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Book Review : Anita Desai

Journey to Ithaca


Anita Desai

By Manju Kak

In the foreword of, “Journey to Ithaca”, Anita Desai quotes Cavafy

“Ithaca  has given you a beautiful voyage

Without her  you would never have taken the road

But she has nothing to give you now.”


In the corner of a school’s waiting room she sat, a woman in a cotton saree, graying. Her face struck me as being wise and gentle….and something else, in the eyes.  It was a packet I had carried for her  from her father in law, Chief Justice Desai, who lived in Allahabad. She had come to pick it up. Even before I encountered any of her books, it was her face I remembered; a well traveled face, eyes that had covered deep and long distances,  is how I described it in the corner of my mind that was struggling to write.

I have always been fascinated by that which explores the sense of  the traveler whether in gothic naves or old maps, in engraved copper or   the footsteps of nomads and camels, or in a woman’s face.  Migration and traveling has perhaps been more of a force to contend with in current Indo-Anglian, Afro-American and Caribbean literature where the  “colonies” have spoken.  That of course is one vivid kind of traveling; then there is that special sense of a spiritual traveler that explores the mystic’s out of body experience. It is in the wholeness of literature  that this sublimity is expressed so consummately, the rare writer able to  fall into that class. Anita Desai is one such,  skillful  in  enhancing the mystic experience, the altered state of mind – connected to another other worldly reality in which  she  leaves you in no doubt about the completeness of her exploration so that it becomes truly and richly yours. Therein lies the beauty of her genius, rooted though it is in other things; examination of  personal struggles that indemnify truth; the  deft weaving of the warp of India’s social fabric with the weft of family relationships, carrying both across interposing timelines; of the ultimate aloneness of human existence.

Whether it is in  her early work-Cry Beloved Peacock/Fire on the Mountain—or the latter– In Custody/Fasting Feasting– the frayed edges of human frailty and  futile vanities are exquisitely etched.  Her characters remain composite wholes, united,  yet in their seeking finely nuanced–  fragmented and fraught, fragile and indeed indefinable. Through acute and minute observation she creates the picture perfect; a character arranging buttons–a  brass button with the green dragon,  in silk patterns blurred, tapestries disturbed, the startled eye of a parrot on the pomegranate tree,  a hare through white dust of the oleander -lined promenade, a  box with broad leather straps, severe angles of architecture revealed like lessons learnt in geometry, muscles functioning like pistons,  the stag’s head turned,  the chandeliers faintly tinkling–all work like magic in her fingers to create  chiascuro. Childhood torment is fraught with the delicacy of a child’s world, his imagination and an adults’ expectation.

Her language is  exquisite,  both in its musical tenor as its suggestiveness of that well of intellect that is fully and spiritually enhanced.  With analogies, metaphors, references  drawn from philosophical  scriptures and texts,  the  verisimilitude of her  words allows time to  stretch leaps and bounds as much as the written page  can allow it. Language does not matter nor the mode of language,  it is a mere tool in the master’s hands that she twists and turns at will,  to create a slice of life in its full agony,  turning  it on a pivot as if it were,  where the illusion of her reality becomes reality itself. Lives are invented and reinvented, like an onion peeled they become layered with  multiple meanings.


Literature in a sense is traveling undertaken without leaving your arm-chair. The corpus of literature Anita Desai has created,  is a veritable voyage.

“And if you found her poor,

Ithaca has not defrauded you

With such great wisdom you have gained

With so much experience

You must surely have understood by then

What Ithaca’s mean.”