Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I just finished reading this book by Anita Desai. And like it is with all her books, I had mixed feelings throughout the exercise. Let me describe the usual ontogenesis of thoughts on her books. Every time I have an Anita Desai on my night-stand, I just let it lie for a couple of days, tingling with anticipation, fringed with some apprehension. Anticipation because I know it would be a delight to my literary senses; apprehension because I know the storyline would be disappointing and I will have to make a supreme effort to “get” the whole “existentialism” bit and chew on it for a while. I can’t help it. I love my Jason Bourne series as much as my Desai collection.

Despite this, after suffering through many South Asian novels about women and oppression, It’s always marvelous to read a Desai book, for I love the strong, de-glam woman characters in her writings. Stripped of all tinsel, they are raw, provocative, yet sublimely suffering, and somehow reveling in it!

The admirable quality in all her works is, Desai does not attribute any ideology to her characters. She is a minute observer, who perceives everything delicately and rather poetically. In particular, she voices the mute miseries and helplessness of women tormented by existentialist problems. She examines their psyche when they are confronted with the absurdity of life. This draws her attention to the darker side of life. She projects a tragic vision in her novels by placing her female protagonists in hostile situations. She simply wants to explore their psychological conflicts and struggles. There is never a word uttered about the oppression that these women have suffered through their lives. The injustices and oppressions are for the reader to derive.

This book is a simple portrayal of three women who have a found a way to live in contented seclusion and the existential angst experienced by the female protagonist Nanda Kaul, an old lady living in isolation. The radical refusal of Nanda Kaul’s previous but exhausted role as a mother and wife, her solitary retreat into an inhospitable Kasauli landscape. It also projects the inner turmoil of a small girl, Raka, who is haunted by a sense of futility. Raka is a most mysterious and unnaturally complicated child character in the entire gamut of Indian fiction. Children her age have typical interests like fairytales, butterflies etc, but Raka regales in ugliness, destruction, danger and despair. Her imagination is weird and she is irresistibly drawn to strange things. Thirdly, it presents the plight of a helpless woman, Ila Das who is in conflict with forces that are too powerful to be encountered, resulting in her tragic death.

Like all her other works, the present novel contains neither any story value nor events that are interesting by themselves. The story element is very thin and there is practically no action except for the tragic end, which itself is so abrupt that you are left wanting more, simply to make the story in your head end!

But Anita Desai’s an exceptional writer with rare sensitivity and perspective. She’s certainly brilliant with her existential themes of solitude, alienation, the futility of human existence and struggle for survival. The imagery in the book is breathtaking. It’s rich with her love for the “prey-predator” imagery. Images of ugliness, loneliness, destruction and annihilation are consistently used to reflect the existential tone of the novel. An atmosphere of solitary introspection is created.

In fact, deprived of its strong imagery, “Fire on the Mountain” would be an ugly skeleton, chilling the reader…..the significant house imagery, the images of plants, colour, atmosphere and moon, the mountain fire, all contribute to the textual density and symbolism of the novel.


  1. It took me months to finish 'The custody'. I have always disliked her style of narration!

  2. i have read the book...and i dont think i will...but thats a wonderfully done book review. youve touched upon the book in all its aspects, and one gets a great sense of its themes.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Wonderfully written review, though wondering whthr to read it or not... confusing...

  5. @ twisted elegance
    hi again! so what do you particularily dislike in her style of narration?

    @ Pankaj
    you got me for a second there...:) was foxed....

    @ dolphin
    hey, why didja retract your comment before i could see it?

    @ hitesh
    u could, but i doubt if u'd like it...

  6. Her emphasis is a bit too much on Gothic aspects. Infact I think she goes a bit overboard in dealing with the subject of oppression of women. And all her books lack a sensible plot that is necessary to carry a heavy subject.

  7. "Gothic Aspects"?
    hmm, you're right about the lack of plot, considering the heavy subject, kinda baffling that her books are so popular, actually! i'd like to think they are because, like me, her fans probably love her language and poetic imagery. she's the master of lyricism in prose!
    by the way, read "fasting feasting". U'd love it.


lemme know what u think...share your thoughts on the post. Comments, critisicm, all is welcome...so let it loose!


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