This article is published in DIVINER Magazine ( A Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences by DAV College, Chandigarh, India), no 4 ,2009


Behnaz Alipour Kaskari

Research: Canada

Relationship Dilemma in Anita Desai’s novels

Literature: Critic
By: Behnaz Alipour Kaskari, 2009

Relationship Dilemma in Anita Desai’s novels
By Behnaz Alipour Kaskari

The most common themes in Anita Desai’s novels is human relationship particularly the man-woman relationship. Nowadays this theme is becomes more important due to rapid industrialization, growing awareness among women of their rights and individualism and the westernization of attitudes and lives of the people. D.H. Lawrence points out:
The great relationship for humanity will always be the relationship between man and woman. The relation between man and man, woman and woman, parent and child will always be subsidiary.( D.H. Lawrence 130)
Twentieth century novelists treat this subject in a different manner from that of earlier novelists. They portray the relationship between man and woman as it is, whereas earlier novelists concentrated on as it should be.
The modern writer is concerned with the quality of life and people, with world and value. His investigation of a number of unsatisfying lives has to its basis in the deep conviction that it is man’s sacred duty to fight for a life that will express the inherent dignity and worth that, he is capable of. He is aware of that pain, pathos, and failure but sure of the values of the struggle towards fulfillment and perfection. (Harrison Christopher82-85)
Indo-English writer is constantly concerned with the problem of interaction between man and woman, between the individuals and the social world. Her main concern is to depict the psychic states of her protagonists at some crucial juncture of their lives. Therefore, the most recurrent themes in her novels are “The hazards and complexities of man-woman relationships, the founding of individuality and the establishing of individualism of her characters”. (Raji Narsimhan 23)

Anita Desai is a modern indo-English writer, widely acclaimed, not only in India but also in the world of fiction writing. she emerged on the literary horizon after independence, focusing on the contemporary issues. Anita Desai has added a new dimension to the contemporary Indian English fiction. She has secured a unique and significant place due to her innovative thematic concerns and deals in her fiction with feminine sensibility. Her preoccupation is explored of deep psych of her characters.
The fiction of Anita Desai is relevant to all times because she writes about the predicament of modern man. She digs in to man inner psych and goes beyond the skin and the flesh. Literature for her is not a means of escaping reality but an exploration and an inquiry. She prefers the private to the public world and avoid from the traditional grooves of external reality and physical world. In fact, her real concern is the exploration of human psyche, inner climate, and she unravels the mystery of the inner life of her characters.
Thus, the most common themes in her novels is the complexity of human relationships, particularly the man-woman relationship. She writes mostly about the miserable plight of women suffering under their insensitive and inconsiderate husbands, fathers and brothers. So man-woman relationship brings characters into alienation, withdrawal, loneliness, isolation and lack of communication that frequently occurs in her novels. Most of her novel’s protagonists are alienated from the world, from society, from families, from parents and even from their own selves because they are not average people but individuals. When these characters have to face alienation, they become rebels.
Tension, worries, depression, disappointment, anxiety and fear become their lot and they lose their sense of sanity and mental poise, for example Maya in Cry, the Peacock, Sita in where shall we go this summer? And Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain. Some characters like Monisha and Nanda Kaul are unable to reconcile to alienation and meet with a tragic end.
The uniqueness of Anita Desai’s fiction lies in her treatment of feminine sensibility. In India where women have redesigned role, which does not allow any room for individualism, identity and assertion, Anita Desai talks of women who question the age old traditions and want to seek individual growth. They try to reassess the known in a new context and find a meaning in life. Desai suggests that a balance between the conventional, pre-set role of women and the contemporary issues has to be struck.
Her female protagonists try to discover and rediscover meaningfulness in life through the known, the established. These characters are not normal but different from others. They do not find a proper channel of communication and thus become alienated and start brooding about their lives. All their wanderings and reflections finally bring them into new vistas of understanding, which they had formerly ignored or rejected.
Most of her protagonists are alienated ones. She portrays her characters as individuals “facing single-handed, the ferocious assaults of existence.”( The times of India)
Thus, Characters in her novels are generally neurotic females, highly sensitive and engage with their dreams and imagination and alienated from their environments. They often differ in their opinion from others and embark on a long voyage of contemplation in order to find the meaning of their existence. That is why that they suffer of their relationships more than others do. 
The novel Cry, the Peacock, is mainly concerned with the theme of disharmony between husband and wife relationship. Desai looks in to the reasons for marital discord and illustrates how such discord effects the family. Sometimes, the inability of an individual to be responsive to the behavior patterns of her partner leads to strain and tension in the relationship, while sometimes it is on account of varied levels of sensitivity that strained relationships occur. In this novel Maya and Gautama have strained relationships because of their incompatible temperature. Maya is dreamy, sensitive and emotional, while Gautama realistic, insensitive and rational. Maya is poetic and high-strung Gautama detached, philosophical and remote. Maya has tenderness, softness and warmth, Gautama is hard and cold.
The matrimonial bonds that bind the two are very fragile and tenuous, the growing tension between them reaches its climax when Maya kills Gautama and then commits suicide.
Maya is a prisoner of the past, lives almost perpetually in the shadow world of memories, which engulf her, Guatama lives in the present and accepts reality and facts even though they are not very beautiful. On the contrary, Maya never tries to accept the facts, but she wants to live in her imagination and fairy world. She keeps on remembering her childhood days or the treatment her father meted out to her. She is a father obsess means; she feels that no one else loves her as her father did. She seeks other father in her husband. But he does not respond her. Sensitive Maya is terribly upset at the death of her dog that she loses her mental calm and Gautama neglects emotional yearning of Maya and says that he would bring another dog for her. This mechanical behavior makes Maya brood over Gautama`s insensitivity:
Showing how little he knows of my misery, or how to comfort me. But then, he knew nothing that concerned me. Giving me an opal ring to wear on my finger, he did not notice the translucent skin beneat, the blue flashing veins that ran under and out of the bridge gold… telling me to go to sleep while he worked at his papers, he did not give another though to me…it is his hardness – no, no, not hardness, but the distance he coldly keeps from me . ( Cry, the Peacock 9)

