Ravi was too crushed by the school day to take the risk of any other failure, and heaved his school bag onto his back to slink home with the hope of going unnoticed—which he mostly was. – Anita Desai, ‘The Artist of Disappearance’
The cover states this volume contains three novellas. I’ll deal with each separately.
The Museum of Final Journeys
In his review for The Washington Post Ron Charles says that “The Museum of Final Journeys is a little toothache of a story that you’ll have trouble putting out of your mind.” It’s as good a description as any without actually saying anything about the story. It says on the cover it’s a novella but at only 11,000 words you can really only call it a novelette.
The protagonist is an inexperienced bureaucrat, the son of a successful bureaucrat, who as part of his training has been assigned a post in some backwater where he gets to play King Solomon for people he doesn’t understand and could care less about but this is a necessary stepping stone and dutifully he makes do and gets on with it. The first part of the story lets us get acquainted with him as he acclimatises and then what little novelty there is wears off. Very soon he’s read all his books and has little to look forward to bar the crossword in the newspaper, so when an unexpected visitor from an estate he’d heard rumours of arrives talking about a museum his interest is piqued and he makes the trip to see for himself.
It would spoil the story to say what he encounters there but what’s more interesting is what he does with the information. And Charles is right, this is a wee toothache of a story but I’ve never had a toothache in my life that I enjoyed. I don’t mind not knowing all the facts—in the real world we rarely have all the facts and we get by—but an author needs to be wary about what he or she chooses to omit. I thought Desai left me short-changed at the end of this story. That said I did enjoy what I read and she kept me turning pages but there were a few too many whys left at the end of this one for me. It is an interesting character study, however, even if we never learn the protagonist’s name or very much about him other than he’s subservient to the will of his parents; his mother eventually finds him a wife and he settles down to live much the same life as his father did before him. Only his father never experienced what the son does. He never saw the museum. To see the museum and then to end up exactly where he’d expected to be moving from one ministry to another until he reached the end of “a long and rewarding career of service” seems a little sad. It’s supposed to.
Like the previous story this begins a little off-stage if you will: Prema Joshi, “middle-aged, even prematurely aged one might say,” arrives at her school reunion not expecting to be noticed by anyone; she was never anyone at school so why should she be anyone now? Her life since leaving school has been uneventful. She holds a “a junior position in a minor women’s college in a bleak and distant quarter of the city” teaching girls “every one of these [whom] would leave college to marry, bear children and, to everyone's huge relief, never read another book.” When Tara, the most glamorous girl in class, not only recognises her as a classmate but chooses to strike up a conversation with her Prema is taken aback. She’s followed Tara’s career since leaving school with interest. Tara “had founded the first feminist press in the country and made it, unexpectedly, an outstanding success.” You would think they’d still be poles apart.
And then a providential act took place. A small, grubby paperback slid out of the overstuffed, ungainly satchel that Prema was trying to keep from falling off her lap. And as Prema tried to stuff it back before any further objects followed it out, Tara, idly continuing the conversation since nothing else seemed to be happening, asked, 'What is that you're reading?'
The book is a collection of short stories written in Oriya, the predominant language of the Indian states of Odisha, and it just so happens that Tara has been wanting to branch into translations but neither woman makes any suggestion to the other and it looks like the opportunity is to be lost. Prema, however, is passionate about the language—her mother spoke Oriya to her as an infant but died young—and also about the author of the stories, Suvarna Devi, who she is determined to champion and so makes the effort to see Tara again who although clearly a busy woman is quite accommodating and suggests Prema have a go at translating the book into English.
Publication of Prema’s translation brings Suvarna Devi to the city for a conference, where the two women meet but much to Prema’s surprise and annoyance she’s very much side-lined as merely the translator. She does get to meet her heroine later and persuades her to let her translate the novel she is currently working on. And this is where things start to go awry: Prema’s burgeoning ego begins to get in the way of things and she’s starting to think of herself as a co-author; she really is getting ideas above her station and stations are a big thing in India. Curiously a couple of times during the story the narration slips into the first person although the style is indistinguishable from the third person narration. Clearly the author is making a metafictional point here.
So an interesting wee story about identity, the need to be aware of our limits (as opposed to knowing ones place although there is a touch of that here) and why we should never give into the temptation to meet our heroes. A more rounded and satisfying piece than the first one.
The Artist of Disappearance
This final story—a bona fide novella this time—nicely rounds off the group. In some respects Ravi, the old man we meet at the beginning of this story, is like the protagonist in the opening novelette. As a young man he’s sent away to study and obediently he acquiesces:
The years that followed, Ravi did not count. He did not count them because he did not acknowledge them as his: they did not belong to his life because they did not belong to the forest and the hills. They belonged to the family in Bombay, to the business office, to his duties there, his relations to the family, and some years at a college studying 'management' (although they never made clear and he never understood what he was supposed to 'manage').
