Journey to Ithaca
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.”