“Loneliness in Diasporic Life as Depicted by Anita Desai”- Amit Saha

(Amit Saha- The author is currently researching for his Ph.D. thesis on the topic 'Displacement and Human Relationships in the Fiction of Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri' under the supervision of Dr. Santanu Majumdar of Calcutta University)

It is not too preposterous to claim that no single person in the so-called civilized world is a native, all are migrants. The validity of the point made can be ascertained by outlining the history of the human race since the pre-historic time, when all land was Pangea. From Pangea’s “heart of darkness” originated the human race and migrated to different parts. During the glacial phases of the “Quaternary or Pleistocene Age” (Butlin et al 1-2), the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration (Clark 1-18).

When the continental plates separated out, the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration. Aided by the tectonics of the earth, the earliest human beings became great migrants but they were not yet ‘civilized’ and hence when the first civilizations cropped up they became the first ‘civilized’ natives. Still, the civilizations of Indus valley (India), Yangtze-Kiang valley (China), Tigris-Euphrates basin (Mesopotamia) and Nile basin (Egypt) cannot be said to have been inhabited by the original natives as they were periodically over-run by newer migrant groups (Toynbee 535, 543 & Clark 18 ). The newer migrant groups either scattered the former groups or amalgamated with them to become the new natives.

The process went on for ages and allied with the increase in population, it ultimately gave rise to the concept of a “melting pot”. India became the first melting pot of the world and since the coming of the Aryans, India has received invaders, traders and refugees in various migratory patterns. There are the Greeks and the Macedonians who came with Alexander; then the spread of Mohammedanism saw the displacement of the whole Parsi community from Persia to India; then came the Arab traders followed by Persians, Afghans and Turkish traders as well as invaders, and finally came the Mughals. All these migratory people have undergone such assimilation in the melting pot of India that they have become its natives. Even the colonial powers did not escape effects of the melting pot. The Anglo-Indian community in India is more Indian than anything else. Of late the second world war saw the migration of some Jews to India; the 1970s saw the coming of “hippies” and all along there has been constant migration of traders and refugees from India’s neighboring countries like China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. These latter groups are still in the process of assimilation.

As previously stated, the “melting pot” is not an isolated concept related to India. The United Kingdom is also an example of one. Since the early Phoenicians to the Angles, the Jutes, the Saxons, the Normans and the Romans, all have become the natives of Britain (Butlin & Dodgshon 55). The later day migrants from the British colonies of Africa and Asia along with the Irish, Poles, Jews and those from the Commonwealth countries have made British society multicultural. The United States of America is perhaps the most active melting pot of the world. Clark also explains that the Red-Indians, the original inhabitants of that territory, were not even as “civilized” as the Incas of South America (World Prehistory in New Perspective 352). The migrant population from Europe, especially UK, along with the indentured laborers they brought from Africa now constitutes the native population of USA. The newer migrants like the Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and so on are providing constant fuel to keep the multi-ethnic melting pot of the American society to boil. Peter Kivisto in the ‘Introduction’ to his book, Multiculturalism in a Global Society depicts five major world migration patterns in the 1990s: from Asia to US and Canada; from Central America to Canada; from Africa to Europe; from Asia to Europe; and from India and South-East Asia to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. What this indicates is that migration is as good as any natural phenomenon.

The treatment of the migrant condition in literature is the most engrossing topic exciting intellectual debate. The postmodernist world has seen the emergence of interdisciplinary and cultural studies as the major thrust areas of academic exploration. As Elleke Boehmer states, “the postcolonial and migrant novels are seen as appropriate texts for such explorations because they offer multi-voiced resistance to the idea of boundaries and present texts open to transgressive and non-authoritative reading” (243). Thus, in a world where identity, origin and truth are seen in postmodernist terminology as structureless assemblages, the writer Anita Desai appears as a very good example in that regard. Desai’s mother was a German Christian and her father was a Bengali Indian. Her mother, Antoinette Nime, could trace her origin to France, and her father, Dhiren Mazumdar’s native place was Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) but he had settled in New Delhi. This mixed parentage of complex origin gives Anita Desai the advantage of having double perspective when writing about India and Indians and as well as about migrants in India and Indian migrants to the West. She is both an outsider, if seen from her mother’s side, and a native, if seen from her father’s side. Desai has enjoyed her unique position living in India for a considerable part of her life after which she went to Girton College, Cambridge, UK, followed by her shift to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Becoming a global citizen has chiseled her perspectives still further and also made her explore the condition of the Diaspora in her fiction in a better way. Desai has dealt with a group of diasporic Indians in Britain of the late 1960s in her novel Bye-Bye Blackbird (1969); she has also dealt with the character of a migrant Austrian Jew in India in her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). In the novel, Journey to Ithaca, she has shown an Egyptian acculturated in India along with an Italian spiritual seeker in the subcontinent (1995). Finally, she has also shown the predicament of a lonely Indian, Arun in USA, in her novel Fasting, Feasting (1999).

