These three novellas explore the legacy, or residue, of British colonialism in India. In the first novella,” The Museum of Final Journeys,” a junior functionary takes on the role of the departed English Foreign Service, takes on the attributes of the oppressor without questioning that role. His father has been a civil servant, rising through the ranks to a position of prestige, and he aspires to rise through the ranks as his father did. An ancient family servant to a once great and wealthy Indian prince convinces the functionary to visit the abandoned, decaying mansion. He walks through room after room of long decayed art treasures, collected by the son of the once owners of the property, and then finally is taken to see an elephant on the verge of starvation. The old servant asks him to save the elephant, but he concludes that he cannot do anything to help the elephant, and gets on with his life. Like his father, he rises to position and relative wealth, but he is troubled by recurring dreams about the elephant. He never allows himself to know that the continuing colonial power of which he is a part is starving the elephant, which is to say, not only India, but his Indian self. The dreams are eruptions of his repressed Indian self.
Other critics have said that windows open briefly, but Desai’s characters fail to seize the day. I think Desai is after more than that. This is a critique of colonialism, but what makes her writing so effective is that she is able to locate such a huge historical and political moment within a quite simple story of a man denying what he sees.
The second story, “Translator Translated,” takes up the problem of writing the colonized experience in the language of the colonizer. The point of view character, Prema, an English teacher, whose life is less than meaningful, begins to find meaning as a translator of short stories she has grown up with and loved, written in an indigenous language, and apparently quite familiar to all the people who speak that language. Her translation is a success and she is happy for the first time in her life. The author proves to be a recluse who doesn’t really want to make much time for her, does not connect with Prema’s fantasy of a warm friendship between writer and translator, where they might even become almost coequal in the production. She prevails upon the author to write a novel. But when she gets the novel she is disappointed. She finds none of the vividness and charm of the short stories. As a teacher of Jane Austin and George Elliot, Prema knows what a novel should be. So she revises as she translates, to bring the novel up to her standards. The novel is less than successful, but worse, a relative of the author comes to claim that it is badly translated, and at a reading, a voice in the crowd scolds Prema for translating the story into the language of the colonizer. The author chooses not to continue writing—she is busy developing schools in the poor districts from which her short stories were drawn. And Prema is forced back into the dreary life she had hoped to escape—riding the coattails of Austin and Eliot.
Desai is here writing in English, writing a novella –not a novel but close enough—about why Indians shouldn’t write novels in English. In Desai’s biography there is no clear indication that she ever spoke a truly remote, indigenous language, but she did speak several of the more common languages: Urdu, etc. I don’t quite see Desai herself as betraying her native language. She grew up speaking German, but I do notice that the story is told primarily in the third person past tense, except for two sections in first person, one past tense and one present tense. This breaks the traditional form of novels, at least, of the novels that Prema spends her life teaching—the nineteenth century British novel. Given the machinations of today’s young novel writers the challenge is hardly breathtaking, but it calls attention to the act of writing about the life of the colonized in a form that belongs to the colonizer. Desai tries to escape the novel. As does Prema, in her dismal life.
The story tells us the indigenous author could not write a novel. The stories she had to tell didn’t survive the passage into novels. They were pretty close to the anecdotes we tell each other every day about our lives, written in the language that community would tell its stories in. The indigenous author is not dependent on literature for a life: she is engaged in the process of living, of helping other people. But Prema is left, living an empty life on the margins of eighteenth and nineteenth century English novels.
The last story is less elegantly efficient than the first two, less elegantly shaped. In “The Artist of Disappearance,” an upper caste Indian couple in love with the values of the British, spend their lives aping the ways of the rulers. They travel in Europe, socialize with British neighbors. They have adopted an Indian son in whose welfare they are not at all interested. The boy barely survives, and that only with the help of the servants. He relates to things in nature, not to people. The parent’s social life is interrupted by a racist incident, when an English man beats up the husband for dancing with his wife. The boy is sent away to school, where he is miserable. Eventually he goes home to share his life with blind old woman supposed to be his tutor, his parents having departed somewhere for good. Somehow the old woman sets the house on fire and it burns up completely except for one room that still has walls and a roof, though black and smoked. A villager brings food and a cot for the now grown man, who seems to spend his life sitting on what is left of the veranda. And so he hardly survives as far as anyone knows. But he has a secret project: he finds a pool hidden in the jungle and turns it into a work of art. He drags trees and stones and arranges them all to make a beautiful space.
The western world shows up, in the form of documentary film makers from Delhi who wish to film the destruction of the jungle. A fine irony. They are not especially lucky in finding what they came for. Much is made in the story of film crews coming to film the beautiful scenery in this area. At one point, one of them discovers the artist’s pond. They succeed in filming the pond, but the villagers hide the artist, so they are never able to connect with him. Looking at the film, they find that the footage seems flat and boring. One says that they needed the artist for this to come alive. They pack up their cameras and leave, but the artist never goes back to his pond.
That is, the western world comes to see the scenery, not the people. They almost figure out that they are missing the soul of the people, that there is a soul immanent in the art of the pond, but, like the civil servant in the first story, they have no idea what to do about that.
This novella has an unusual shape. It seems to be two different short stories barely connected. My guess is that Desai is again working out the problem of how to tell the story of the colonized in the language of the colonizer.
The epigraph quotes Jorge Luis Borges, “One thing alone does not exist—oblivion.” The Artist of Disappearance seems to be about the internalized project of completely colonizing the indigenous culture. The project fails. - SQ
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