Journey to Ithaca
If anyone could take a measured and penetrating view of the nuances of the guru scene in India and elsewhere—those affairs of the heart that can seem a form of spiritual imperialism—it would surely be Anita Desai. Not only because she grew up in Delhi as partly an outsider and so, she has said, can see the land of her birth through her mother’s German eyes, while feeling it with her father’s Bengali heart. But even more because she is a connoisseur of illusion and imprisonment—those hopes with which people entangle themselves—and if her novels have often been about the mortality of the seemingly dignified, they are no less about the struggle for dignity in the face of that mortality. Nearly all of her main characters are dreamers or poets or hopeful young men, often in flight but on a quest for a more elevated life (in art, in music, in language—the elegant old court language of Urdu), even as the traffic outside brings them rudely back to earth.
Thus the central relationships in all Desai’s novels have always been less between men and women than between people and their dreams, and she has traditionally turned a stern eye on her often passive and self-deluding men (though her women, being pragmatists, tend to be survivors). And so, for all her vivid pointillism, Desai has mostly given us rather dark and chastening stories about people trying to make their pinched lives grand. Animals, you might say, dreaming of the stars.
At the same time, as her writing has deepened, she has gradually closed in on what is becoming her distinctive domain. She began her writing life with relatively traditional novels like Bye-Bye Blackbird, telling the now familiar story of Indians arriving in a less than friendly England, and then moved on to more richly textured, poised, and slightly housebound stories of middle-class India—Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day, In Custody. For the most part, these centered on people seeking refuge from the world, or some sanctuary in the imagination. Far from the clamor of the urban streets, far from the suffocation of most Indian families and books, her characters were oddly solitary, “ship-wrecked and alone,” without much contact with the world around them, and feeling closest to worlds now vanished (the elegance of princely India, the rites of pre-war Germany, the exquisiteness of Urdu culture).
This sense of alienation may begin to explain her curious fascination with zoos (suggesting perhaps that, in the clear light of day, all of us are in custody); and, taken one step further, it brought her to her previous book, Baumgartner’s Bombay, which for me is her most moving and also most energetic work. In Baumgartner, an only child, a prisoner of war, and a hemmed-in victim of the world—a Jew in Nazi Germany, a German in British India, and then just a European in post-colonial Bombay—she found her perfect image of …