Mystically Yours

Journey to Ithaca

by Anita Desai
Knopf, 320 pp., $23.00

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 the perennial outcast, and the perfect forum for drawing together the disparate worlds of her own heritage. She also found her own great theme, the European who has spent so long in India that he is almost—but never entirely—part of it. And in the driving intensity and sympathy with which she made us feel Baumgartner’s loneliness, she showed how someone like him could almost long for the strictures of his internment camp because in confinement at least he was not alone.

Her latest novel, Journey to Ithaca, traces the overlapping and parallel stories of two generations of Western romantic seekers in India—the first, the generic Euro-travelers of the mid-1970s, who went to find enlightenment (or enthrallment) in distant ashrams; the second centering on that electric moment between the two world wars when the well-to-do bohemian women of the West first came into contact with the sinuous wise men of the East. In dealing with the search for truth, Desai once again writes about disconnected souls estranged from their surroundings (in the eclectic collection of sources she cites at the end of her novel, she includes not just the paintings of Nicholas Roerich, the Russian mystic, but also those of Edward Hopper). At the same time, she gets to exercise the qualities that make her a persistent candidate for what I would call the Somerset Maugham Award: namely, the ability, even the eagerness, to sympathize with spirits very different from her own (as is also evidenced in the support this most tactful and restrained of writers has given to writers as exuberant as Salman Rushdie and as heedlessly uninhibited as Andrew Harvey, the fellow of All Souls who threw over the seductions of Oxford for a mystical quest that he recounts in his Hidden Journey).

Though beginning her story near Lake Como, Desai soon plunges us into the now familiar scene of young European dreamers taking off for the Orient and making the standard pilgrimage to see yogis who haven’t slept in several years and foreign hippies who haven’t woken up. By now Desai can almost effortlessly evoke the color and sound and even smell of the Indian streets that form the background of this ragged tragicomedy. She is entirely at home in India’s “heat and dust” (the terms recur often in her work), yet she is able to feel, keenly, how they shock and often crush even—especially—the most well-meaning of visitors.

Cars were stalled in the streets, horns honking; urchins splashed through the floods and bargained with the drivers over the price of pushing them out; drains clogged and overflowed, shoes floated away in the gutters, and people waded across the streets holding onto useless umbrellas that had been battered into shreds. Thunder boomed and ricocheted off the walls and lightning flashed out at sea, over and over.

The laughing children we see against these backdrops are, however, a little more schematic. Her two main characters, Matteo, a lonely Italian boy raised mostly in Italy by women (one of the book’s many shadowings of Andrew Harvey’s story), and Sophie, a sensible “square-shouldered” German girl, are, in some ways, a tidy dialectic in motion, the boy eager to find wisdom wherever he looks, the more skeptical woman (a journalist by training) longing for nothing but a clean room. Desai brings the right kind of wryness to this cultural import-export market (“Pierre Eduard was busily collecting saints as earlier travellers had collected gold, spices or shawls”), and she certainly catches the horror and meanness of the spiritual bargain basements into which the travelers’ hegira deposists them.

And yet her young seekers never feel quite real to me, with their earnest talk: “You need to learn, man, and meditate” and “Are you all blind? The divine manifests itself in everything, everybody.” They probably don’t seem entirely real to Sophie, either, because she takes to going off alone each day, in flight from Matteo, her new husband, to the zoo. This is a perfect metaphor, of course, for a world in which everything is seen as a bestiary—in the space of three pages, we see Westerners living “like animals,” a man who is “bestial” and Sophie herself “looking like an animal about to spring”—but it does slightly load the scales.

And then at last, just as the two are close to being broken by the Indian confusion of mind and matter, they stumble upon the ashram of a woman called “the Mother,” which sounds like a Lost Horizon vision of cleanliness and calm, its huts, somewhat to Matteo’s disappointment, named not “Truth” or “Knowledge,” but, simply, “Welcome.” The disciples here are, true to form, seen “in the postures and attitudes of forest creatures,” living in “lairs,” cavorting around “like young goats” and stumbling and bumping around “like ants.” But still, with its carefully lettered signs, its friendly non-Indian guru, and its cool landscape of trees and hills, the place feels to Matteo like the home he has somewhere lost.

