Book Views, Exquisite and Disturbing – Reading Anita Desai

“A book is a version of the world”, said Salman Rushdie. I have often felt that a book is also a view of the world, each book offers a different overview, a different level of insight into the world. And some of these views while being perfectly crafted are also extremely disturbing because of the way they present the stark realities of existence. Many of Anita Desai’s books come under this category, including her latest work, The Artist of Disappearance.

A collection of three seemingly unconnected stories about three very different people, the book as a whole invokes the same, stark view of reality – of the transient nature of the world, the vagaries of human nature, the all consuming force of time and the sad spectacles of people clinging onto anything that they can clutch which helps them to believe that their existence is validated. The bored, young officer in a desolate town who stumbles upon a fantastic museum filled with oriental treasures that are slowly crumbling to pieces, is an unlikeable but very real character. His remorse at having done nothing for the two museum caretakers and the old elephant provides some kind of redemption to his character, but the story is less about him and more about how the past cannot be preserved and will slip away like sand. Even Shangri La will wither and fade with time.

The same sense of being a helpless observer as life passes by is portrayed in the touching story of the middle-aged spinster who gains some success as a translator and finds happiness for a short while only to relapse to her previous life when she realises that in translating an author, she had lost her own voice. The third story about a natural artist who lives and works among the charred ruins of his parents’ home seems to suggest that hope can be found only in reverting to nature.

Other than in The Village by the Sea, I have not come across a positive ending in the other four books of Desai that I have read. Desai’s characters are too often crushed, defeated and overwhelmed, or merely apathetic, and in either case appear as pretty dysfunctional beings. The middle aged spinster Uma and her brother Arun who are the main protagonists of Fasting, Feasting come to mind, the former suppressed and confined to a prison-like existence by her family, and the latter cosseted and given the freedom to spread his wings by the same family. In spite of being at either extreme, both Uma and Arun are equally isolated and unhappy. The housewife Sita in Where shall we go this Summer who runs away from her dull everyday life to a remote island, hoping that the magical properties of the place will somehow help her hold the baby within the womb and prevent it from being born into the world that she despises. Adit in Bye Bye Blackbird who decides to return to India, disillusioned with his life in London, losing his peace of mind in a quest for belonging and identity. Desai’s prose is exquisitely crafted, unforgettable and a delight to read. Her themes and characters present a world view that seems so real that one cannot help being affected. Quite often her words seem to lift the illusions of the world so clearly that the truth sparkles like a diamond and cuts like one, reminding one of what Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, we all like to believe in illusions as they are more comforting than reality.

Desai’s view is only one of the many ways of seeing the world. There are others that appear as real and are far more comforting. As a reader, I would prefer to look at book views that rejoice in the world and celebrate it, rather than the ones that accept it as an illusion and denounce it.

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