Monday, September 9, 2013

Fire on the Mountain, Anita Desai, 1977

An old woman living in a colonial house on a hill in Kasauli would let no one enter her little paradise - a hard won lonely life after a ages spent serving a husband, many children and many grand-children. She is a recluse. She wants no one. Not even her great-grand child. But then the child arrives. A sickly young girl who turns out to be just as much of recluse. The child doesn't want anyone to enter she little paradise, a child's world half lived in fantasies. A mind that seeks little adventures like looking for berries, snakes, jackals and ghosts in the peaceful loneliness offered by the hills. The old woman realizes while they are similar, there is a difference too, while her reclusiveness in self-imposed, the child was just born into it.  The old woman starts changing, she now wants to enter the child's world and share her own world with her. She tries, but fails. The child wants no one. The old woman falls back to the age old stratagem of 'Nani Ki Kahani' to try and reach out. She weaves stories of her life by taking snippets of inspirations from travelogue of Marco Polo, in desperation she makes her own father a reflection of Marco Polo who travelled far into the mysterious lands of East. The child's mind is stirred and old woman senses a relation blossoming. She tries harder. Nanda Kaul tells her great-grand daughter Raka about the paradise where she was born, she tells her grand exaggerated stories about Kashmir.  Strange stories about a house with a private zoo and backdoors that opened into flooded rivers. The child listens. But...
Raka's words did not reflect the poetry of this vision. They were blunt and straight. 'Why did you come here then,' she asked, 'instead of going back to Kashmir?'
Nanda Kaul simply shook her head and seem to wander in a field of grey thoughts, alone. 'One does not go back,' she said eventually. 'No, one doesn't go back. One might just as well try to become young again.'
The child soon catches on to the tricks and again retreats back into her world while Nanda Kaul's world suffers another intrusion. Ila Das, a childhood friend whose shrill voice even sends birds into frenzy, arrives at the house, this paradise of recluses. She is a recluse of another kind, she has no choice, she has no one. And the friend she has doesn't find it in her to offer her company, even though in moment of lapse Nanda Kaul does almost end up inviting Ila Das to stay with her. The moment passes. Ila Das leaves the house. It is with her leaving that the world of this little reclusive paradise, its neatness, its sweet lies and deceptions, its inhabitants, and the fableistic preambles of the story itself, get violently swallowed by the real world. Like by fire, like by life. And the mountains go up in flames.

The book won Anita Desai Sahitya Akademi Award and Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in 1978. This was the first time Anita Desai visited Kashmir. Just a year ago, she had written a book called 'Cat on a Houseboat' (1976) for children. That one was about a cat (again a reclusive animal) that goes to Kashmir for a holiday.

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