Publisher: Random House India
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The queerest thing which strikes the mind when one starts this collection of fictions by Anita Desai is perhaps the name, ‘The Artist of Disappearance’. However the novellas, through every taste of the myriad emotions they accompany, justify it in the best possible manner. In this books, Anita Desai narrates three stories, each vastly different from the other.
The opening novella,‘The Museum of Final Journeys’, moves with a protagonist who is a Civil Service officer in the initial years of his jobs and has been posted to a rather desolate land having little support of the coming age urban amenities. The absence of jovial company, segregation from usual comforts in a busy metropolis and the constant reminders of his mother’s care would aggravate his discomfiture towards the days of his monotonous job his subordinates by many folds. Thus when a call from an old visitor, who claims to belong to some Mukherjee estate, drops by inviting him to see their museum, he could do nothing but respond to it. After an interesting travel through the many layers of time and history the narrator faces a humble request to provide government supervision to this museum, the curator of intricate foreign artefacts and a giant elephant sent by a descendant of that family as a mark of his final ties with the same. In spite of the marvellous journey which provides him respite from a claustrophobic grip of sameness, the narrator does nothing to fulfil that modest wish of a pair of frail folded hands. Many years later, when he is seated on a more dignified position by climbing the ladder of success, that odd museum often comes back to him through nightmares accusing him every time of his deliberate inactivity which has probably resulted in the erosion of that massive storehouse of past beauties. Perhaps the most tormenting feature of nostalgia is the account of our vices which it brings and the sullen aftertaste of lamentation thus formed. This is forty pages of absolute pleasure and a lasting contemplation!
As the name,‘Translator Translated’ indicates, the second novella speaks about a middle-aged college professor whose subject is English literature. It begins with Prema’s random meeting with a schoolmate Tara, who now is an accomplished publisher, at a reunion. Tara is one of those girls in school whom you long to befriend yet they are separated from us by a distance of miles created by their glittering confident personality. Years later Prema’s wish gets fulfilled when Tara appoints her to translate the works of a lesser-known Oriya author. This lucrative opportunity raises deeper ripples in Prema’s heart as the language happens to her mother tongue, literally. Also her previous adamant adventure to read the same walks up through the memory lane. Thus with all the sentiments that are rejuvenated by this new work, Prema’s common life in some sordid corner of Delhi becomes exciting. Her behaviour receives an additional flamboyance and obliterates its reticent manner. By making the literature of a withering language descend at the portals of her abode and then embellishing the same through her own words, Prema receives her due pleasure. After a satisfactory response to her initial work and a brief interview with the original author Prema is nothing but exultant when the former decides to write another novel and bestows her with the job to translate it. However while doing the same Prema finds the latest work less fascinating than before. Taking artistic license she alters phrases in her translation and prepares it in a different manner from the original text as and when approved by her own literary judgement. Through an intellectual bond with the authors we love we are often hurt when they are unable to reciprocate sufficiently through their pen and Prema, being the translator, decides to walk that extra mile which Suvarna Devi did not, through her works. But her endeavour meets a tragic end through harsh criticism and disapproval from the author’s nephew. Prema’s flutter with a newfound brilliance, her share of heavenly bliss through what she loves and does the best as she besots her sun of hope on a brighter life meet a despondent downfall. She resorts back to her life of teaching, settling for barren artless pastures. A tale of sudden promise by a scintillating epiphany and the endless agonizing pain at its sad demise—- we finally realise that we all have lived through it.
The final and titular novella is‘The Artist of Disappearance’. Ever since he was a little boy, Ravi has been a loner. Through a childhood of seclusion, away from parents Ravi has developed himself this way. Beneath the cocoon of his own world, he allowed nothing and no one to enter, nothing but the picturesque Missouri with all her elegance. The soothing greenery scenery, the little animals we fail to remember and the possibility of new life which grew in those hills of unsullied beauty occupied Ravi’s heart which was devoid of warmth from kins. In spite of being an apparent recluse Ravi has been pained when one by one his father, mother and Mrs Willkinson passed away. His world shrunk all the more and was shrouded by a dense cloud, never to allow the light of companionship. Thus on the journey of life Ravi only had his solitude which gave him more pain and less bliss. At one time however, Ravi, owing to his innate quality of admiring the nature, started developing intricate patterns using pebbles; as if he wanted to create much like an artist does using coloured brushes, a garden of his own. This little work he does receives notice when a film crew arrives at the place to shoot a documentary on environment and one of its members possessing an eye of appreciation frames it as a perfect ending for their project. However Ravi’s unwillingness to mingle with the ruthless world make him sever from all possible contact which the crew tries to make with him, regarding his creation. Finally the more trite eyes fail to imbibe its real essence and miserably choose to drop the idea. Ravi remains disappeared in his world of patterns which gives him solace while walking over the thorns of unfulfilled desires as the two people who liked his work keep wondering where its artist has disappeared.
Though set before quite familiar backdrops, each novella has a colour of its own, which very poignantly brings forth those little events of life which might go apparently overlooked in this world that usually recognizes hub-bubs and mighty happenings. Yet when light does fall on them, they come out of their veil of disappearance and display rather profound ruminations. In her distinctive flowery style along with her tender treatment of subject, Desai extracts brilliance out of the mundane in a subtle, observant way only she can do. Through all that she writes, Desai herself becomes the artist, of disappearance and revelation as well.