Author: Anita Desai
Publisher: Random House India
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I first encountered Anita Desai’s writing in ‘Fasting, Feasting’. I found that book perfect: nuanced, poignant and heartbreaking. Its central characters, whether beggars or princes at life’s banquet, yet hunger for something that eludes their grasp. Having loved ‘Clear Light of Day’ and ‘Fire on the Mountain’, left ‘In Custody’ halfway through (yes, I admit it) and disliked ‘The Zigzag Way’ thoroughly, I started on ‘Journey to Ithaca’.
The novel makes a slow start. The first half is about Sophie and Matteo, a young couple who came to the exotic, mysterious country of India in the 70s, seeking something more than the comfortable bourgeois existence that was theirs to command in their home countries. However, the ‘something more’ that each wants is vastly different. Sophie is a tourist, Matteo a pilgrim. The premise sounds promising, but the 100-odd pages dealing with it were about 70 pages too many. I found Matteo insipid, ignorant and immature and couldn’t believe that the level-headed Sophie could fall for him, much less marry him and set off to India with him on a wild-goose chase. Their dialogue is stilted, and the text brims over with redundancies such as “legitimate and sanctioned weakness and helplessness” “hermetic and ascetic” “filth and squalor” and many more such.
It is only when the spiritual guru, the Mother, arrives on the scene that the narrative begins to shine. Her first discourse is a supreme example of writing at its most luminous, one which all mindless followers of cultish sects should be made to read; just to show them how easy it is for a superb writer to reproduce in print the effect created by their leaders’ spiels! Matteo is equally captivated by the Mother’s user-friendly brand of spiritualism and the aesthetic beauty of her ashram, and becomes her devotee. Sophie is determined to unearth the Mother’s (aka Laila) past and debunk her myth, hoping to ‘cure’ Matteo of his devotion and make him return to their home and children in Italy. But Laila’s history – her childhood in Egypt, adolescence in France, travels through America – is intriguing and full of dramatic power, peopled by characters that are completely believable, and the reader, like Sophie, will find it hard to make up his mind about her.
For me, this was a novel that did not quite deliver, but was brilliant enough in parts. I might just want to re-read it sometime. I wouldn’t recommend it as a primer for someone wanting to start reading Anita Desai, but for hardcore Desai fans willing to slog through an uninspired first half, there might be just enough to please.