Anita Desai’s jewel-bright descriptions, careful plots and compassionate prose are welcome reminders that she is still one of India’s most graceful voices.
This collection of three short stories is named for the final piece, about Ravi, an artist so sensitive and private that he cannot bear to share his work with anyone. We get to know him through a series of sepia-tinted scenes, in which his lonely and troubled childhood is revealed. He is the adopted son of a wealthy and shallow-hearted Indian couple, living in Mussoorie during the final years of the British Raj. Eventually both parents die and Ravi becomes the sole owner of his childhood home, a mansion tucked away at the top of a hill. When the building burns down, he sleeps in its ruins while spending the day creating his masterpiece, out of natural materials, in the open air. But when a team of documentary film-makers turns up, looking for evidence of environmental degradation, Desai shows us just how brutal even good intentions can be.
In the second story, Translated, Prema Joshi is a teacher of English literature who finds her calling as a translator of Oriya literature by accident. She enjoys the sensation of taking flight on the literary back of Suvarna Devi, an established, older writer from that region. But Prema’s passion encourages her to go beyond the strict confines of rote translation. Worse yet, she feels compelled to improve upon the original text because she believes she understands what the author wants to say, better than the author herself! Desai is able to solicit our sympathy for both Prema and Suvarna while revealing the narrow-mindedness of language bigots. With deft descriptions of publishers, academics and writers, she reminds us of the fragility of words and their meanings, the frailty of the human ego and the uneasy symbiosis between creative writers and those who feed off their creativity.
The Museum of Final Journeys is the opening story in the book and the one that I liked best (though they’re all equally good). We follow a junior government officer as he buckles himself into the trappings of his power out in a rural hinterland too obscure to be named. He is that familiar figure, a government servant in his caterpillar incarnation, chewing with glum determination upon the red tape that will be his staple diet for the rest of his life. But the title whispers in our ear, promising magic ahead. So we read with anticipation even though we’re primed to expect the worst. The winged ants drowning in gravy foreshadow death, the power-cuts signal impenetrable despair. Yet there’s that cunningly wrought wind-up toy in the tea-planter’s house, isn’t there?
The hope of seeing it again leads us past the despair, through the derelict countryside and into the museum. Now we’re looking around in wonder, trying to guess from which corner the “finality” will spring upon us. For all our anticipation however, the climactic revelation is breathtaking. The story leaves us with the terrible pathos of the museum caretaker’s situation still clutched in our minds, like a dream from which there’s no awakening. We wander slowly away, with the sweet-strange fragrance of Desai’s vision still wafting through our minds.