In these relentlessly noisy times, to deem a writer “quiet” seems tantamount to an insult. Surely “quiet” is synonymous with “dull”? “Discreet” is no better, implying, as it does, prudery of some sort. But any of us must recall the moment when we realized that the smartest girl in school—who was, indeed, both quiet and discreet—was also piercingly observant, frank, and, in some instances, wickedly funny: “quiet” must by no means be mistaken for “dull.” In the past half-century, there have been a number of fierce women writers upon whom that muffling word has been bestowed, among them Jean Rhys, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark (who, although superficially demure, had, eponymously, an arsonist’s glee), and Anita Desai.
Desai is, in fact, a writer of great subtlety, whose novels—and in this case novellas—are replete not only with evocative descriptions and elegant syntax, but with complex emotion, the profundity of which may demand a close or second reading. That is to say: Desai is only a quiet writer if you aren’t properly listening.
The Artist of Disappearance, her new trio of novellas, is the work of an artist’s maturity: the overarching tone is one of aching loss; and while each of the short pieces is wholly distinct, they are linked in exploring human failings, the regrettable choices that shape individual lives. Although realistically set in the present or recent past, these fictions have a particular timeless quality—almost an old-fashioned air. India itself is portrayed as a place of decay and confusion, a country that, in its race for the future, has lost sight of its past and of its natural splendor. The title novella’s closing paragraphs (which are the closing paragraphs of the book itself) leave us with little hope for the “quiet”—they amount to a resigned herald of the boisterous times.
In the opening novella, “The Museum of Final Journeys,” an unnamed civil servant, now middle-aged, recounts his early posting in a remote town past its prime, confronting obsolescence: “The jute that grew thick and strong in the surrounding fields…was now overtaken by chemical fibres, plastics and polyesters.” Even the house to which he is assigned is bleak in its disarray. From his first arrival, during a power cut, he is overwhelmed by anomie: “I did not want to stay in this desolate place, I wanted to run after the jeep, throw myself in and return to a familiar scene.” And a little later:
This was surely not a chapter of my life; it was only a chapter in one of those novels I used to read in my student days, something by Robert Louise Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins (I had been a great reader then and secretly hoped to become a writer).
Inevitably, in spite of his father’s assurances that the work would be interesting, the narrator finds it tedious (“My secretary brought in the files to me, tied with red tape—I was amused to see these existed, literally”) and seeks his only escape in going “on tour” to the outlying areas. In the course of one such visit, he hears of a private museum of curiosities from around the world housed in one of the grand estates of the region. Not long afterward, an importunate elderly clerk descends upon him, asking that the narrator visit his employer’s decaying estate in the hope that he might solicit government funding for the estate’s museum. The narrator is intrigued even as he is dismayed:
I felt let down by the realization that it all came down to practicalities, legal and administrative…. While others dreamt dreams and lived lives of imagination and adventure, my role was only to take care of the mess left by them.
My curiosity about the museum and my desire to see it were quickly evaporating. But, if they afforded me a break from the daily routine of office and courtroom in this oppressively limited outpost, why not accept?
The narrator’s visit to the estate and the unfolding of room upon room of dusty treasures is lavishly and beautifully described. He encounters collections of “the beasts slaughtered by this family [that] had been embalmed and stuffed to look lifelike or had had their pelts removed and stretched out upon the walls under a forest of antlers and the mounted heads of glass-eyed stags,” among which the only life is “one lizard flattened against the wall, immobile, a pulse beating under its nearly transparent skin.”
But these are merely family heirlooms. The museum itself is a horde of curios sent back to his mother Srimati Sarita Mukherjee by the family’s vanished son, Sri Jiban. He traveled the world never to return, dispatching instead mountains of acquisitions: rooms stuffed with rugs and with miniature paintings (“it would have taken days, even a lifetime, to examine each separately and study the clues enclosed by the gilt margins”), rooms of fans and kimonos, of masks “of wood, straw, leather and clay, painted and embellished with bone, shells, rings, strings and fur,” of textiles, of scrolls and writing materials, of clocks, even of suitcases.
What at first seems a remarkable and glorious collection becomes, to the narrator, overwhelming and almost repellent—“The sense of futility was underlined by the sounds my footsteps made on the stone flooring…. My curiosity was now so reduced that, like a fading spectre, it barely existed”—and his reaction to the museum is ultimately the same as his reaction to the town where he has been posted:
All desire I had ever felt for adventure had been drained away by seeing these traces that he had left of his, this gloomy storehouse of abandoned, disused, decaying objects. Their sad obsolescence cast a spell on me and I wanted only to break free and flee.
