For the last five decades, Anita Desai has kept her focus on Indian characters coping with modern life at home and around the world. Her most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas set in the India of the not-too-distant past, written with Desai’s usual elegance and cool sympathy.
The first two stories are about individuals who hover at the edges of life. Offered new opportunities, they hang back or push ahead, only to be rebuffed by forces outside their control. In “The Museum of Final Journeys,” the narrator remembers his early years as a civil servant in a changing country and a private museum filled to the brim with fine art and sculpture moldering away in the middle of the woods. Though the caretakers beg him to help them with maintenance and funding, he lets the opportunity slip away. Still, his dreams are haunted by the memory. In “Translator Translated,” Prema, a lonely teacher grasps at the chance to translate a beloved regional author, who writes in the native language the teacher’s own mother spoke. But after finding moderate success, Prema begins to alter the texts she’s been assigned, betraying the trust of the author and her family.
The books title story tells of Ravi, a recluse living in isolation in the decaying ruins of his family’s estate. When the grounds are visited by a group of documentary filmmakers, they uncover an outdoor area where he has been arranging plants, rocks and leaves into elaborate patterns. Their discovery is so distressing to Ravi that he vows never to make anything again. But the urge to create is too strong, and the final image depicting the way this fiercely proud but private man continues to make art will leave the reader profoundly moved.
All three stories document a modern culture in which the indigenous is commercialized and art is made only to be sold to the widest possible audience. Whatever is unique runs the risk of being destroyed or commodified. But Desai’s characters can’t completely hide their singularity or their passion. These are not action-packed dramas, but small tales by a master storyteller wise to the powerful effects of loneliness and the human desire to leave something significant behind.