the middle-class Bengali values. The novel is also an emblematic delineation of the novelist’s artistic sensibilities towards her genuine experience of life in Calcutta. The novel exposes both inner and outermost realities of life. In one sense, Anita Desai may be considered a novelist.

Another important novel written by Anita Desai is Cry, the Peacock, published in 1963. The novel is the painful story of Maya and Gautama, who are married and live under the same roof. Maya is the female protagonist of the novel. The locale of the story is Delhi. The story from the beginning to the end is the remembrances of one past prophecy of catastrophe. Maya is young and very much sensitive to this foretell. The opening of the narrative of Cry, the Peacock, is the death of Maya’s pet dog and after its death, the corpse of the pet is being taken away by a scavenger’s truck. The beginning is very much suffocating. Her pet’s death reminds Maya of her childhood prophecy of disaster. The concluding part of the novel (Part III) is a vivid description of what happens after the death of Gautama. He is a refined and decent person. Considering the pattern of Maya’s behaviour, he is always disturbed. Maya is always haunted by her childhood prophecy of disaster and she thinks either Gautama or she will meet the death. The fear of catastrophic end makes Maya always melancholic and alienated from all. Loneliness has become the only partner to her life. In a fit of desperation, Gautama once asks Maya why she has married an person like him. He is also in a as to whether Maya suffers a kind of her ‘Father fixation’ or not. Both Maya and Gautama try on several occasions to talk to each other but every time they try to do it, some communication gaps crop up. It is a story about Maya who is not physically sick but who anticipates day and night certain unnecessary fears of the something disastrous, going to take place. It is not the fact that they do not try to come close to each other but there are some inexplicable barriers that prevent them from coming close to each other. Are those barriers the syndrome of modern life? Do those barriers make a man lonely and alienated from his or her close person or from society? Does Anita Desai being perturbed by the Existentialist philosophy? What is the reason of the tussle between Maya and Gautama in their conjugal life? Is the reason if there is any, at all valid? It may be the psychological problem, which Maya pathologically suffers from the very beginning of her life. Why does she look morbid all along?

Another interesting thing of Cry, the Peacock is that the names in the novel are symbolic. Maya means Bandhan and it symbolises Maya’s suffering in writhing pain. Silently, she suffers. The name of Gautama leads us to think that this elderly person stands for detachment from life. He looks slightly withdrawn from life. But it does not mean that he is uncaring to Maya. Gautama has no excess of sentiment. Maya, as she is delineated by Anita Desai, is in love with love. Her only problem is her loneliness. Loneliness followed by social alienation and then obsession and morbidity is perhaps the most serious problems in modern life. It may not be exaggerated to make a comment on Anita Desai’ s Cry, the Peacock, an epic novel for an only limited time in history.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti