Ambiguous Tragic Flaw in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain

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Author: K. J. Phillips
Editor: Deborah A. Stanley
Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,051 words

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[(essay date 1990) Below, Phillips examines elements of Greek tragedy in Fire on the Mountain.]

The Indian author Anita Desai creates in Fire on the Mountain (1977) a perfect tragedy in the Greek mode. Though fiction, Fire on the Mountain contains the nobility of character, tight structure, sense of retrospective inevitability, ambiguous flaw, and recognition of complicity which Aristotle so admired in 5th-century B.C. plays. Nanda Kaul is a noble woman who, after a long life spent serving a large family, wants only to retreat to a quiet sanctuary, Carignano. Instead, the family puts a great-granddaughter, Raka, into her charge. Raka proves to be as independent and unapproachable as Nanda, and, in her rebelliousness, sets fire at the end of the book to the hillside on which her great-grandmother's house perches. During the forest fire, another old woman, Ila Das, who serves as an alter ego both for Nanda (a tired, elderly woman) and for Raka (someone demanding Nanda's care), is raped and murdered. Nanda, devastated, may recognize that she herself has contributed to Raka's anarchy, by not reaching out to her sooner. Moreover, she has contributed to Ila's murder, by refusing to offer Ila a place to stay. Nanda is somehow responsible for all the violence, although she has intended only peace for herself--a reversal exactly in Aristotle's terms.

As ancient tragedy hovered between fault and fate, here too Desai sometimes blames a person, who may deserve punishment for inner lack, and sometimes a metaphysical "nature of things," which cannot be changed. She also adds in another contributor to catastrophe, when she blames society, which could possibly be changed in the future. Desai gives evidence for at least three possible flaws that condemn or exonerate Nanda to different degrees and lead to different interpretations of the final violence. Most disturbingly, by revealing at the end that Nanda had neither "understood nor loved" any of her children, Desai may accuse Nanda of coldness. A woman who desires to be alone has failed as a woman. From this point of view, Ila in her sufferings substitutes for Nanda. The graphic description of "dry, shrivelled" Ila pinned down "into the dust and the goat droppings" may imply that Nanda, with her dry, shrivelled capacity to nurture others, actually deserves a similar blotting out and thus receives a vicarious punishment. In some ways the book reads uncomfortably as if Desai, initially sympathetic to Nanda in her escape from the demands of a traditional culture, suddenly closes the narrative in a paroxysm of self-recrimination, against herself and all women. How dare she imagine a character like Nanda who withholds the care that she must, as a woman, continue to give every second of her life?

A second interpretation of the violence is that Nanda, far from the cold person she may appear to be, feels strongly for Raka, but emotion inevitably brings pain. Desai would then be creating the tragedy of someone who, hoping to remain aloof, cannot prevent herself from caring intensely for...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000202