The Mother herself, “a small, aged woman…shrunken and somewhat hunched,” of indeterminate calling and nationality, preaches a cheerful and practical kind of truth that sounds rather like old wives’ wisdom (“If there is God or not, I cannot say, but there is Evil, I know”). Distributing bananas because they make one “happy as a monkey,” donning baggy white pyjamas to play badminton, and discoursing on the “honey made from spiritual nectar” (oddly similar to the guru-filled letters of the teen-age Jeffrey Masson, who wrote as a boy: “A bee in search of honey has no prejudices”), the Mother blends a kind of Rajneeshee spirit of “Don’t worry, be happy” with a Krishnamurti-like line in telling us that she has “no wisdom at all, no Knowledge.” With her simple affirmations of awareness and hard work and awakening to joy, this resident of the “Abode of Bliss” even sounds a little like the denizen of “Bliss Road,” and the patron saint of contemporary self-fulfillment, Dr. M. Scott Peck. Her teaching, in fact, lies less in her words than simply in her soothing, kindly voice, as she tells her disciples they should be “kittens” cared for by the mother cat, herself.

To Matteo, of course, this figure seems like “a manifestation of the Divine,” while to Sophie she seems like just another transplanted granny: he reaches for abstractions while Sophie tries to bring him back to the realities of home and food and family. Their discussions are not helped by the fact that Matteo is clearly in love with the Mother (“Any time spent away from the Mother, without her, was wasted time, empty time, dead time”), while Sophie is ill and in hospital, giving birth to their first child (which, with her characteristic detachment, she sees as “a rat, or monkey”).

Finally, feeling herself as confined as an animal, Sophie leaves the ashram—only to find, as Desai’s earlier books could have warned her, that all the world is “a zoo, or prison” (Deven, for example, in In Custody, resembles “a caged animal in a zoo,…a trapped animal” and even his hero, the great poet Nur, lives in “a cage in a row of cages”). As she fends off lechers in Indian hotels, and then the dogmas of her family back home, she comes to recall that the “real world” is as full of superstition and delusion as the ashram but without its innocence or hope. She also cannot rid herself of the memory of a stray moment in which she saw the Mother coax a whole flock of peacocks out of the wilds, and realized that the “aged, solitary woman with sparse hair and a faded nightdress” had something out of the ordinary to her.

In the second half of the book, Sophie leaves her children with their grandparents (children in Desai are nearly always raised by surrogate parents), and the narrative comes to polished life, as Sophie, working as a journalist, proceeds to uncover the story of the Mother’s early years. She finds that as a rebellious half-French, half-Egyptian girl (a little like the Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo’s consort), Laila, as she was called, fled her family home for Cairo and Paris and visions of the East. And as we see the Mother’s story unfold, we see the book’s secret structure come to light, as Laila traces almost exactly the same path that her later followers will pursue. She gives up meat, as Sophie does; she runs away from bourgeois comfort, as Matteo does; and she even spends her idle moments, as Sophie does, in a zoo, and there becomes transfixed, as Sophie does, by a single noble cat.

Laila’s life is transformed, though, when all her dreams of India come to suspect incarnation in a visiting dancer called Krishna, who strikes her as a shimmering embodiment of the mystic East, a dark and handsome stranger and an image come to life from a hundred Indian paintings. Playing the role of the Divine Lover, surrounded by a group of gopis and appearing onstage in a “crown of peacock feathers,” Krishna impresses the susceptible girl as “god-like,” his proud and enigmatic face “celestially calm, powerfully noble, the eyes half closed and dreamily smiling.” Beneath his eyelids, writes Desai, “the eyes seemed both mysterious and mischievous, playful and elusive as fishes in a pond.”

It must be said at this point that Krishna may strike many readers as a familiar figure; for characters like Suzie Wong and Miss Saigon, who have become the staple of virtually every Western male’s account of the mysterious East, post-Loti and post-Puccini, often have their counterparts on the distaff side. Nearly always these lithe, androgynous objects of female fascination are called Krishna (though in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Three Continents he is called “Crishi” and in Rumer Godden’s Coromandel Sea Change he is “Krishnan”). Nearly always they are surrounded by women of shifting name and nationality (in Jhabvala it is Rani, née Renée, in Godden it is Leila, and here it is Laila, who wants to style herself Lila). And, in the image of a seductive god who takes on mortal form, and suggests that earthly love can be translated into something higher, these writers find, of course, an all but ineluctable shortcut into the age-old confusion of sacred and profane stirrings. Even Tom Stoppard, in his latest play, Indian Ink, cannot resist having his Englishwomen in India say, “I wasn’t sure of whether Krishna was a god or a person.”

