Anita Desai: Fire on the Mountain
Desai’s best-known novel has often been called a novel of aging but, while it is that, to a certain degree, it is far more a novel about how we – all of us – need to take our social responsibilities very, very seriously. It might be best summed up by John Donne’s quote No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main or, in the context of his book, no woman is an island. Nanda Kaul is an old woman. She has raised a family. Her husband is dead. She has, she feels, done her duty as wife, mother and grandmother. She now wishes only to retire on her own (with her servant) to a remote cottage on a hilltop in Kasauli, up in the hills. She is tired of her family and admits forgetting details of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is so anti-social that, when she sees the postman coming, she wishes to avoid him.
But her peace and tranquillity is to be shattered by the postman’s letter. The letter is from her daughter, Asha. Asha’s daughter, Tara, is married to Rakesh, a diplomat. Tara is a delicate flower and her marriage to Rakesh has not helped. He drinks and is abusive towards his wife. The travel has not helped. Tara had left him but, now that he is being posted to Geneva, she is to join him there. The problem is their daughter, Raka. Raka is recovering from a serious bout of typhoid and clearly cannot travel to Geneva with her parents. Asha cannot look after her as she is set to go and help with the confinement of another of her daughters. Accordingly, the child is being sent to her great-grandmother. Nanda is not at all pleased but realises that she has no choice. When Raka arrives she is clearly a thin child, not fully recovered from her illness, but she is also, like her great-grandmother, very anti-social. Raka is left to her own devices and soon enjoys herself exploring the hills behind Nanda’s cottage.
There is little interaction between the two. They meet at meals and occasionally go out walking together, though this is clearly not easy for either of the two. Nanda does tell her great-granddaughter a bit about her family (most of which, we later learn, is exaggerated). At times, we wonder where this is going but Desai gives us a few clues to the tragedy that will occur. She also introduces a sub-plot in Ila Das. Ila Das is an old friend of Nanda. She came, we later learn, from a well-to-do family of three boys and two girls. The boys squandered all the family’s wealth on drink, gambling and other similar pursuits so that, when their father died, there was nothing left. Ila and her sister, Rima, were left more or less destitute, without having received any training for a job. Rima, a gifted musician, became a piano teacher, while Nanda persuaded her husband to get Ila a job teaching home science in the college where he was administrator. But now Rima is ill and no-one wants to learn the piano. When Nanda’s husband died Ila lost the job and now has a poorly paid job in social services and is struggling to support her sister. Just as she loses the chance to help her great-granddaughter, Nanda is close to offering Ila a home but does not do so. The cost of both decisions, the decision to remain alone and isolated and comfortable, will be very high.
Desai’s tale is relatively low key till the violent end, when it explodes, unexpectedly. But she carefully builds it up, giving us clues and making it clear that we do have responsibilities to our fellow men and women, whether we want to or not. Old age is no excuse. Nanda feels that her years of service to an unfaithful husband, tiresome children and grandchildren justify her actions. Desai shows that this is not the case.
First published in 1977 by Heinemann