Narrating History: The Reality of the Internment Camps in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,026 words

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[(essay date April 1997) In the following essay, Smith contrasts the experiences of the imprisoned protagonist of Baumgartner's Bombay with the similar autobiographical account of Heinrich Harrar in Seven Years in Tibet, demonstrating not only the historical veracity of Desai's representation but also its effects on the development of Baumgartner's conflicted character.]

Baumgartner's Bombay is a text deeply concerned with intrusion of history into an individual's interior life. Desai weaves Hugo Baumgartner's experience of Kristallnacht and pre-Holocaust Germany with descriptions of India's partition riots in order to create a realistic--and historical--image of "[t]he clash between the inner and the outer [worlds]" of Baumgartner's sensibility (Desai, Interview 166). Much critical study of the novel focuses on discovering the foundations for its events and perspective in Desai's German lineage and multicultural background.1 Moreover, such critical attention mirrors the novel's narrative structure, for just as Lotte attempts to piece together the fragments of Baumgartner's postcards in order to imagine his life story,2 scholars seek further resonances and connections among the novel's events and biographical particulars. In fact, Desai explains that her narrative structure contains "a certain mystery, a puzzle at the heart of it" (Bliss 529) which compels the reader to tease out its sources and associations.

More significant than such narrative puzzles, however, is the historical context needed to understand Baumgartner's situation. The pivotal historical situation that frames the central section of Baumgartner's Bombay is the phenomenon of the Indian internment camps. Nonetheless, it is difficult to provide historical context for Baumgartner's six years in confinement; little record remains of British India's wartime sequestration of foreigners whose nationality rendered them enemies of the British Empire. In an interview with Lalita Pandit, Desai describes the frustrating process of uncovering substantive information about the conditions of these internment camps: "All I had to go on was the material about the detention camps in the West. ... There was material about internment camps in Canada and England, and I read all of those" (170). Faced with the surprising paucity of information, Desai relied on conversations with former captives for information to create her depiction. However, one major chronicle does record a prisoner's experience in the Indian detention camps. The first two chapters of Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet (1954) recounts his own confinement in and escape from these camps.

In fact, although criticism of the novel registers no debt to Harrer, Desai clearly drew on Seven Years in Tibet to create her vision of Baumgartner's camp. Many events in Desai's novel parallel those found in Harrer's account. In fact, Harrer himself, an Austrian mountain climber, actually appears as a character Baumgartner encounters, the "Hüber" who later writes of his confinement experiences. Desai hints at the intertexuality by directly alluding to Harrer's record near the end of her narrative, when a former captive exclaims to Baumgartner, "'Did you know that the man who escaped, that fellow Hüber, he wrote a book about the whole experience? But, Hugo, it must be read--a man we...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100051029