Desai’s handling of this Orientalist type is characteristically discreet, and her Krishna never becomes more than the languid, spoiled prima donna he first appears to be; but nonetheless, in the interests of equal opportunity, this Indian male writer would like to suggest that a moratorium be declared on these male Kissy Suzukis. For those who want to see a model of the type, the best specimen is in Coromandel Sea Change, where again the reigning Krishna is perceived (by a neglected English wallflower) as a god, again he is bent on collecting supporters for a dubious cause, and again he seems to offer a divine blend of Western sophistication and Eastern innocence. Godden’s Krishnan “wore a well-cut European suit of fine linen, a shirt of palest blue that set off his good looks, a public-school tie—Harrow? wondered Mary,” although, at another moment, “she could see, in the firelight, how the muscles moved with rippling ease, almost like a great cat’s, under the dark skin.”

Godden’s puckish, insouciant charmer took a First at Oxford and can, as he boasts, speak “Tamil, Telegu, Hindi, English, French, even a little Russian” (though mostly he says things like “I am everyone; everything, just as everything, everyone is me”). And, once the smoke clears, the pale girl is, of course, undone (even though, like Desai’s Laila, she actually enacts the part of the god’s consort, Radha) and the divinity is shown to have a slippery relation to truth. We see again that “all Krishna did was to play tricks on poor girls.”

In Desai’s case, Krishna, true to form, lives off the attentions of fluttery Western women, and Laila joins his troupe, and learns from him how in India “dance is worship, it belongs to the temple.” The dancers proceed to their next rich patron in Venice, a powerful symbolic zone for Desai’s castoff loners in this and other novels—“It was so strange,” says Baumgartner in her earlier book; “it was both East and West, both Europe and Asia. I thought—maybe, in such a place, I could be at home.” But Laila remains as much an outsider there as everywhere, watching lavish tableaux of balls and bangled dancers and English dilettantes. Throughout Journey to Ithaca, in fact, the scenes in Europe are as glittering and romantic as those in India are pock-marked and intrusive.

And then, at last, as Krishna works his negative magic, Laila arrives in the India she has dreamed of, where, like many other foreigners, she soon retreats to her bed, longing for nothing more than peace and quiet. India, in that sense, is a perfect locale for Desai, its very cacophony and vulgarity exciting a longing for sanctuaries. And at this point, just when we least expect it, and in the shadow of the Himalayas, Laila has a blinding, blazing mystical experience, quite the equal of anything in her reading (“I was on fire, the tree was on fire, light blazed and the whole sky was illuminated”). And on this ringing and radiant vision of being found and transformed, the book more or less ends. Laila finds her Lord, “[standing] there in the light of that lantern of love, golden as a rose, golden as a lotus,” and, with a stirring visionary daring, Desai carries us into the poems and exaltations of a sobbing, transported ecstatic.

This is in many ways a remarkable conclusion, especially for one who has written, in Clear Light of Day, “That was life—a snail found, a pearl lost. Always, life was that.” And it establishes Journey to Ithaca as Desai’s bravest and most exploratory book, as well as her longest and most ambitious. (It is also, it should be noted, the first book she has written while on the move, and not while living in India. To that extent it is her most international novel, as well as perhaps her least focused, lacking at times the stillness that often lies at the heart of her work.) Roaming across continents and generations, and laying claim to worlds very different from her own, she takes considerable risks of form here (with a long and circuitous prologue) and, even more, of content, daring, as she does, to try to make credible a woman who says things like “Lead me out of the hell of hate into the paradise of love.”

For me, the book’s most inspired moments come without doubt through its guru. That the teacher is a female is, I think, a particularly useful choice. Such women tend to be invisible in fiction even as they become more and more ubiquitous in life (the Divine Mother, Guru Mai, and Mother Meera all have considerable followings in the US). And writing about an older woman allows Desai to show us the emotional needs that a guru can satisfy without getting into the philosophical tangles associated with male teachers, while also freeing her from some of the hoarier clichés of seduction and manipulation. The great charm of the Mother here lies in her humanity, her whimsy, her earthiness—her freedom from pretensions to guru sagacity. Even her teaching is, by her own admission, not “the way of knowledge” but the “way of love.” She really is a kind of all-smiling, all-forgiving nanny offering her followers the luxury of a new and chosen kind of family.

