[(essay date 1989) In the essay below, Cronin examines Desai's treatment of India and Indian life and culture in such works as The Village by the Sea, Fire on the Mountain, and Clear Light of Day.]
`Quiet writing, like Anita Desai's, can be more impressive than stylistic fireworks', wrote Victoria Glendinning in The Sunday Times.Anita Desai may let fireworks into her stories, but not into her style. At the end of The Village by the Sea, Hari and his sisters celebrate Diwali: `Hari carried the basket of fireworks onto the grassy knoll in the coconut grove, and, to the sound of Bela's and Kamal's excited shrieks, he set off a rocket into the sky where it exploded with a bang into a shower of coloured sparks'. The rocket bangs, the girls shriek, but the prose stays quiet. In [Salman Rushdie's] Midnight's Children the `saffron minutes and green seconds' that separate India from its moment of independence tick by. Crowds--`the men in shirts of zafaran hue, the women in saris of lime'--watch a celebratory firework display, `saffron rockets, green sparkling rain'. There is a part of most English readers that distrusts such flamboyance, and recoils from it with relief to the sober, guilt-free pleasures of Anita Desai's quiet prose. But there remains a nagging worry that it may not be easy at once to conform to English standards of good taste, and be true to the place Anita Desai writes about. India, after all, is not a quiet country.
In The Village by the Sea Anita Desai dispenses with her usual cast of characters. It is Hari's story, and his sister, Lila's. With their drunken father, their sick mother, and two younger sisters, they live a life of wretched poverty in the little fishing village of Thul, not far from Bombay, the full weight of family responsibility thrust prematurely on their young shoulders. As the novel begins Lila performs her morning puja to the sacred rock in the sea. Then she walks home through `dew that still lay on the rough grass, and made the spider webs glitter'. She sees butterflies, and she sees birds; `flute-voiced drongoes that cut the air like dazzling knives', and `pert little magpie robins':
A single cock-pheasant, invisible, called out `coop-coop-coop' in its deep, bogey-man voice from under a bush and a pigeon's voice gurgled on and on. It was the voice of the village Thul as much as the roar of the waves and the wind in the palms.
Like her friend, Ruth Jhabvala, and like [E. M.] Forster before her, Anita Desai loves Indian birds. Their easy grace in a climate that can be so pitiless to human beings rarely fails to move her. In one of her best short stories, a querulous, asthmatic old man finds his irritability disappear, and his heart lift as dawn brings a cool breeze, and pigeons rise into the sky:
Then, with a swirl and flutter of feathers, a flock of pigeons hurtled upwards and spread...