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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.

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