Desai’s other brilliant move here is to make the guru an artist. Throughout her work, Desai has not only accorded a certain glamour to artists, whether painters or dancers or poets, but also reminded us again and again how “guru” in the Indian context only means “mentor” or “instructor”; many “gurus” are simply dancers or musicians or even writers who are presumed to have attained a high level of expertise in their disciplines, and so can exact unquestioning obedience from their students, much as a piano teacher in Vienna or New York might exert absolute sway over his pupils’ musical careers. In India, a music student may stay in his guru’s house, cook for him, sweep his room, and lay himself entirely at his feet. And in certain settings, a spiritual teacher may be seen as little different from other teachers: an artist of the self, so to speak, who has developed certain skills that may dazzle, and even transport us, and so act as a kind of inspiration. Just as Bob Dylan’s words or songs may have a talismanic charge for his fans far beyond the man himself, and just as we can acknowledge Mozart to be possessed of a seemingly divine talent, even as he remains a promiscuous adolescent, so a guru—Bhagwan Rajneesh, for example, or the Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa—may be a fallible man with a real gift for imparting enduring truths. In Desai’s scheme, one might say, it becomes ever harder to tell the dancer from the dance.

Her central figure, moreover, is no figment of the imagination: as the after-notes suggest, she is a close cousin of, say, Ruth St. Denis, the New Jersey farm girl who somehow rose from being the so-called “mother of the striptease” to becoming the “First Lady of American Dance,” performing before the ladies of New York society, sketched by Rodin, and identified in the pages of the National Geographic, no less, as “East Indian.” St. Denis was especially famous, one notes, for her portrayal of Radha (“a dramatic, symbolic example of man’s search,” she once said, “for contact with the divine”), and the piece Egypta, in which she sought to incarnate Egypt itself (“without knowing it,” she asserted, “I must have been half-Oriental”). Flourishing amid the vaguely spiritual currents in vogue before the First World War, her Dance of the Delirium of the Senses and Dance of the Sense of Touch prompted newspapers to headline their review of her works, “FOUNDS NEW CULT.” For Desai, the great—and useful—thing about St. Denis was that she dwelt in that shadowland between the showman and the shaman (she was once called “half-mystic and half-mick”); dancing for eight hours at a stretch even in her eighties, she made no bones about planning a Church of the Divine Dance that would blend the “motivations of the church with the instrumentation of the stage.” In such celebrated pieces as her Legend of the Peacock, she was inspired, she felt, by her faith in herself and in an unknown God (though “sometimes,” as her husband, the dancer Ted Shawn, wisely remarked, “she confuses the two”).

Yet if Desai finely catches the older figures in her book, including Sophie’s surrogate mother, the kindly British nurse who tends to her, and is named, precisely, Dr. Bishop, she is less successful with their charges. Throughout her work she shows an impatience with the young, in part, perhaps, because they are the most irresponsible captives of illusion, and in part, no doubt, because she is by temperament more at ease with chamber music than with the Grateful Dead. None of her characters mourns her youth. On the contrary, “I’m so glad it is over and we can never be young again,” Tara says in Clear Light of Day, to which her thoughtful sister Bim adds, “I would never be young again for anything.” In Baumgartner’s Bombay the action closes in on a confrontation between two generations of Germans in India, and if we sympathize fully with the older man, the younger one (“like a sick cat”) seems merely a parasite and even a murderer. In Desai, the young are more often rebuked for their confusion than admired for their enthusiasm, and it is not always easy to see a higher purpose in their wanderings.

Here Desai’s impatience with youthful folly becomes something of a liability. The young devotees she describes sound a little secondhand to me, taken more from books than life, and are not much lit up from within. I don’t quite believe it when they say things like “He has it bad: all that searching and meditating can drive you crazy if you haven’t a guru to guide you,” and I don’t buy it when, in one heated spiritual discussion, “Pierre Eduard flung himself forward and beat at the table with his fists.” Sophie assumes that her husband’s downfall comes out of “reading Hesse” (to which he replies, “Why do you say it leads to my death when it is to my awakening I go?”). Yet I wonder whether even that influential sage of youth could really prompt a flight to India, except in providing a worthy-sounding rationale for a trip driven by less certain motives. When Desai describes the disciples in an ashram as resembling “figures in an etching, or a tapestry,” she may be speaking truer than she knows.