There remains, however, the pièce de resistance, the living culmination of this dead accretion of things—“the last gift Sri Jiban sent his mother”: an elephant. This weary and sorrowful creature is cared for by an aging attendant, who, with the clerk, himself an “ancient gnome,” is all that remains of the once-extensive staff of the estate. Their concern for the museum is profoundly linked to their concern for the elephant, who is its only apparent heir, and the reason for the clerk’s appeal to the narrator:
I saw that he laid his hand on the great beast’s flank with an immense gentleness; it might have been the touch a father bestows on an idiot son, a mad daughter or an invalid wife, gentle and despairing, because she also provided him with the purpose of his life.
Ultimately, inevitably, the narrator cannot assume the salvation of the museum, and the story itself is his unburdening of that failure. The melancholy echoes of this account reverberate outward: on the one hand, it is, as he says, “the usual saga of a descent from riches to rags,” a familiar decline in familial fortunes. But it is also more than this: it is an evocation of the weary distaste we experience at our own cultural belatedness, at the realization that our desires for adventure and exploration have already been fulfilled by earlier generations, and that the role that remains to us is to “take care of the mess.” In turning his back on the elephant—literally, the elephant in the room—our minor civil servant is turning his back on his subsidiary nature, on his secondary-ness, on the impossibility of any grandeur of his own. In these dead rooms where only the lizards and spiders live, the narrator sees the decay not only of Sri Jiban’s fantasies, and of his mother’s; but of his own fantasies also. Understandably, he has no wish to be enslaved to the past, and to someone else’s past at that; and yet he carries all his life the burden of his refusal.
“Translator Translated,” the second piece in the book, evokes an analogous, still more painful renunciation. Prema Joshi, “middle-aged, even prematurely aged one might say,” may hold the distinction of having been the quietest girl in her class at school without having been the smartest. Once having hoped to be a writer, she is instead a teacher. Not exactly a failure, Prema is mired in her own drabness, teaching in
a junior position in a minor women’s college in a bleak and distant quarter of the city…. She wondered if her life was any different from that of the crows dividing their time between the telephone lines and the dying tree in her street with equally raucous disorder and dissent.
At a school reunion, she encounters Tara, a glamorous classmate whose career as a feminist publisher Prema has admired from afar; and to her surprise, Tara remembers her. From this chance meeting arises Prema’s desire to translate into English, for Tara, the short stories of a regional writer named Suvarna Devi who writes in Oriya, Prema’s mother’s tongue (importantly, here, not quite Prema’s mother tongue, as her mother’s early death meant that Prema did not grow up speaking Oriya herself). From the gift of translating comes an entirely new sense of herself:
I was interpreting the text for her because I had the power—too strong a word perhaps, but the ability, yes. I was also the one who knew what she meant, what worlds her words evoked…. Translating Suvarna Devi’s words and text into English was not so different, I thought, from what she herself must have felt when writing them in her own language…. The act of translation brought us together as if we were sisters—or even as if we were one, two compatible halves of one writer.
This feeling of communion affords her, also, an exultant force: “I had never felt such power, never had such power, such joy in power.” Suddenly, poignantly, anything seems possible: Prema rushes out to buy cigarettes, simply because glamorous Tara smokes. The drab life of Prema Joshi has been, she imagines, forever altered:
Happy times followed for Prema…. [She] brimmed and shone, gleamed as never before…. [She] became so light-hearted, she smiled and laughed even with her students who began to speculate as to whether she had a lover. The idea made them sputter with laughter.
Publication of Prema’s translation brings Suvarna Devi to the city for a conference, where the two women meet, and Prema is able to feel a sort of patronizing desire to “protect” and “support” Devi. But the conference also exposes Prema for the first time, less happily, to the burdens and responsibilities of the translator, and the hostility of some readers.
When Suvarna Devi finishes her novel, it is sent to Prema for translation; but “instead of the artless charm and the liveliness of the short stories, the novel seemed by contrast slow, almost sluggish.” It is here, in this second experience of translation, that Prema comes to question the boundaries of her task: “My translation was an uncovering, a revealing of what had been buried, concealed in her work. In a way, you could say I was the writer, only I would not be given the recognition.”
This slippage—her inability to keep her long-held writerly fantasies from taking over her work—will land Prema in difficulties; and these difficulties will, in turn, deprive her of her “happy times”:
All of us, every one of us, has had a moment when a window opened, when we caught a glimpse of the open, sunlit world beyond, but all of us, on this bus, have had that window close and remain closed.
More than that—a crushing realization in itself—Prema comes to feel that even her voice is not her own; it is Suvarna Devi’s. Having at one time thought herself the dominant one, she realizes that “I had been writing under her influence, with her voice; it was not mine. In adopting hers, I had lost mine.”
This novella alternates between third-person and first-person narration: in the end, we’re forced to wonder whose voice is whose, in whose hands the story lies: the title, after all, is “Translator Translated”; a quietly Borgesian moment of metafictional uncertainty, but Borgesian nevertheless.
