Secret Museums: Anita Desai and the Desecrating Gaze


Anita Desai

by James Warner

In The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai meditates on the private and fragile nature of the creative act. Her nostalgic visions of India are also parables of the self’s search for authenticity.

Anita Desai’s work has often shown us the remnants of a glorious past crumbling in the glare of modern appraisal. In her 1984 novel In Custody, a tape recording of a fictional Urdu poet called Nur Shahjehanabadi, attempting to document the glory of his oral tradition, succeeds only in picking up the sound of a drunkard in a brothel telling inconsequential stories and repeatedly reciting a Keats poem. After Partition, most of India’s schools and universities of Urdu were closed, so Nur is seeking to sustain a tradition that no longer receives any institutional support – he lives in an alcoholic’s nostalgic world of memories and dreams.

Desai is fascinated by the plight of the big fish in a small and evaporating pond. Through the character of Nur, she also shows her sensitivity to the emotional force of an individual’s attachment to a language. Desai had a German mother and Bengali father, and grew up in India speaking German at home, Bengali and Hindi-Urdu outside the home, and English at school. When Baumgartner in Desai’s 1988 novel Baumgartner’s Bombay first arrives in India, “Languages sprouted around him like tropical foliage and he picked words from it without knowing if they were English or Hindi or Bengali – they were simply words he needed…”

In a nation-state with as many languages as India has, language politics is sure to be contentious. The story “The Rooftop Dwellers,” in Desai’s 2000 collection Diamond Dust and Other Stories, (2000) explores a political environment where the publication of a bad review of a short story collection written in Hindi can be interpreted by a reader as an attack on the Hindi language itself.

“The Man who Saw Himself Drown,” from the same collection, features a sort of “artist of disappearance.” The protagonist discovers a drowned man who resembles him. The body is taken to be his, and he realizes he has the freedom to start a new life. “What happiness, we think, to end the dull, wretched, routine-ridden, unfulfilling life we lead, and to begin on another – filled with all that our heart desires.” It’s a parable about the way following your dream, your private language, can marginalize you — yet with the suggestion that disappearance itself can be an artform. Many of Desai’s characters feel like they’re drowning, find that the moment of realizing what they want is also a moment of disillusion, and are creatively driven to conceal rather than to reveal themselves.

Desai’s 2011 collection, The Artist of Disappearance, contains three novellas about acts of creativity seemingly destined to leave no trace. In “The Museum of Failed Journeys,” a subdivisional officer of the Indian government, posted to a remote district, is approached by the servant of a downwardly-mobile and soon-to-be-extinct family of zamindars (feudal land-owners). The last of the line, Sri Jiban, instead of making a fortune and restoring the estate as his servants hoped he would after completing his studies in England, chose instead to travel around Asia amassing a collection of curios. The museum’s dark, musty chambers are filled with precious carpets, miniatures, and other bric a brac, including a chained elephant, to feed which the servant will soon be obliged to sell off the items in the museum one by one. The servant hopes the government will be able to take over the running of the museum, but the subdivisional officer is overwhelmed by its profusion, lack of organization, and aura of decay – it’s an exhibition of international artefacts that feels overwhelmingly provincial. “… all desire I had ever felt for adventure had been drained away by seeing these traces that he had left of his, this gloomy storehouse of abandoned, disused, decaying objects.”

In “Translator Translated,” the glamorous jet-setting Tara, founder of “the first feminist press in the country,” hires Prema – a character presented alternately in the third and first person — to translate the short stories of a fictional Oriya author called Suvanna Devi. Oriya is Prema’s mother tongue and Suvanna Devi was her thesis topic, although it is stressed that choosing a European author would have been better for Prema’s career – she now holds a “junior position in a minor women’s college” teaching English. Nor does she get much thanks for translating Devi – at a press conference she is momentarily thrown by the question, “What made you decide to translate these stories into a colonial language that was responsible for destroying the original language?” When Prema meets Suvanna Devi at an indigenous writers conference, Devi is an unassuming woman “like a creature who has been startled out of her forest hiding.” Tara encourages Devi to write a novel which Prema can translate, but Prema finds the novel unsatisfactory. “I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the noble, suffering grandparents, the quarreling parents, the drifting children, all of whom seemed to follow predictable paths under the effects of changing circumstances: an increase in wealth followed by a dispersal of property, higher education foundering in lost opportunities – and too many births, marriages, and deaths. Stories recounted, time and time again, in different ways, all over the world.”

Prema becomes Devi’s self-appointed editor as well as her translator, but her attempts to “improve” Devi’s work only cause her more trouble. Among other things, the story shows how the qualities that enable a regional author to represent their region clash with the qualities that help them get published by a metropolis-based corporation — just as in general the traits required to create art can conflict with the traits required to promote it.

Mussoorie, India

Ravi, the protagonist of the title story, “The Artist of Disappearance,” retreats to Mussoorie, the hill town in the foothills of the Himalayas where he was born. Ravi finds a hidden glade, near his childhood home, where he makes patterns with branches and berries and stones. The practicalities of life are anathema to him, “interested only in the variations and mutations of the living, their innumerable possibilities,” and it is only at Himalayan altitudes that he feels able to breathe. A film crew arrive, documenting environmental degradation – one of them finds Ravi’s garden, sees a story there, and wants to film the garden, but rather than cooperate with them, Ravi vows to let his “bower” revert to wilderness. He begins a new project, putting bark, moss, and quartz into matchboxes, fabricating secret collections that he can conceal on his own person.

