The perpetual outsider

April 7, 1995

Anita Desai's latest novel is the first she has written out of India. Andrew Robinson went to meet her.

Anita Desai is a novelist read in several languages besides English, a winner of literary awards (twice shortlisted for the Booker prize), and, despite her reserve and desire for privacy, a speaker much in demand at literary conferences: in other words, one of India's leading writers, the leading woman writer about India, and a favourite subject for academics working in comparative literature. But she is also, less familiarly, herself a part of academic life. Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, past professor of English literature at Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges in Massachusetts, for the past two years or so she has been the first professor of writing in the creative writing course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Of course there is nothing unusual in a major novelist or poet mixing writing with academic work, particularly in the United States. Think of, say, Saul Bellow or Seamus Heaney. But Professor Desai is quite a late incarnation, born in the late 1980s when she was already 50 with an established literary reputation (she has now published ten novels as well as short stories). Apart from having taken a degree at Delhi University in the 1950s, her previous contact with university life was small, her experience of teaching nil; for some 30 years, while writing fiction, she was a housewife in Calcutta, New Delhi and Bombay, bringing up two sons and two daughters. To start teaching writing, especially to non-Indians, was a jolt. "It is a conflict, of course it is,'' she admits. "When I'm working on a book I find myself completely torn in two really. I find the only thing to do is to put aside the writing when one's teaching. Think about it, make notes, read, but put aside the writing.'' Writing literature and teaching how to write literature are opposed processes, she feels.

The conflict is at the centre of what is probably Desai's best-known novel, In Custody, published in 1984 (and filmed in 1994 by Ismail Merchant). Its chief character, Deven, is an ineffectual, penurious literature lecturer in an undistinguished, dusty private college outside Delhi, whose subject is Hindi but whose passion (despite his being a Hindu) is for Urdu, the court language of the Mughals. Deven is a poetaster in Urdu, a man who "had never found a way to reconcile the meanness of his physical existence with the purity and immensity of his literary yearnings".

In post-Independence India, Hindi, originally the language of commerce, politics and of hundreds of millions of north Indian Hindus, has expanded, while Urdu, the language of poetry, music and the minority Muslim community, has decayed. Deven is offered a unique opportunity: an interview for a literary magazine with his boyhood hero, the greatest living Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi, who is ill, probably dying, in his house in Old Delhi. He muffs it. Faced by an unsuspected Byronic gulf between Nur's poetry and the poet's private life Deven cannot cope. With official funding for a tape recorder from his college, he attempts to immortalise Nur's voice in full poetic flow - but records chiefly the poet's lucubrations about the pleasures of the flesh. At one point Deven desperately nudges Nur "with the earnestness of an interviewer": "And, sir, were you writing any poetry at the time? Do you have any verse belonging to that period?" "The effect was disastrous. Nur, in the act of reaching out for a drink, froze. 'Poetry?' he shot at Deven, harshly. 'Poetry of the period? Do you think a poet can be ground between stones, and bled, in order to produce poetry - for you? You think you can switch on that mincing machine, and I will instantly produce for you a length of raw, red minced meat that you can carry off to your professors to eat?'" But though the recording is a failure, and Deven's hopes of academic glory are utterly crushed, something less tangible has emerged from the encounter: a kind of friendship and trust. Deven's love of Nur's poetry is genuine, and Nur has perceived this: poet and reader have become bound together, willy-nilly. Hence the double-edged title of the novel, In Custody. Deven "had imagined he was taking Nur's poetry into safe custody, and not realised that if he was to be the custodian of Nur's genius, then Nur would become his custodian and place him in custody too. This alliance could be considered an unendurable burden - or else a shining honour. Both demanded an equal strength."

Such feelings, and their delicate exploration through literature, are far removed from the professionalised pursuit of literary criticism in the majority of academic institutions. While Anita Desai is keenly interested in the work of other novelists - she was perhaps the first reviewer to recognise and welcome Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 1981 - she has little interest in literary theory.

In her latest novel, the most complex so far, entitled Journey to Ithaca - which was written, for the first time in her life, out of India - she moves even further away from the academic literary mainstream. Once again, as with In Custody, she has created a tortured alliance. This time it is a man and a woman, and they are not Indians but Europeans, an Italian man married to a German woman who set off for India in the mid-1970s. They begin as hippies but gradually their search deepens into a spiritual journey, or rather journeys, since they violently disagree. He, Matteo, becomes obsessed with "The Mother'', an enigmatic guru who runs an ashram - she, Sophie, cannot share his faith. When children arrive, she eventually decides to take them home to Europe; but once there, she feels a compulsion to return. Their frequent exchanges keep the story in constant tension: Sophie: "And what is she, this Mother - a hypnotist, a magician? It sounds as if she gets up on a stage and hypnotises you all like some magician. " He groaned, "Must you have a scientific explanation? You remind me of the child who pulls a butterfly to bits so it can see what makes it fly."

Again: "The Absolute, the Soul, the Supreme. Supra this and supra that. Don't use those words, I am sick of them. They are non-words."

