Of Mothers And Daughters: Anita Desai And Kiran Desai

Either way Kiran Desai is damned. There are those criticising her because she is her mother’s daughter. The media has been positing the incident of Anita Desai being thrice nominated for the Booker with Kiran Desai winning the Man Booker for the year 2006. Those who like the mother’s style and oeuvre of novels find the chit of fledgling incomparable. Then there are those who see Kiran Desai in isolation as a two novel old writer who has begun quite well – just 36 and with a Booker in her kitty; they will read her for the Booker. This is something that Kiran Desai cannot escape.

Here I look at Kiran Desai as her mother’s daughter by reading ‘The Inheritance Of Loss’ along with Anita Desai’s ‘Fire On The Mountain’. Here are some of the obvious similarities — both the novels were written when the authors were in the 35 -40 age period, both the novels consolidate the authors’ position in the realm of serious writing in the Indian and world scene. One other similarity are the characters in the two novels – ‘Fire on the Mountain’ gravitates around a reclusive old woman and her great grand daughter, ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ tells the tale of a retired judge and his grand daughter.

First, I shall deal with the novels separately, and finally explain where, in my opinion, the problem lies. 

‘FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN’                                                                      
‘Fire on the Mountain’ is a story of Nanda Kaul, an old widow who has retreated to a reclusive life in the Kasauli mountains in Carignano, an old house that looks down at the Punjab plains. She leads a life that is recoil to her hectic and tiring life as the wife of Vice Chancellor whose house she ran as a perfect hostess and a dutiful mother of innumerable children. The starkness and barrenness of Carignano with its three pines reflect the minimalist lifestyle shorn of entanglements, relationships and responsibilities that she has opted for herself. The quietness of Nanda Kaul’s life is shattered when her great granddaughter comes to live with her, she dreads the arrival of the ten year old child, wondering in what ways she would have to rearrange her life to accommodate the child in her bare home and life.

If Nanda Kaul is a forced recluse, the child Raka is a natural recluse, she steers away from her grandmother and happy if left alone to explore the valleys and slopes of the hills. The child instantaneously takes to the cook Ram Lal, whose tales and lore of the hills absorb her. The old woman is intrigued by the young girl’s self possession and self absorption.                                                                         

The novel gives a glimpse of Nanda Kaul’s past through her friend Ila Das, the crass and loud woman whose life has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. All through her life Nanda Kaul had baled her out of difficult times with the help of her influential and highly placed husband. Ila Das too has come to live in a village close to Kausali, where she works for the local women and fights for their rights.

The mountain is a metaphor bearing different meaning for different people. It is a fragile piece of land that wills itself be destroyed by dust storms and forest fires. The old lady who has cut herself away, is not aware of the hill the way the girl is, Raka sees the cruelty and scars that the mountains have been subjected to by the vaccine industry, repeated forest fires – man made or otherwise. She sets fire to the mountain revealing the scars of human behaviour – hers as well as her grand mother’s and not the least the brutal and animal behaviour of the villager who rapes and murders the old woman Ila Das. The fire purges the dark secrets that the characters carry, annuls the pretensions and razes the hill to a scarred terrain.

The novel burrows into the personal, exploring the psyche of the old woman throwing a chiaroscuro with the young girl who blows like a dust storm, raking muck and blackening an already barren landscape.

The novel is political in that it comments on the society, patriarchal and destructive. Women are shored up with the wounds that they have sustained from erring disloyal husbands, selfish brothers, raping men; even the life of the young child is scarred by a demented mother and an indifferent father. All the women have built their own defences to survive, the fire is a purgatory act when all defences fall, there is nothing more to hold on to as the fire consumes the mountain. Their fate, in the end as always, is linked to the bare mountain.

Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ is set in Kalimpong in the Darjeeling hills. The novel bellows with the mist that forms over the Kanchenjunga before descending on Sai the young girl who reads about the giant squid, sitting in the veranda of her grandfather’s crumbling cottage Cho Oyo; her grandfather, the old judge plays chess and Mutt,  the dog sleeps snoring gently. The cook lights the fire in the kitchen and puts the kettle of water to boil as he thinks of his son Biju in an alien land, the father is clueless of the life his son leads as an illegal immigrant, a fugitive on run without legal papers, switching jobs from one murky restaurant to another, crawling through the underbelly of America. Sai waits for her mathematics tutor Gyan, her love interest as well, whose delay she attributes to the mist; thus the disgruntled foursome settle a wintry evening.                                                                                                           

The mist that forms over the hills carries ill portents to this foursome in the form of Gorkha insurgents who suddenly raid the house to rob the judge of hunting rifles. These are boys not yet twenty, they make a masquerade of bravado, and they clown around, wolf down pakoras and leave with the gun. The novel right away makes its tryst with history, the Gorkha’s insurgency in the 1980s for a separate state. The novel holds promise of hurtling itself into serious
engagement with issues like identity, borders, nation and home. Each of these issues can well fill into a separate novel.

There is Sai’s grandfather cast away from the colonial times, carrying scathing memories of aborted attempts to acculturate into the metropolitan. The memory of his homesick passage from his hometown to Cambridge stays in his mind, his shame at the pickle and bananas that his mother packed, the hungry nights spent as a tenant of Mrs Rice, long hours at the bathroom to scour away the smells that emanate from his body, his Indian roots that he is ashamed of, the colonial society that allows him no entry — he carries memories of experiences of alienation and loneliness that he carries back home.

In India he does not fit into the middleclass milieu of his family, his aborted identity, anguished memories scar his personality; he is a freak bastard of colonial and Indian identity. He inflicts on his young wife the pains he endured, he hates her docility, is enraged by a silent battle that she puts up by withdrawing into herself. Unloved, uncared and hated she lives a desultory life until the judge sends her back to her parents’ home, their child,  a daughter, is born after the separation.

Alone, rudderless and as a recluse the judge settles after retirement in Cho Oyo, with a dog that he loves more than he had any human being and a cook for whom he has no thoughts or feelings. To this cottage and to partake in the old man’s arid life arrives Sai, his orphaned granddaughter born to the judge’s daughter.  

Sai’s father was a Parsi and Sai’s mother a Hindu, their marriage symbolised the advent of new era of freedom and modernity, an epoch when new horizons opened. Sai’s parents represent the era of bonhomie relationship between India and Soviet Union, the days of Russian ballerinas visiting India, troupes of Indian dancers performing in Moscow, and when Russia and India collaborated and sent astronauts to the space. Sai’s father was a space pilot selected from the Indian Air Force to travel to space with Russian astronauts. Sai’s parents were the progeny of this dream that went awry; they both were ironically killed in a road accident in Moscow; the marriage between the couple and between the two cultures was an aborted hybridity. Sai is an orphan of a confluence that did not come through.

The main thrust of the novel is purportedly the Gorkha Agitation of the 1980s; the novel begins with this and prominently develops this thread, diverse narratives like the colonial, diasporas, gender build up analogously. Unfortunately this thread of narrative is the least efficiently executed. Desai has revealed in various interviews that she read various books about the Gorkha insurgency, sadly this academic knowledge does not transfer into an empathetic rendering of the struggle of a group of people fighting for their rights.

The main persona Gyan, the young Nepali tutor is not wrapped in history, he does not grow and evolve and is not an agency of the historical impetus rocking the hillside. Gyan is a reluctant entrant into the Gorkha movement, his engagement with the revolution is an outcome of poverty, unemployment, a deprived life and empty future courses him into the path of history.  He considers participating in history as coming of age, emasculation, a passport to adulthood while he begins seeing his affair with Sai as squeamish and childish. He is keen on emerging as a man, he raucously shouts slogans surprised at his own guts, since no ideology fires him he panics even at a miniscule crisis and misses participating in the important rally that rocks the hills with waves and waves of violent repercussions. Since Sai and Gyan are so self consciously absorbed in their rages, agonies, guilt and shame, the political does not percolate into the personal. It is for this reason that the representation of a vital historical event, like episodic documentation,  captures the events but not the thoughts and feelings of the players – the Nepalis or the others. The rally, the violence and the total paralysis of the hill town as it gets cut off totally from the rest of the world are all presented in broad strokes; caricatures of personalities, for instance the Kalimpong GNLF  leader, the squatters in Mon Ami have been presented in a slapdash fashion, they are stereotypes of a milieu.