The characters of Sri Jiban, Suvanna Devi, and Ravi lack metropolitan assurance and authority. They cannot be imagined applying for grant money, and are not in command of the buzzwords that might make their work palatable to NGOs or academics or art dealers or micro-credit entrepreneurs. For Desai the artist, like the provincial, is someone who operates at a different pace, according to different core assumptions, and the interpreter entering the artist’s world, like modernity intruding into a traditional culture, cannot understand but only threaten. Ravi refuses even to talk to the film crew – as he sees it, “their gaze alone was a desecration,” a position resembling one Desai has expressed herself, in this interview collected in the volume Anita Desai: Critical Perspectives, published in New Delhi in 2008 —

“I have an intuitive and deep fear that by speaking of something subterranean and sub-conscious, I will destroy it – it is something so very frail. This feeling I cannot subject to reason. I cannot explain it, but I know the creative act is a secret one. To make it public, to scrutinise it in the cold light of reason is to commit an act of violence, possibly murder.”

Naturally, not many artists can afford to be so furtive. One of the filmmakers in “The Artist of Disappearance” compares Ravi to “that man in Chandigarh, a road engineer or something, who collected all the scrap from his road projects and built a kind of sculpture garden of it? Kept it hidden because the land he built it on didn’t belong to him? Then it was found and he became famous?” A quick Internet search suggests that the man referred to here — by implication, part of the inspiration for “The Artist of Disappearance” — is Nek Chand, and it is striking to see how his own history, (available on his website), differs from Ravi’s story. While employed as a road inspector, Chand made sculptures out of rocks, refuse, and pilfered construction materials on an area of land that was not being used. When local civil servants discovered Chand’s work, even though the work was illegal and unauthorized, they decided to protect it and to help Chand gain recognition. Although other officials later proved less helpful, the museum became a huge tourist attraction, and it was recently reported the local airport may even be renamed after Chand.

Chand’s case points to a very different conclusion than that of The Artist of Disappearance – that an artist in India, working in secret in a highly personal style, can go on to receive wide institutional support. Further Google searches suggest that the state of Oriya literature may be more vibrant than one might think from reading “Translator Translated,” and that the Indian government has taken over some museums of artefacts originally collected by zamindars – but of course, Desai’s intention is not so much to illuminate Indian society as the inner realm. The Artist of Disappearance could be read as a lament for the vanished privacy of her early days as a writer, as described in this 2007 Jabberwock interview:

“It was completely different back then – one felt entirely on one’s own. There was no literary community. We were all so separated by different languages and lives that it was a rare occasion when one might even brush against another writer. It was a very solitary occupation, unlike today when there is a community constantly in touch with each other.”

Her world nowadays may be one of travel grants, foundation centers, and writing programs and retreats, but Desai can still empathise with a shy woodland creature like Devi or Ravi, and see creativity as something essentially delicate, as in this quote from a 2012 Prospect interview:

“In a way it becomes a guilty secret: this world you escape into, taking no one with you, not revealing it to anyone, partly out of fear their reaction might wreck it and partly because writing is like a photographer’s work in the darkroom. Expose the negative to light too soon and it will be ruined. “

The filming of Ravi’s work proves as unsuccessful as the taping of Nur’s recitation in In Custody, the film footage showing only “a scene drained of life, with neither colour nor fragrance nor movement.” But while Nur forwards endless bills to the perpetrators of the unsuccessful recording, Ravi wants only to hide from those who might bring him attention. The woman from the film crew who discovers Ravi’s creation reflects, “It seemed totally deserted, as composed and still as a work of art. Or nature. Or both, in uncommon harmony. The place thrummed with meaning. But what was the meaning? Was it a place of worship? But of what? There was no idol – unless that rock that pattern of pebbles or that stripped branch constituted an idol. It actually seemed antithetical to any form or concept.” She concludes – “So what there was was a secret.”

In Desai’s 1995 novel Journey to Ithaca, about Western truth-seekers in India, the character Mateo discovers something analogous to Ravi’s creation, in a grove where a stone at first appears to be lodged in a treetrunk – “what was perfectly balanced there in a cleft in the tree was not a stone at all but a circle, and it contained within it another circle, and another, that there was no beginning and no end to them; they were infinite; they were infinity. That circle was the universe itself, containing world within world, ring upon ring, sphere within sphere…” Similarily Ravi’s stones “could be collected and arranged according to size and colour in an infinite number of patterns and designs, none of which were ever repeated or fixed.”

Since a work of art cannot be completely secret, what the self-effacing Ravi is really conducting is doubtless a ritual – it sounds as if he is creating a mandala, and his goal is to attain nirvana. As a representation of India, he is a nostalgic figure – shunning all forms of Western materialism, his sole goal in life to revert as far as possible into the 1940s Mussoorie which was also the scene of Desai’s childhood – but taken as a parable, he satisfyingly embodies the individual’s quest for meaning.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |Creative Commons

About the Author:

James Warner is the author of All Her Father’s Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here.