"And what words do you like? Don't tell me, I can guess. Food. Bed. Baby. House. Are those your words?" "Yes. Yes! They are good words and I like them. Say them again. I didn't know you knew them. I thought you had forgotten them."

And lastly: "What do you want, Sophie?" "I want to know why we are here."

"I told you - to find India, to understand India, and the mystery that is at the heart of India."

"I have found it. At its heart is a dead child. A dead child, Matteo!" "Don't shout, Sophie, I can hear," he hissed. "And why is it the dead child? Why not the temple? Or the people climbing up the hill, singing when they reach their god? Why not their journey, our journey?" "Because at the end of that journey is a dead child," she repeated.

Matteo covered his ears with his hands. "Don't people die elsewhere?" he cried. "Haven't children ever died in your own country?" "Then why," she breathed, lowering her knees and coming closer to him, "couldn't we stay in our own country? To die there?" In writing this novel, Desai was influenced by many books about spiritual search in India, in particular the accounts of the famous mother at the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry (who, like Desai's Mother, was not in fact Indian). Some were written by foreigners, such as Christopher Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple, The Ochre Robe by Aghenanda Bharati (born Leopold Fischer) and The Thousand-Petalled Lotus by Sangharak****a (born D. P. E. Lingwood, an English Buddhist). There was also the recently published Hidden Journey by Andrew Harvey, a part-Indian fellow of All Souls College, Oxford who described with hallucinatory vividness his consuming devotion for his guru, Mother Meera. Iris Murdoch admires this book, as does the New York Times, which dubbed Harvey "The merry mystic'' in a celebrity profile. Desai is intrigued but more circumspect, amused by the fact that Americans seem happy to label Harvey "mystic'' almost like a job description such as professor or postman.

She herself experiences no easy assimilation into American society, despite having lived in the United States on and off for more than seven years. She still feels "a total outsider'', except when she is in the classroom: "then one is included''. She finds it very difficult to write about the contemporary American scene.

But India, too, is a place where in some respects Desai feels herself to be an outsider. Only one of her parents, her father, was Indian; he was a Bengali from what is now Bangladesh. Her mother was German. Anita Majumdar (Desai is her married name) was born in Delhi in 1937, and spent the first 20 years of her life in the city. She grew up speaking English, with an admixture of German and a little Hindi, conscious also of Bengali (her father's mother tongue) and of Urdu, the language of Old Delhi. Indian, English and German culture - literature primarily, but also music and the other arts - became fused together in her mind. "I was not aware of it as a child, when I took my home and parents for granted, but I realise now that they created for me a synthesis that is the base of all my work and that I didn't have to strive for, was not even conscious of ever, but quite naturally inherited from them. I am sure this is what makes my writing whatever it is. I see India through my mother's eyes, as an outsider, but my feelings for India are my father's, of someone born here,'' she told me some ten years ago.

Today - after writing two novels about foreigners in India (Baumgartner's Bombay and Journey to Ithaca), and after living outside the subcontinent for several years - she is less certain of her point of view. "I'm really glad I spent all those years in India, that I left it so late. I think it matters that I spent my childhood there. I find it matters enormously to my children that they spent their childhood in India. If one doesn't have that, I think one has nothing really. I'm sure I shall be an Indian to the day I die, no matter where I am. I'm not being patriotic or nationalistic - I don't even know India very well - it is simply that of the choices I have, this is the only one for me. But I know that I don't fit into the Indian box any more. And in my writing I'm drifting further and further away from it. I can't really write of India with the same intensity and familiarity that I once had. If I feel at home in any society, it is such a society where nobody really belongs, everyone is in some way uprooted."

When she herself returns to India now on visits, as she quite often does, she finds gaps in her experience. In certain respects, India has changed more in the past decade or two than at any time in its history. There are cars, television sets with satellite dishes and newspapers and magazines to rival western models; and there is a concomitant increase in the pace of urban life. For some four years now, the government has been publicly committed to reducing the economic protectionism put in place by Nehru and to encouraging foreign investment, western and other outside influences. But Desai is not convinced that the change is more than superficial. "People talk of it but the only change is the scale of things. There was always a small class of people who were well-to-do. There are more of them now and far more wealthy, but the poor. . .'' She leaves her sentence incomplete.

The increasing disparity between haves and have-nots is particularly marked in the higher education system. In Custody, set in the 1960s, shows its early stages. With Anita Desai's characteristic, if painful, honesty she draws us into Deven's entrapping and disillusionment. And yet, as we know, she does not abandon him there: the conclusion of the novel is actually one of "high exaltation'', in the words of Salman Rushdie. In the end, out of apparent failure Deven derives strength of spirit. Or is it fatalism? "Western readers seem to expect a story to end in triumph, in a conquest of some kind,'' says Desai. "I don't believe in conquests; I think that the human condition being what it is - and in India you see it at its most extreme - one can only hope for the strength to endure. You might call it fatalism but I don't think it is as passive as all that. What my characters strive for is to cease to be victims of philosophy and become its masters instead. As I see it, that is the only kind of triumph available to man."

Journey to Ithaca will be published by Heinemann on May 30.

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