In Voices in the City, Anita Desai’s concern is primarily with human relationships and how in the absence of meaningful relationships the individual suffer. She probes the psychic compulsion that may effect an individual in forging long term and significant relationships and how an individual is effected if he is unable to forge such relationships.
Nirode, one of the main characters, is obsessed with the relationship of his mother with major Chadha and considers her a she-cannibal. She is having an affair in Kalimpong which itself is a consequence of dissonance in husband-wife relationship. Nirode's relationship with his mother is a love-hate relationship. We have veiled suggestions of his mother fixation and according to psychologists’ hatred often is a defense mechanism of the psyche to stop one from committing incest.
If Maya`s tragedy in Cry ,the Peacock emanated from her obsession with a father figure, Nirodo`s tragedy lies in his love-hate relationship with the mother.
The novel also deals with the incompatible marriage of Monisha and Jiban. Monisha’s husband , is the prisoner of conventional culture .He believes that a woman’s most important roles besides child bearing are cooking, cutting vegetables, serving food and brushing small children's hair under the authority of a stern mother-in-law. Monisha feels that her privacy is denied to her. Her husband is busy with his middle rank government job with no time for Monisha and no desire to share her feeling.
The theme of alienation is treated in terms of mother-children relationship which itself is a consequence of dissonance in husband-wife relationship. Monisha leads an equally fragmented and starved life. She is alienated from his mother as well as her husband. The graph of her mental life can be constructed from her long searching and self –confronting entire in the diary.
Her relationship with her husband is characterized only by loneliness and lack of communication. He reckons his wife as worth nothing in consequence. He does not bother to ask his wife, when he finds some money missing from his pocket even.
Monisha’s ill matched marriage, her loneliness, sterility and stress of living in a joint family with an insensitive husband push her to breaking point. The element of love is missing in her life and finally she commits suicide. 
In Where Shall We Go This Summer? Anita Desai chooses marital discord as the subject matter of this novel and highlights how the inability to lay bare one’s soul and express freely one’s fear and anguish result in the snapping of communication between husband and wife. Different attitudes, individual complexes and fears add to this distancing between the husband and the wife resulting in conjugal disharmony.
Raman and Sita have irreconcilable temperaments and attitudes to life. The ill-assorted couple of Raman and Sita are confronted with the same problem of husband-wife discord. Sita represents a world of emotion and feminine sensibility while Raman is a man with an active view of life and the sense of the practical. 
Sita is a nervous, sensitive middle-aged woman with explosive and emotional reactions to many things that happen to her, she always wants to escape reality and does not want to grow up and face the responsibilities of adult life. On the contrary, Raman represents the prose of life. He represents sanity, rationality and an acceptance of the norms and values of society. He is unable to understand the violence and passion with which Sita reacts against every incident. His reaction to his wife’s frequent outbursts is a mixture of puzzlement, weariness, fear and finally a resigned acceptance of her abnormality. He cannot comprehend her boredom, her frustration with her.
In this novel theme of alienation and lack of communication in married life is discussed by writer. Sita finds herself alienated from her husband and children. She remains an ignored personality since childhood. She is the product of broken family. She yearns to have the attention and love of others but her father remains busy with his chelas and patients. Even after marriage, she remains lonely. Her husband also is busy. He fails to fulfit her expectation. As a result, there is marital discord, tension between husband and wife.
In Clear Light of Day Desai treats other form of man-woman relationship in her novel. Bim carries a childhood image of her brother Raja- romantic, poetic, dreamy - whereas Raja is rational, pragmatic and materialistic. She gets angry about Raja as she feels that he does not reciprocate towards her feeling normally because during childhood they had close emotional relationship which she feels as an adult Raja is shunning.