On his return home, however, his life takes a very different direction. Ravi is… I suppose the best expression I can use is ‘a child of nature’. From a very early age he just wants to be outside:
Hari Singh [the majordomo as far as I can figure out] gave up setting a place at the table with the requisite glass and silverware, and took to letting Ravi eat his meals at a small table out on the veranda where he would not be separated from the outdoor world that provided all the nourishment he wanted.
He’s an adopted child—“at the suggestion of a distant, philanthropic aunt”—but never really takes to the family nor them to him. Luckily he’s comfortable with his own company especially when left to roam free. His parents die before too much pressure is placed on him to marry and so, after a tragic accident, he ends up living alone in the ruins of the old family home cared for by Bhola, Hari Singh’s son, and his family who still keep their distance appreciating his preference for solitude. And then the film crew arrive and discover what Ravi’s been doing all these years hidden away from prying eyes.
This is a book suffused with melancholy and occasionally full-blown sadness. I read them in the middle of what passes for summer in Scotland and so I couldn’t help but feel hot reading them but I suspect one might sense that even in winter, not that the books are heavy on descriptions but she makes them count:
The sun was setting into a sullen murk of ashes and embers along the horizon when he turned the jeep into the circular driveway in front of a low, white bungalow.
Through the suppurating heat of June and July, under a slowly revolving electric fan, and with perspiration streaming down her face in sheets, Prema settled to trying to rediscover the joy she had initially taken in translation.
When he looked up from it he found the woolly dusk had knitted him into the evening scene, inextricably.
Although Ravi is the only out-and-out recluse all three characters live, at least for a time, on the fringes of society and all aspire to better things. Success comes at a price and although all three better themselves—in very different ways—it costs them. Having been a little disappointed by the ending of the first story I was wary about proceeding but the other two were better and I think the last one was the best but I have a soft spot for loners and outcasts. In an interview Desai says:
I’ve often written about people who don’t go along with the mainstream, who go against the current, who live outside of the current, or are stranded whilst everyone else just flows along. I think I’m drawn to such characters. Even in the last three novellas that I wrote, that same type of character surfaces again and again. I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile; it may not be political exile, but in some sense it’s exile from the rest of society. It may have something to do with my upbringing and my parents. My mother, having been German, lived most of her life in India and never felt able to return to Germany. After the war, we would sometimes suggest, “Why don’t you go back and visit your country? See who is still alive, who survived.” It would bring her to tears, and she’d say, “Don’t make me do that.” To have lost your country, your family, your society, so wholly, must have been a devastating experience. Somehow she survived it. My father was, in a sense, in exile too. He was from East Bengal, which then became East Pakistan. So his family lost their land and everything else they had there. Then he came to Bangladesh, which was another loss, another change. He didn’t feel at home there either and lived in North India, which was a foreign country to him. They were outsiders, and while there’s no reason why I should be that too—I was born there—I was brought up with the same sense of being an outsider. I certainly absorbed it from them.
Going back to Ron Charles, looking at the book as a whole he says, “Desai takes a certain perverse pleasure in exposing the self-pity of mediocre people; if Anita Brookner were a little meaner, she might write like this.” This really hits the nail on the head. I’m a fan of Brookner—oddly I have to say because there are so many reasons why you wouldn’t think she’d appeal to me—and I suspect I might become a fan of Desai. I was interested in what Manini Nayar Samarth writes in the abstract to her dissertation:
Desai's fiction is lyrical, because, as in lyric poetry, it combines the self (the writer/protagonist) with society through epiphanic insight. The achievement of selfhood is therefore defined by a sense of mystic unity or belonging to a stable and known world. In contrast, Brookner's ironic novels express the failure of a self/world synthesis in an arbitrary and amoral wasteland. Selfhood is defined by the ability to confront and resist the corrosive effects of abandonment and homelessness. These diametric responses to alienation lead to two affirmative modes of closure. In Desai's lyrical novel, the self rests in grace attained through vision. In Brookner's ironic novel, it generates the courage to survive isolation through stoical acceptance or by the creation of a private fiction. Either way, both modes of closure denote a triumph of character over situation, of will over circumstances, thereby establishing the resilience and creative power of the spirit.
That these stories are all based in India is a little problematic—they’re several steps removed from my personal experience of the world—and I found myself googling more Indian words than I would’ve liked but there is still a universality to the book; these people weren’t so different that I didn’t get them. Maybe that says more about me than I care to admit.
I’ll leave you with a very nice—and lengthy—interview with the author.
Anita Mazumdar Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. However, she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result English became her "literary language". She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.
She was a student at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi and received her B.A. in English literature in 1957 from the Miranda House of the University of Delhi. The following year she married Ashvin Desai, the director of a computer software company. They have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai whose novel The Inheritance of Loss won in 2006. You can read an interview between them here.
She is the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a writer she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times; she received a Sahitya Academy Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain, from the Sahitya Academy, India's National Academy of Letters; she won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea.