Publisher: Random House
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Set in a post colonial idyll, where time seems to move with stubborn viscosity, Fire on the Mountain is minimalistic. Right off the bat, a contrast is established between the sluggishness of the setting and the preciseness of the narration. Despite being a short, tightly knit tale, all the right details are dwelt upon. It is told with much sensitivity and nuance.
We are introduced to a rickety bungalow-on-a-hilltop in Kasauli called Carignano. The illustrious, colonial history of the house serves as a stunning contrast to its contemporary status as a final rest house for an old woman who shuns all company. Nanda Kaul revels in solitude after a lifetime of serving the needs of her considerable family. So cut off is she from the world that she resents the visit of her convalescing great-granddaughter, Raka. Instead of attention seeking and precocious as Nanda Kaul expects her to be, Raka turns out to be a secretive child who prefers the company of nature rather than of toys and other children. Into the mix waltzes in the unfortunately screechy Ila Das, an old acquaintance of Nanda Kaul. She disrupts the unfathomable balance of Carignano and the mysterious relationship between Nanda and Raka. Ila Das brings instability to the setting, hence foreshadowing the ending of the novel.
There are many nuances to Fire on the Mountain, for such a short novel. The hypocrisies of the colonial life of the brown sahib are exposed with as much craft as the dark side of the otherwise bucolic Indian village. The most skillful portrayal is that of the world through Raka’s eyes. It brings out the contrast between the disturbing nature of the artificially constructed world and the solace that unpretentious nature provides.
Anita Desai beautifully etches out the delicate dynamics of the relationship between the three women. Characters are drawn out through situation rather than dialogue, which lends the novel a much greater subtlety. The intricacy of the narrative is such that the author has no need to resort to drama, this is perhaps the novel’s strongest point.