6 September 2011

Book Review: Anita Desai's The Artist of Disappearance

Anita Desai returns to a territory and time she is familiar with, one that her quiet prose brings to vivid life

Anita Desai's most recent book comprises three novellas – 'The Museum of Final Journeys', 'Translator Translated', and 'The Artist of Disappearance'. All three return, in revealing ways, to worlds Desai has explored before, and to characters whose predicaments will seem familiar to a reader of Desai's earlier novels.

From Clear Light of Day and Fasting, Feasting, first of all, comes a preoccupation with old houses in decline, houses that should be comfortable anchors for those who inhabit them but seem more like millstones. Once-grand rooms fall into decay, gardens become overgrown, parents grow old performing the rituals of gentility that they have spent their youth cultivating, and even the children seem to grow into stunted adults, as if embalmed forever into the stultified lives bequeathed to them. Ravi and the house on the hill in 'The Artist of Disappearance' make one think of the resentful, resigned Bim, stuck in the house on Bela Road with her memories of a magnificent childhood, or the unhappily single Uma in Fasting, Feasting, whose slightest excursion into the excitement of the world beyond, even a restaurant outing, becomes the focus of scandalised outrage. And in 'The Museum of Final Journeys', the house as mummified past, so familiar from Clear Light, has truly become a museum.

These are sahabi worlds, where appearances must be kept up. Meals, however meagre, are meant to be laid out on the dining table by servants. And servants should be liveried. In Fasting, Feasting, when the married daughter Aruna brings her in-laws to visit her parental home, she is distraught to find that the family driver no longer seems to wear a uniform. In 'The Museum of Final Journeys', the driver who "announces officiously" that he has brought the new officer-sahib is described as wearing "a uniform of sorts, khaki, with lettering in red over the shirt pocket that gave him the right". While the chowkidar of the circuit house, because he is barefoot and wears no uniform, must "somehow establish... his authority" by holding his back very straight.

The matter of uniforms reveals Desai's sharp eye for the deeply hierarchical mode in which much of Indian life still thrives, where the basis of authority is often the performance of superiority. The young Indian bureaucrat on his first remote posting may feel timorous on the inside, but he knows as well as anyone that to show any signs of fear or anxiety would mean social death. At the start of 'The Museum of Final Journeys', our protagonist spends a terrible night, tossing and turning under the ineffective mosquito net, assailed by doubt: "Should I quit now before I became known as a failure and a disgrace? Could I appeal to anyone for help, some mentor, or possibly my father, retired now from this very service, his honour and pride intact like an iron rod he had swallowed?" Within a few months, the same person has begun to snap at people with the requisite air of impatient superiority: "I had acquired this habitual manner of speech to those in an inferior position – servants, petitioners, supplicants; I found it was expected of me, it went with the job."

Prema, the protagonist of the second novella here, does not have a house to tie her down, but she is akin to Bim and Uma in other ways – she is the bloodless spinster, the sexually inexperienced woman who tries, with varying degrees of success, to sublimate her desires in work. But even more than them, Prema's predicament in 'Translator Translated' echoes that of Deven from In Custody: the thankless college lecturer who seeks to escape the desert of the real by turning her/himself into a kind of worker ant in the service of great literature. Deven's excessive pleasure and involvement in the work of the poet Nur is matched by Prema's in the writing of Suvarna Devi – as is the befuddlement when the great artist figure they have built up turns out to be normal, human, frail and familial. In Nur's case, the familial is near-grotesque; in Suvarna Devi's, merely boring. But what is really at the heart of both narratives is the quickly inflated sense of importance that Deven and Prema acquire from their association with these literary figures – and how easily and cruelly their delusions of grandeur are crushed.

Desai is nothing if not a careful observer, and so it seems to me that without specifying it, she has elected to return to the India she knows best – an earlier time, where lecturers get typists to do fair copies of their manuscripts and even enterprising tea shop owners do not yet have televisions. As always, the joy of these stories lies in the detail. To those who have never read Desai, this collection is an evocative entry into her oeuvre. To those who have, well – the pleasure is in the return.

The Artist Of Disappearance
Random House India
Pages: 199 Rs. 350

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

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