Sai who is backed by the author perceives the Gorkha movement as an outsider. Her grandfather observes that Sai, like him, is an “estranged Indian living in India”. The GNLF insurgents are ‘boys’, the Nepali is the ‘other’, thus enamouring for Sai and repulsive to the judge who feels that Gyan lacks refinement, fit to be tutored on aesthetics and on what a good poem is . There are others, for instance the two sisters living in Mon Ami a rambling cottage, who fear the Nepalis and suspect that their Gorkha watchman is a militant. They construct a collective identity to the Gorkhas, and thus stereotype them.

If there is any ground on which Kiran Deasi scores it is in the sympathetic portrayal of Biju, his travails in an alien land; this I think comes closest to the author’s experience as an immigrant herself.  

Of Mother And Daughter
So where does the problem lie? The novels, one minimalistic and the other rambling, are problematic precisely for this reason.                                                                                            

‘Fire On The Mountain’ alternates between the reclusive characters of the old lady and the child, the story otherwise borders on inaction. The interfering friend Ila Das is a foil to the self absorbed duo, she in fact comes across as a warm and genial person despite author’s attempts at caricaturing her. The novel hurtles to its end after a groaning inertia, truths are laid open, sudden twists at the end make the story contrived. The old lady, grace personified  had hidden painful truths from the child that she sets to reveal in the end after receiving the news of the rape and murder of Ila Das, as the fire that the child sets to the mountain leaps up to engulf them. This confession is not required as the child actually does not care; Raka had not been particularly stirred by her grand mother’s tales.

Interpretations have to be painstakingly culled from the story. The novel is simplistic, does not discuss the complexities involved in human relationships. By overtly focussing on the old lady and her granddaughter, the novel fails to capture the multiplicity of voices that others represent. There are areas of silences, confusing and irritating – what was the relationship that the child had with her mother and father? How grossly did the dementia of her mother affect the child? Why are myths circulated about vaccine industry? What are the secrets that Raka unearths during her forays into the valley, finally what inhabits the child’s world that prompts her to set ablaze the mountain? All these and many more remain unclear in the  novel.

‘The Inheritance Of Loss’ is straggling, there are more issues than can be filled in one novel. Pankaj Mishra generously fetes the novel as the ‘best kind of post 9/11 novel&rsqu
o;. True that the novel examines subjects like home, identity, dispossession, shrinking and fading borders, racism, class disparities, injustice, inequality and aggression, but these remain a crowd and are packed choc-o-block through the various strands and the characters in the novel. The novel shifts from one strand to the other, the narratives are built in this fashion of moving back and forth; structurally this brief and rapid shifts prove to be problematic to the reader.

There are way too many characters representing various issues, apart from the main ones like Sai and her Nepali tutor Gyan, the judge, the cook’s son Biju. For instance, there is Father Booty and his questions of home and belonging; there are the squatters in Mon Ami and their query on possession. Then there is the poor and illiterate wife and the old father of a man in police custody for whom law and justice remain inexplicable; the sisters Lola and Noni represent empty dreams of middleclass retirement life buggered by squatters. All these characters drift pointing at themes that remain undeveloped.

The novel ends with “Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to her, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.” This revelation comes a little late, Sai’s preoccupation with her own self had eclipsed other people’s realities, except of course Biju’s. Still it is this revelation that takes the characters like Biju, Gyan beyond the story, making possible multiple voices.