Sunday, March 29, 2009

Journey to Ithaca

I wish I had discovered Anita Desai sooner. I wonder how her books never caught my eye in any of the innumerable bookshops I visit. In January, when I dropped in to Landmark, Forum, my intent was to get as many books I can to sustain me till the next visit which may happen only months later. I was on the look out mainly for short stories. I hungrily pulled out several books including R K Narayan, Gabriel García Márquez, Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few. When I passed Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai, I confused her for a moment with another Indian writer of the same name and was about to pass by without a second glance. But the surname made me look back and I decided to take a chance - after all, one needs to evaluate new authors (new to me - she has been writing since 1980's!) too once in a while! I am glad that I did.

When I read an author for the first time, I assess the writing and the language as much as the story. I was pleasantly taken aback by her style. Before I reached ten pages, I was googling for more books by the author. Amazing, eloquent writing and a beautiful, well-told story that stretches from Egypt, through Paris, Venice, Milan and New York, to India.

He hides from Nonna, and from Isabel, in the rushes of the lake in the great tapestry that hangs over the table in the hall, together with a stag that has been driven into its waters by baying hounds while the huntsman blows his horn to summon the hunter with the knife for the kill.
Frightened out of hiding, Matteo leaps up into the chandeliers like a small monkey, and hangs there, no more than a velvet tassel, of olive or mahogany silk, or a spray of bronze ivy or mistletoe or leaves of crystal that catch the light and separate it into fragments of ice.
If Isabel tiptoes in to find him, if she catches at a corner of the tapestry and shakes it or pushes a brocade-upholstered chair out of a dusty corner or draws a forbidden book off a shelf in the library, Matteo flees, as thirty years previously he had fled from his mother.

In trying to get as far away as possible, she found herself one day brought up short at the cage of an animal altogether different.
Instead of sinking with the others into late summer torpor, and the lassitude of the watched beast, the black panther still prowled the jungles of its memory, still inhabited an unpopulated wilderness of the past that it paced and paced with a kind of restrained frenzy, demanding of the barred square of concrete some reminder of freedom, or danger, or challenge, or beauty that it would not yield. Refusing to be refused, it paced and paced - its great paws treading into the unyielding surface, its senses alert to pick up the faintest response should it come.

Sophie is lying as still as a stone, with an arm across her eyes, thinking in the dark of that first pilgrimage she went on in India that had ended in the death of a child. Now she knows why the mother went on that pilgrimage, and why she must go too. She says in a flat voice, 'I'll have to,' and adds, 'what else?'

To Isidoro de Blas

How hard they try!

How hard the horse tries
to become a dog!

How hard the dog tries to become a swallow!

How hard the swallow tries to become a bee!
How hard the bee tries to become a horse!
And the horse,
what a sharp arrow it squeezes from the rose,
what a pale rose rising from its lips!
And the rose,
what a flock of lights and cries

knotted in the living sugar of its trunk.

And the sugar,

what daggers it dreams in its vigils!

And these miniature daggers,

what a moon without stables, what nakedness,

undying and rosy flesh they seek out!

And I, on the roof's edge,

what a burning angel I look for and am.

But the plaster arch,

how vast, how invisible, how minute,

without even trying!

-- Federico García Lorca

If you have not read any Anita Desai books so far, it is time you tried. I am sure you will be captivated. You can find more reviews on the book here.

For more books by Anita Desai, please go here.

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