Revival chronicle of Anita Desai’s novel

“Desai not only juxtaposes beauty with ugliness, but sometimes makes it impossible to disentangle the two”

“Desai not only juxtaposes beauty with ugliness, but sometimes makes it impossible to disentangle the two”

In Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “A Tale of 1947”, the protagonist, Mumtaz, decides to set sail for Karachi from Bombay after the partition. His Hindu friends come to greet him; they don’t know anything about this new country, Pakistan. Responding to the forced division, Mumtaz points to the horizon, where sea and sky seem to meet, and says, “It’s just an illusion because they can’t really meet, but isn’t- this not beautiful, this union that is not really there?” Many writers from the subcontinent have chronicled the random violence and aftermath of the partition, some in searing words conveying mad fury, others wearing a calmer, even oblique gaze, as Anita Desai does in her 1980 novel. Clear daylight.

The story of four siblings, two who left, Tara and Raja, and two who remained in their Delhi home, Bim(la), who teaches history, and Baba, who is autistic, is played out with Score in the background. It may not have affected at least three of them directly, but the legacy trauma from the momentous incident lingers. The characters travel to their past, and accepting it also holds ominous omens about the future.

Decayed Delhi

The novel begins with Tara returning to her former home in Delhi for a visit with her diplomat husband Bakul, years after independence. His parents are no more, nor their melancholic old aunt, Mira Masi, who drowned in brandy as the summer of 1947 grew hot. As Tara listens to her brother Baba playing music with the volume too high, and observes the garden and its “tap dripping at the end of the grassy path, the trees shaking and quivering with birds, the dog hopping, the roses,” she remarks, it’s amazing how everything is “exactly the same every time we come home.” Her older sister, Bim, bristles at the comment and retaliates: “It’s the risk of returning to Old Delhi. Old Delhi does not change. It just rots.

Bim does not approve of New Delhi, “where things happen”, and clings to Old Delhi, where “everything that happened, happened a long time ago – in the days of the Tughlaqs, of the Khiljis, of the Sultanate, of the Moghuls – this lot”.

But it is impossible to forget “that stormy summer” of 1947, when they could see fires burning in the city every night. Their brother Raja, who loves Byron and Iqbal in equal measure and recites Urdu poetry in perfect pitch and tone, is worried sick. Their neighbour, Hyder Ali, had opened his library to a young Raja so that he could draw on Urdu literature as he pleased. When the Alis suddenly, quietly leave, Raja is distraught. He learns the hard way that it is out of the question to undertake Islamic studies at Jamia Millia. and the irony escapes no one when he has to opt for English literature instead of Hindu College.

The next flood

In her introduction to a later edition, Kamila Shamsie calls Booker’s much-watched and pre-selected novel one of the finest exponents of South Asian Gothic. “Desai not only juxtaposes beauty with ugliness, but sometimes makes it impossible to disentangle the two. , gulmohars, guavas, koels, pigeons – are symbols of both life and neglect… Among all the rest, this is a Partition novel.

For Bim and the Das family and countless others, life flows, not steadily like a river, but in leaps. There are long moments when nothing happens, then “all of a sudden there’s a crash”, and powerful acts happen, “even if you don’t know it at the time”. As Bim explains to Tara, “Life falls back into the backwaters until the next surge, the next flood…”

The chilling relevance of Desai’s book is that it speaks to the divisive times of the present. By telling the stories of fictional families, which seem all too real, the writer lays bare the hurtful repercussions of a division pushed across the subcontinent 75 years ago.

The writer returns to a classic every fortnight.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

Irene B. Bowles