The book’s title piece, “The Artist of Disappearance,” is at once more exuberant and more desperate than its companions. Ravi, its protagonist, is almost feral, a hermit-like naturalist living in the charred ruins of his parents’ grand home in the mountains near Mussoorie, north of Delhi (Desai’s childhood home). His passion for nature and his ability to create art out of its random elements are at the core of this story, which offers memorably glorious descriptions of the natural world:
And there was always the unexpected—lifting a flat stone and finding underneath an unsuspected scorpion immediately aroused and prepared for attack, or coming across an eruption from the tobacco-dark leaf mould of a family of mushrooms with their ghostly pallor and caps, hats and bonnets, like refugees that had arrived in the night.
Indeed, the forest is to Ravi what the museum and its elephant are to the aging clerk in “The Museum of Final Journeys”: his raison d’être. But the forest, unlike the museum, is completely independent of Ravi, and largely oblivious to him. His life, which might seem tragic, in fact emerges as one of rare freedom and authenticity, of a respect for the world into which he was born that is perhaps lacking in many of his peers, who are keen to make a buck off the tourists, or to mine the land carelessly for its precious metals and minerals.
The event of the story again involves storytellers, this time in the form of a group of young filmmakers who have come up to Mussoorie to make a documentary about the region, wanting to convey to the wider world that
the scenery is being spoilt, destroyed. Timber companies are cutting down the trees. Limestone quarries and phosphate mines are making the hills unstable. Soil erosion is taking place. Lots of landslides are occurring.
They are largely ignorant, and must trust a local hustler to find them a guide. In the course of their search, one of them, a young woman named Shalini, comes across Ravi’s secret bower, his living artwork:
Nature could not have created those circles within circles of perfectly identical stones in rings of pigeon shades of grey and blue and mauve, or hoisted fallen branches into sculpted shapes, or filled the cracks in granite and slate with what seemed to be garlands of beads and petals.
She then has the idea that this should be incorporated into the documentary, and along with her colleagues tries to track Ravi down for an interview, to his grave dismay.
Given that Ravi has virtually no conversation, we learn his story through its narrated history. “The Artist of Disappearance” is almost the inverse of “The Museum of Final Journeys”: here, we stand with the fallen grandee of a vanished aristocratic family, rather than with the newcomers who would tell his tale. Ravi’s remembered childhood is of his distant parents’ glamorous journeys—routinely to the great cities and spas of Europe—without him. He was adopted, we learn; and “as far as anyone could see, they never made up a family.”
Instead, while they are away, Ravi learns about nature with the household servant, Hari Singh, and chafes against his dour tutor, Mr. Benjamin. When his parents are in residence, they frequent the local club (where his father is insulted and beaten by an Englishman) and elegant parties, until his mother grows depressed and his father is killed in a car accident. An Englishwoman named Miss Wilkinson is hired to care for Ravi’s mother:
Her presence was immensely soothing to the mother…. The woman’s pale skin and light eyes and English diction made up in some inexplicable way for the treatment that her husband had suffered, the humiliation of it.
In time, Ravi’s mother also dies, and he is sent to relatives in the city, only to return as soon as he is able. By then, the house is home only to Miss Wilkinson, who has become a Dickensian figure, living in one room, largely blind and surrounded by cats.
The unfortunate events that bring about the final destruction of the household are recounted with dispassionate calm: what is from one perspective a tragedy is also, we can see, simply a fact. Ravi lives outside the local society, barely aware of and utterly indifferent to the stories that are told about him and his ruined home. He is a strange man indeed, who cannot bear to be shut indoors or to be seen by others; and yet our readerly compassion is entirely with him. He is not menacing, or dark; and given the barrenness of his human contact, the richness of the natural world around him seems by far the more appealing alternative.
What is striking about this final novella, in comparison to the other two, is that it is not a lament for something lost or dead, but rather a celebration of a strange but joyous life, and yet simultaneously a rueful acknowledgment that this joy is incommunicable. When they fail to find Ravi, Shalini and her friends film his secret bower: the result is “a scene drained of life, with neither colour nor fragrance nor movement.” They deem it “a dead loss, a waste of time.”
It is at the novella’s close that the young filmmakers find what they need for their documentary, after a dynamited mining explosion that blocks the road before them and covers everything and everyone in white dust: “The shelf on which they stood seemed dangerously precarious: right under it they could see great gashes that had opened out into caverns of white limestone”; and the miners have “their hair and clothes cloaked in white dust that made them look like ghostly figures in a photographic negative.” It is here, rather than in Ravi’s garden, that they locate what is filmically interesting: “This is what we need for a finish!… Get the camera, let’s shoot!’”
What they had missed was the challenge of the “quiet”: it cannot be summed up, or easily transmitted. The experience itself is required, and may require some engagement. Each of these novellas, like Ravi’s delicate natural creation, speaks eloquently and across a broad emotional range; they share a wry, sharp humor, and an elegance of expression. They are—even in their gothic surprises—true. The stories that they tell reward the effort of listening closely.