Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Past Is A Foreign Country

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


The ancient Chinese believed time is not a ladder one ascends into the future but a ladder one descends into the past. That was the intriguing epigraph to Anita Desai’s last novel, The Zigzag Way, and it’s a dictum many of her characters would subscribe to. The ones in her latest book, The Artist of Disappearance, are no exception. This comprises a series of three novellas featuring people who find themselves cut off from the mainstream of everyday life, brooding over former actions and inactions.

With characteristic delicacy and the incremental accumulation of small effects, Desai takes us into their hearts and minds. To begin with, there’s the reserved bureaucrat of The Museum of Final Journeys who, when posted in a remote, tedious outpost at the start of his career, chances upon a series of rooms in a mansion resembling a ramshackle version of Kolkata’s Mullick Palace. Here, he marvels at artifact after artifact sent from overseas, an experience that haunts him even many years later. In Translator Translated, an introverted college professor with a knowledge and love of Oriya proficiently translates a volume of a favourite author’s short stories, only to confuse notions of creator and translator when it comes to the same author’s new novel. (Language and its context: it’s a theme reminiscent of the author’s earlier In Custody.) Finally, in the title story, a reclusive young man lives in the burnt shell of his family mansion near Mussoorie, finding solace in nature, only to have his idyll interrupted by strangers from the city.

These are stories of lives half-lived, of the disappointment of destinations and of the ever-receding possibility of transformation. The causes, more often than not, turn out to be remote parental figures matched by a native irresolution bordering on timidity. Looking back on the years gone by, the bureaucrat realizes that “while others dreamt dreams and lived lives of imagination and adventure, my role was only to take care of the mess left by them”. And the translator could be speaking for all of the others as she muses while taking a bus journey: “We are all in this together, this world of loss and defeat. All of us, every one of us, had had a moment when a window opened, when we caught a glimpse of the open, sunlit world beyond, but all of us…have had that window close and remain closed”.

There are no finessed, artificial climaxes to these narratives; rather, Desai’s technique is to place her characters in situations that take them out of their workaday milieu and then follow them and their actions with her pen, in a manner of speaking. The simplicity with which the tales unfold belies the artisanship that has gone into their crafting. The interweaving of the present and the past apart, there are other exercises in craft, such as the shifts between first and third person as well as between past and present tense in Translator Translated. (Here, and elsewhere, Desai also gives rein to the understated humour that is her other trademark. Of the atmosphere at a publishing conference, for example, she writes: “Terms proliferate that indicate the large number of academics in the audience: Subaltern. Discourse. Reify. Validate….Wasn’t ‘subaltern’ a military term?”)

The title story, however, the one that’s the most fleshed-out, suffers on account of being curiously bifurcated by the amount of time Desai spends on the activities of the intruders who encroach upon the central character’s Eden. The actions of this three-member film crew from Delhi who travel to Mussoorie in order to shoot a documentary on environmental degradation draw attention away from the titular character’s predicament and weaken the spine of the story -- even though it is because of this disturbance that he discovers a new, albeit more private way in which to express his inventive urges.

The Artist of Disappearance doesn’t exactly extend or deepen Desai’s concerns as a writer: the India she writes about, for example, is the same India she’s always written about. Yet, it is a filigreed and nuanced work, once again demonstrating her moving powers of description, of both inner and outer states. The past may be a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, but in Desai’s hands, it’s capable of many domestic disturbances.

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