At the same time, it’s interesting to set her beside her longtime friend and neighbor, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In many of their writings—the European sections of Journey to Ithaca, for example—their themes and scenes are so similar that one cannot help but feel that they’ve been sitting in the same room. And this is hardly surprising since they are quiet, watchful daughters of European mothers, have both lived on the same street in Delhi, and are wives of middle-class Indians and frequent travelers between what Jhabvala has called Three Continents. Desai’s early novel, Fire on the Mountain, was dedicated to “Ruth and Jhab,” and her new one might almost have been given the same title as the early Jhabvala collection How I Became a Holy Mother.

When one picks up Jhabvala’s latest novel, Shards of Memory,1 indeed, it reads like a shadow of one of Desai’s. Her young Indian poet, Kavi, dreaming of becoming a Byron, sounds like Desai’s young Indian poet, Raja, who also dreams of becoming a Byron. And the Merchant-Ivory aesthetic—slow, detailed, and sometimes more concerned with décor and textures than with drama—governs her as it occasionally does Desai. Here, besides, is a skeptical young woman trying to restrain an unworldly young man. Here is a boy (having been neglected by his idealistic parents) being raised by a grandmother. Here are rich women giving up their houses to gurus.

Yet, in a deeper sense, the two could not be more different. For Jhabvala’s stories take place almost entirely in their characters’ heads, where Desai’s take place in precisely described gardens and streets and homes. Jhabvala’s concerns are primarily social and psychological, while Desai’s are more sensual—she describes the ironies that Jhabvala diagnoses. And where Desai’s characters are mostly victims of circumstance or delusion, Jhabvala’s are nearly always victims of manipulation. Jhabvala, essentially, is writing neo-Jamesian dramas about Old World cats devouring New World mice—Eastern supply meeting Western demand—and her interest is always less in the guru figure than in the lies and projections of his followers. The guru, for her, is merely a political entrepreneur in robes.

In that setting, Desai’s daring in Journey to Ithaca seems all the more impressive, as does her readiness to accept mystery. In an odd way, her somewhat downcast vision of the world actually makes her sympathetic to the quest for something better (her epigraph from Cavafy’s “Ithaca” suggests that it is better to have sought and lost than never to have sought at all). And in the guru she has created, she presents us with someone who really does satisfy needs more than exploit them: a nurse for the spiritually homeless. Desai is brave enough to inspect the guru on her own terms, and give her the benefit of some doubt.

What she doesn’t address, though, is the central conundrum of the romance with gurus, which is, of course, not how they attract the lost and lonely, but how they attract those who have everything to lose by joining them. In her meticulous account of Rancho Rajneesh in Cities on a Hill, Frances FitzGerald points out that the people on Rajneesh’s Oregon commune were often former city planners, Yale doctors, clinical psychologists, and college professors, many of whom were scornful of “weird gurus and Westerners on strange trips of one sort or another.” The guru scene becomes interesting at precisely the point where it appeals to those who are most skeptical of gurus.

Desai moves toward this point, and she implicitly suggests how it is that someone like Andrew Harvey, who is billed (on the back of his books) as “the youngest Fellow ever elected to Oxford,” could have sat for sixteen years before Mother Meera, a relatively young, mostly uncommunicative Indian peasant girl, whom he has now violently repudiated. It was, no doubt, precisely by virtue of being non-verbal and non-intellectual that Mother Meera could give Harvey something he couldn’t get at All Souls, just as it was the simplicity and clarity that his Indian guru opened up in him that struck Christopher Isherwood as tonic after the complications of Cambridge and Berlin.2 In an unlikely way, the ashram can even become a return to the walled garden and ritualized discipline of the boarding-school (“The atmosphere was rather like a boarding-school,” Desai writes of one ashram—much as FitzGerald describes a woman in charge of the Rajneeshees speaking “like the housemother of a boarding-school dormitory”). In trying so hard to imagine herself into this world—and into the paradoxes of a performing mystic—and in showing how warmth can seem a kind of wisdom, Desai moves closer to the heart of this attraction than almost any other contemporary novelist I know. Yet in the end, as she knows, motherly care is only the beginning of the mystery.

  1. 1

    Doubleday; 1995.

  2. 2

    My Guru and His Disciple (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980).