Reading Anita Desai

Molly Yancovitz '98, English 27, 1997

When I began this comparison of Sara Suleri with what and Anita Desai, I planned to contrast the anti-essentialist femininism of Suleri with what I believed to be Desai's essentialist approach to constructing women and their relation to men. My presumption had been, that in contrast to Suleri, Desai writes women as a simplification, producing an identity (perhaps only strategically essentialist), that silently screams out against the oppressed positioning of women in India.

Desai centers In Custody around Deven, whose obviously essentialistic conception of women inevitably leads to his failure. For one brief moment, Desai hints at the unrealized potential in Deven's relation to women when she describes him listening to Nur's wife recite poetry:

The elegance and floridity of her Urdu entered Deven's ears like a flourish of trumpets and beat at his temples while he read. The essential, unsuspected spirit of the woman appeared to step free of its covering, all the tinsel and gauze and tawdriness, and reveal a face from which the paint and powder had been washed and which wore an expression that made Deven halt and stumble before he could read on. (195)

This man has devoted himself to the propagation and proper documentation of Urdu poetry, yet he does not have the courage to read the poetry of a woman, because she is a woman. As I read Desai's novel, I locate the most potent embodiment of this idea within this woman's letter, in which she asks Deven,

Are you not guilty of assuming that because you are a male, you have a right to brains, talent, reputation and achievement, while I, because I was born female, am condemned to find what satisfaction I can in being maligned, mocked, ignored and neglected? Is it not you who has made me play the role of the loose woman in gaudy garments by refusung to take my work seriously and giving me just that much regard that you would extend to even a failure in the arts as long as the artist was male? In this unfair world that you have created what else could I have been but what I am? (196)

It seems, if anything were to be read as the surrogate voice of Desai portrayed in the novel, it would be this woman's anger.

I was surprised to find that this recognition is not a general one. For example, instead of reacting to the disturbingly tragic and frustrating conclusion, culminating in Deven's dismissal of the women in his life, Richard Cronin, who finds that the novel had an optimistic ending, sees Desai as identifying with Deven!

Deven, the quiet man, will never be able to extricate himself from Nur and his noisy household. It is a predicament that Anita Desai understands. In seeking to be the custodian of India she has herself been taken into custody, has placed her quiet, fastidious talent at the service of a noisy, melodramatic land. It is a painful burden. So Deven feels, and one senses that Anita Desai sometimes finds it so. But In Custody ends not with a gesture of weariness, but with Deven striding robustly forwards, confident that the burden he has condemned himself to carry is also his highest honor.

Crediting someone as attempting to be the "custodian of India" is a hefty accusation, one which could be equally applicable to Cronin himself. Cronin writes in his introduction that the goal of his attempt to "imagine India" is to locate his own sense of power and authority. Expounding upon novels written by Indian authors would serve, for Cronin, as "the ground of my authority - it would have become the perspective that enabled me to summon one after another a dozen different Indias while remaining myself aloof from them."

In contrast to Cronin's interpretation of Desai's writing, R.S. Pathak recognizes Desai's intentions as seeking to highlight the status of women in society. Pathak thus addresses the character of Sarla, Deven's wife, who is notably absent in Cronin's critique.

Sarla's miserable, routine life, full of labour, "the shabbiness of her limp, worn clothes, or her hunched, twisted posture, her untidy hair or sullen expression' were all integral parts of her humiliation" (193). Anita Desai's novels are, in a way, an advocacy for the legitimate rights and freedom of such unfortunate women.

In Custody thus described attacks the social structure that dictates the roles and interactions of its characters. Pathak discerns a potently political commentary in Desai's work that counters the optimism identified by Cronin:

Antia Desai has conveyed her women characters' fundamental dependence on men through her lexicon and tropes of mastery, command and domination. Her women sometimes do attempt to assert their independence and self-sufficiency, but their quest for identity is thwarted at significant junctures. . . . No woman in Anita Desai's novels. . . has been fortunate enough to free herself from the shackles of femininity.

Recognition of such a disturbing theme undermines the cursory imbibement of Deven's "confidence" and "honor" of which Cronin partakes.

Is it possible to question the comparative effectiveness of Suleri's and Desai's novels in creating oppositional forums that politicize the (dis)establishment of woman? Perhaps it is a question of subtlety. Desai's writing can be considered an embodiment of social critique, yet it is not direct enough for some, like Cronin, who can unquestioningly accept the subordinate positioning of women in a novel written by a woman. Is there a way to reconcile the stylistic disparities between Suleri and Desai? Suleri cites the Urdu poetry of Kishwar Naheed, a feminist Pakistani writer, entitled "We Sinful Women," of which she notes, "we should remember that there remains unseen legislation against such poetry, and that the Hadd -- the limit -- is precisely the realism against which our lived experience can serve as a metaphor, and against which we must continue to write." Suleri and Desai, in their own ways, are writing these stories.

Works Consulted

Cronin, Richard. Imagining India. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. "May 1914. One or Several Wolves?" in Minuit 5, septembre 1973, pp. 2-16. Trans. Mark Seem in Semiotext(e) Anti-Oedipus vol. 2 no. 3, 1977.

Pathak, R.S. "Beyond the He-Man Approach: The Expression of Feminine Sensibility in Anita Desai's Novels," in Feminism and Recent Fiction in English, ed. Sushila Singh. New Dehli: Prestige Books, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Displacement and the Discourse of Women," in Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida, ed. Nancy J. Holland. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Postcolonial Theory Gender OV Indian Suncontinent Anita Desai In Custody