Slipper Dragging and the Silent Piano: Anita Desai

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,650 words

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[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Kanaganayakam surveys Desai's novels, describing the author's technique as one that commingles the real and the symbolic.]

Anita Desai's novel Baumgartner's Bombay concludes with the death of the ill-fated, exiled, and powerless Hugo at the hands of Kurt, the drug-crazed German. By turns poetic, ironic, and tragic, the episode reinforces the complexity of the moment, the confluence of various motifs, which permeate the novel and culminate at this point. The ambivalence surrounding the depiction of this scene and its significance in relation to the preoccupations of the novel are acknowledged by the author who comments in an interview that "life is a muddle, even history is a muddle, and [she] wanted Baumgartner's end to have that quality" (Ball and Kanaganayakam, "Interview" ["Interview with Anita Desai"] 34). Appropriately, the passage is also insistently sexual, and death becomes a form of penetration when Hugo is transformed into a feminized figure raped by Kurt:

Then, with great speed, he raised the knife, then bent, and plunged it in, deep into that soft tallow so that it shuddered and let out a kind of whimper, or just a gasp, but some kind of flutter. It had to cease, or it had to be made to cease. Withdrawing the knife, he plunged it in again, and again, and again. With increasing slowness, and increasing weakness, till all movement came to a halt--the rocking, the quivering, the flutter, the gasp, all ended.(219)

The context of an insane German killing an exiled and helpless Jew invites a historical reading, but it also invokes other forms of marginality that relate more specifically to the world of the novel as well. The language, with its many allusions, superimposes the notion of gender and sexuality, power and control, thereby adding to the depth of the description, and the manner in which the novel orchestrates its closure.

Despite the feminization of Baumgartner, both at this moment and throughout the novel, one is struck by the choice of Baumgartner as the victim, when other characters, including Lotte, could just as easily have served the purpose. Having written largely about women all her life, Desai makes the unusual choice of portraying a man (and an outsider at that) as the protagonist in the most autobiographical of all her novels. About her decision to foreground a man, Desai says:

Having written for so many years and in so many books about women's lives, and about the restrictions and limitations that an Indian woman has, I wanted to break free of that and see if I couldn't step out into the open world and write about action and experience, and I found the only way to do that was to assume a male persona.("Interview" 32)

Although Baumgartner's Bombay has autobiographical elements, Desai's autobiographical work is no less textual than any of her previous work. She has commented that the novel occupies "the earliest and deepest levels of [her] consciousness" and that the text "will not mean...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100090476