Bim is Raja’s admirer and she encourages him in every act and ambition. They want to be the heroin and the hero when they grow up and go away into the big world. Away from their old parental home. In this way, they have greater mental and temperamental affinity with each other than with the other brother and sister. Both of them are bold, independent and possess a fiery impetuous spirit. When raja is sick, Bim takes care of him with love and devotion thinking that he would take her father’s place the day he recovers. However, to her utter dismay, when Raja gets well, he decides to go away to a distant place.
I will go- go to- to Hyderabad. Hyder Ali Sahib asked me to come… I have to begin my life sometime, don’t i? You don’t want me to spend all my life down in this hole, do you? (clear light of day 95)
And Raja runs away to Hyder Ali and marries Benazir, his daughter .Then he left Bim alone with Baba in the crumbling house. Raja abdicates his responsibility towards Bim and Baba entirely. So, their relationship changes. Tara, too later on understands the significance of time and comes to realize how human relationship – even the intimate relationship between a brother and a sister – changes with the passage of time. Raja never recalls the old days, the love and sacrifice of Bim, her taking care of his health.
Therefore, Bim is treated most cruelly by her brother. Utterly neglected and treacherously deserted, Bim muses painfully on how the passage of time has ravaged the old relationships of childhood and created a changed pattern of relationship in the family. So, after a long span of time, Bim decides to patch up with Raja who was probably not even conscious of the hurt his letters have caused Bim. She purges herself of the intense hatred for ultimately she realizes. “No other love had started so far back in time and had had so much in which to grow and spread” than she felt for her family. She wakes up her dreamy world of past in the clear light of day to mend her relations with her brother.
In Fire on the Mountain, Anita Desai probes the feminine sensibility and a woman’s inherent desire to know herself in terms of not only her relationship with her family but also in terms of her individual identity and its relationship with the world at large. In the novel, Nanda Kaul and her husband prof. Kaul do not have a warm relationship. He has cared little for his wife and family. He carried a life long affair with another woman. Nanda could not belong to the family and her position is no better than a house keeper. Her husband is responsible for this. He is such a coward that he could not marry a Christian lady because he could not dare break social conventions. Outwardly, the Kaul’s are an ideal couple for university community but from inside their relationship is all-barren.
Novel shows Desai’s tragic vision of life, in which the innocents suffer. They pay a heavy price for their sincerity and innocence, as ordained by an unkind fate.
In Custody, focuses on theme of marital discord and relationship problem. In this novel, Deven and Sarla lead an unhappy marital life. They are quite different from each other in their temperaments. Deven is a Hindi lecturer in a college and Sarla has no interest in literature. She is ignorant that she concludes her husband’s frequent visits to Delhi for meeting his girl friend. Sarla is a picture of an abandoned wife.
To conclude, Anita Desai presents to reader her opinion about complexity of human relationships as a big contemporary problem and human condition. So, she analyses this problem due to shows changing human relationships in her novels. She is a contemporary writer because she considers new themes and knows how should to deal with them.
Anita Desai takes up significant contemporary issues as the subject matter of her fiction while remaining rooted in the tradition at the same time. She explores the anguish of individuals living in modern society. Desai deals with complexity of human relationships as one of her major theme, which is a universal issue, as it attracts worldwide readers to her novels. She strives to show this problem without any interferes. In other hand, she allows to her readers who have their judgment about her novel’s characters and their actions.


Anta Desai, ‘interview by Yashodhara Dalmia”, the times of India 29 apr.1979
Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day, London: William Heinemann,1980
Anita Desai, Cry, the Peacock, London: Peter Owen, 1963 
Christopher Hanson “Sons and Lovers” Great Britain: Basil Blackwell Oxford1,66
D.H. Lawrence, “Morality and the Novel,” in David Lodge, ed. 20th Century Literature Criticism, London: Longman 1972
R.S.Sigh, Indian Novel in English, New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1971
Ramesh K.Srivastava, Perspective on Anita Desai, Ghaziabad:Vimal Prakashan,1984.
Raji Narsimhan, Sensibility Under Stress, New Delhi: Prakshan,1976

Research: Critic, Speech, Novel
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