Monday, April 06, 2009

Anita Desai’s Diamond Dust

I first read Anita Desai in a graduate class on Anglo-Indian narrative, but I don’t think I finished the book. I remember simultaneously loving it, feeling it worthy of better attention than I had to give, and being impatient and bored.

A few years later, an elderly man fell in love with me, and, in an effort to impress me, invited me to a small luncheon at MIT where I had the chance to meet her in person. She was lovely: beautiful, kind, and interested in me. I squirmed from the attentions of this elderly man, whose intentions were gradually dawning on me (He was over 70! I thought he was going to introduce me to his son…). Desai gently telegraphed to me just the kind of sympathy I needed: she was not condescending, but she pitied me in a way that woke me up and helped me shed his irritating attentions.

I kept Desai in mind as an underrated writer, a writer of great skill and grace who, I thought, might owe a debt to Woolf. I was all the more impressed at her grace and delight for her daughter’s win of the Booker Prize a few years back: it made me realize the maternal care and kindness in her pity of me at that one sad lunch.

So, I read Diamond Dust in the hope of finding a story to share with my Woolf class, a story that would shed light on an Indian successor to part of Woolf’s legacy. I enjoyed the collection and my students enjoyed the story, “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” but I no longer see Desai as an inheritor of a Woolfian voice. And I still feel deeply ambivalent about exploiting the theme of drowning when another story, “The Artist’s Life,” was just as Woolfian. But, being set in South Haldley, MA, with all white characters, it didn’t do what I wanted it to do on the syllabus. Once again, Desai’s gracious craft and ability to imagine others keeps her best work off the syllabus: that seems really unfair and I’m sorry about it.

As I sit here, looking at the Table of Contents, I see more winners than losers for sure, but the experience of reading the collection overall was a bit of a slog: partly, I think, from the unfairness of my goal, my wrong hypothesis. The first story, “Royalty,” about a self-regarding friend, whose visit to India from the States delays his old friends escape to the cool hills, is wonderful. “The Rooftop Dwellers,” a long story about a young woman who finds an apartment in a tiny, tiny rooftop shack and, in so doing, carves out a bit of independence for herself, is stunning and beautiful: a little masterpiece of small feminist triumph.

I loved the story “Winterscape,” too. It begins as the story of a new mother, white, married to an Indian man, but the focus gradually shifts to that man’s mothers (the sister who bore him and the wealthier one who raised him). These elderly, provincial Indian women are coming for an extended visit. This open-ended visit is the source of anxiety for the new mother and her conversations about it with her own mother mark the only missteps in the whole volume. That older white woman, Doris’s voice isn’t quite right. She says to her daughter: “Looks as if he never told you who his mother was though, or his father, the real ones, I mean. I call that peculiar, Beth, pec-u-liar!”

Something in this exchange, in Doris overall, sounds like parody to me. And it strikes me, once again, how even gifted writers who are great at writing race and class, still struggle to write about interracial interactions. Desai’s white characters seem like real, whole people to me. So do her Indian characters. She can write men and lower class characters that convince me of their authenticity. And the interracial marriage in “Winterscape” works. But there is something about the casually racist white mother that eludes her.

It pains me to make this observation, given what I owe her as a person and a reader, but I think it helps us remember just how very, very hard it is to write about race.

1 comment:

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