One needs a lot of patience and time on hand to read Anita Desai’s books. Not because they are difficult reads, but because they make you ponder, mull, stop in between and reflect on your state of mind and heart, and just make you come back to the book/s in bits and parts.
I started reading Anita Desai while I was in college and the only thing that got me going with her books was the trailer of the movie, “In Custody”, which was based on her book. That was the first Anita Desai which I read and I haven’t looked back since. The movie was conceptualized by the duo Ismail-Merchant, which also led me to watching all their films and be in awe of their direction and production values.
Anita Desai writes with candour – the feelings are stark and need no explanation. Her characters are often cocooned, living in their own selves, comfortable in their skin and at times restless like any other character/s would be.
I have had various arguments with friends or acquaintances about her writing prowess and how she should be given more credit than that. Her novels are bleak but sometimes that is the truth about human nature – there is also the unknown kindness that makes itself visible in her works – from the relationship of the poet and his fan in “In Custody” to the delicate balance between a great–grandmother and her great-granddaughter in “Fire on the Mountain”, which gets maintained over the course of the book.
Desai’s characters are but human. They are awkward, shy, boisterous and often just want to live their lives cocooned without any interference from the world. Maybe that is the reason why her novels most of the time seem out of place in today’s times. That is the reason I read them. They somehow provide the necessary calm and quiet which is needed.
I remember reading, “Clear Light of Day” with great trepidation. The same applied to “Fasting Feasting”. That was due to the underlying themes of loneliness, despair and life not giving too many choices to the protagonists. Both the novels have the same undercurrents – of being there and yet wanting to have a life of their own. This is written without much sentiment, so though you feel sorry for the characters (to some extent), you do not feel the choke in the throat. For me that is the understated beauty of her books. They make you feel and that is more than enough.
My favourite Desai has to be, “In Custody” for sure. The subtlety of a poet’s last days and lost grandeur is depicted with such pathos, that even I could not help but cry in some parts (I am not being contradictory. Just stating the truth). The relationship between the poet and his long time admirer is so delicate and so factual, that one begins to wonder and introspect about all relationships in that manner.
“Fire on the Mountain” begins with an intrusion. Nanda Kaul is living her last years peacefully in the small town of Kasauli. Her great-granddaughter Raka is then dispatched to live with her. They think they are different from each other, till their similarities come to the surface along with the hurt, pain, kindness, only ending in tragedy.
The above-mentioned book is probably Desai’s most poetic work according to me. The descriptions and scenes are what are not present in her other books. The book has less dialogue and more beauty in the way the characters behave and silently ponder over the events unfolding around them. That is the true mark of Anita Desai’s books according to me – the slowness, the quiet and then suddenly a series of events occur that change the course of the characters’ lives.
Anita Desai’s books probably are set in different times and worlds, and yet they ring so true for present times. The pathos of “In Custody” to the grimness of life in “Fasting, Feasting”, her novels are not for the weak-hearted. Every book of hers is a gem to be cherished and kept and to go back to and admire as the years pass by. Anita Desai is truly one of India’s prolific and erudite writers. A must read for all literary lovers.
(Anita Desai’s 4 Titles Courtesy: Random House India)