[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Brush examines Desai's articulation of the largely neglected European emigrant to India in Baumgartner's Bombay, emphasizing the multiple marginalization of the protagonist's character.]
In her essay, 'Writing the Immigrant Self: Disguise and Damnation,' Canadian critic Aritha van Herk identifies the various stories which are often told in the literature of immigrants: 'There is first of all the overt story. Then there is the much more complex and multi-foliate covert story' (van Herk, p. 177), which she also refers to as the 'story under the story' (van Herk, p. 175). The overt story of European immigration into India has been told many times, in numerous novels about the British presence in India, articulating what van Herk identifies as the 'tempting illusion' (van Herk, p. 178) of the overt story. What Anita Desai does in Baumgartner's Bombay is to take the covert, predominantly untold experience of European immigration into India, and articulate that through the experience of a German Jew, Hugo Baumgartner. She gives a voice to an aspect of the experience of European immigration into India which has generally been effaced, ignored, and excluded from official records--the 'silenced story' (van Herk, p. 185).
Desai's concern with the experience of a German living in India comes partly from her own part-German upbringing, and was given a focus through an Austrian Jew living in Calcutta. Following his death, Desai was asked to translate letters of his, and at first she believed them to be little more than 'affectionate little notes' (Jussawalla, p. 174). Once she realised that they were actually heavily censored correspondence from one of the World War II concentration camps--reflected in Lotte's realisation that 'Each one [was] stamped with the number: J 673/1' (p. 230)--their silence allowed Desai to create a story around the man who had died:
there was no information about them--the man was dead, I couldn't question him--I began to think a great deal about it and felt the need to supply them with a history, so I invented a history for this figure whom I had seen but not known.(Jussawalla, p. 175)
Desai takes the few dislocated pieces of information she has concerning this man's life, and what she then learns about them, and writes a possible history for him. Desai's realisation that there were no official records of the internment camps that the British set up in India made it all the more important for her to undertake this project (Jussawalla, p. 175). It was the tiny pieces of information--van Herk's 'fragments' (van Herk, p. 185)--which pointed to a larger, untold story. After discovering these fragments, Desai invented a story to fill what she perceived as an absence, a silence. The difference between Desai's text and other historiographic texts which construct fictional lives for figures in history, is that Desai chooses a figure who is firmly on the margins. She tells the immigrant experience, not through the major events of recorded history, but through a man whose...