[(essay date Spring 1990) In the essay below, Newman examines "the relation between discourse and history" in Baumgartner's Bombay .]
Anita Desai has always sidestepped any recognition of language as a social fact, disavowing political intent and describing her work in "universalist" terms. In interview she maintained that she had avoided many of the ideological problems created by the use of English, by not writing "social document" novels.
By writing novels that have been catalogued by critics as psychological, and that are purely subjective, I have been left free to employ, simply, the language of the interior. [Ramesh K. Srivastava, in Perspectives on Anita Desai, 1984]
In Baumgartner's Bombay, however, Desai departs from her previous practice, in order to interrogate the relation of discourse to history, the language of the interior to that of the outer world. In this connection various intertextual devices are significant--letters, literary references, songs, nursery rhymes and travellers' tales.
The novel opens with the murder of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew, by a young German, many years after Baumgartner's escape from Nazi Germany to India. As the recurrent image of the racetrack suggests ("the circular track that began in Berlin and ended here in Bombay") Baumgartner's story comes full circle and his trajectory is strongly marked by repetition. After being dispossessed in Germany as a Jew, narrowly avoiding the Nazi camps, he is seized in India as a German, and imprisoned for six years as an enemy alien in a British internment camp. When world war gives way to Partition struggles, his Moslem business partner in Calcutta is dispossessed in his turn by Hindus. After Baumgartner's return to Bombay, however, the death of his new Hindu partner sees him booted out once more, into an independent India which has little use for Europeans. The plot, therefore, seems to imply that history is only a meaningless series of reenactments, a story which repeats itself. In Salman Rushdie's dictum: "Europe repeats itself, in India, as farce."
Throughout the novel Baumgartner, shabby, smelly, shortsighted, his nose a warty, wobbling purplish lump is established as a clown, known to his neighbours as the madman of the cats for his habit of adopting strays. Even his death is presented in a mode of black comedy, combining the effects of Keystone Cops slapstick with a chase sequence and lashings of melodrama. Bloodstained footprints are sighted, and the wrong man promptly arrested by stereotypically plodding policemen, who subsequently unleash two Dobermans. As cats fly in all directions, one of them, defenestrated, narrowly misses the bald perspiring head of the landlord; the appearance of the fire brigade only adds to the confusion and to the spectators' delight. The murder is presented as a fact in the public domain, presided over by assorted officials, in strong contrast to the opening scene in which Baumgartner's friend Lotte reads the letters found by his body.
As the novel opens, the initial impression is of entry into a tragic interior. The process of reading is highlighted by the presence...