Anita Desai’s fictions are generally existentialist studies of individuals and hence background, politicality, historicity, social settings, class, cross-cultural pluralities are all only incidental. But being incidental does not mean that they are essentially extraneous. Their study is not only as important as the study of ‘human condition’ in Desai’s fiction but in fact, they are intrinsic to the latter study. Basically, it is the tension between what is to be included and what to be excluded from the study of literary text that makes it all the more interesting. This is especially relevant when the fiction deals with the condition of being in a Diaspora about migrant existence. The solitude that Desai depicts in her diasporic characters is a result of the inner psyche of the characters as also their external circumstances. Loneliness is a manifestation of both inner and outer conditions and hence, its sense can be evoked even in the middle of society.

The Jew, Hugo Baumgartner in the novel Baumgartner’s Bombay had spent his childhood in his native Germany with his parents. Even as a child a sense of loneliness gnaws at his being and is evoked at his crucial moments of triumph. On his first day at school when his mother comes to fetch him with a cone of bonbons for him, he holds up his prize for the others to see but already “the other children were vanishing down the street” and “no one saw his triumph”. He accuses his mother for being late and complains: You don’t look like everyone else’s mother” (33). Hugo’s loneliness as a child, in the midst of society comes because of the lack of identification. Even when he is not neglected he feels the same loneliness as is evident from the Christmas incident in the school when all his classmates were sent gifts by their parents to be distributed to them by their teacher. Hugo longs for the red glass globe that adorns the top of the Christmas tree. When the teacher makes it up as his gift he instinctively realizes that his parents have not sent any gift for him and he stubbornly disinclines from accepting it even though goaded by his classmates to take it. It is perhaps this sense of loneliness experienced by the Jewish community in Germany that helped Hitler fuel his Aryan myth and transform loneliness into fear. The Baumgartner family lives in fear in Nazi Germany and fear is an acute form of loneliness.

Long before Hugo has a literal displacement after the suicide of his father, he has experienced a displacement whereby he has not literally moved but the world around him has moved or rather changed. So when Hugo has a physical displacement and migrates as a teenager to India, he already harbors the sense of loneliness. Thus it seems that the change in location is only incidental to his sense of solitariness. But the circumstantial changes also help to aggravate one’s solitude and hence it is not merely incidental and this fact is quite apt in consideration with the estrangement that Hugo suffers from his mother. That Hugo’s mother stayed back in Nazi Germany and her highly censored letters only bear the curt statement that she was well and it provides no comfort to Baumgartner. The memory of his mother in Germany is a constant deterrent against stopping him from succumbing to a sense of loneliness.

Influences and counter-influences that mould one’s perceptions govern human life. When the tension generated by these counter-acting influences rises to a critical level, human beings suffer. The molding gives rise to senses that off late were in a latent state. Thus Baumgartner’s loneliness is also aroused from latency when in India he is in the loneliness-alleviating company of Lotte, a German cabaret singer. Hugo’s relationship with Lotte is no doubt vital but acts only as a poor substitute for all the relationships he craves for. Just as Baumgartner keeps stray cats and cares for them in an attempt to give some purpose to his lonely existence, his relationship with Lotte can be thought to be in parallel to it. The relationship in itself is important but it is more important because it gives some purpose to Hugo’s “Sisyphus-like” (37) existence as explicated by G. R. Taneja in the essay "Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay: A Note".

At the height of Second World War, Baumgartner is interned in a camp in British India because he carries a German passport. In the camp Baumgartner is among other Jews yet he stays aloof because he, unlike others, could find no way “to alleviate the burden, the tedium, the emptiness of the waiting days” (Baumgartner’s Bombay 125). Even after the war, when he meets one of his camp-mates, he finds that he has changed his name from the “too Jewish” Julius to the “very English” Julian. If Julius deliberately dilutes his Jewish identity, Baumgartner unknowingly suffers from an identity crisis and to counter it, there arises in him a sense of non-belonging. The Second World War rendered the Jewish Diaspora nationless and hence identity crisis becomes inherent in the community. Baumgartner cannot go back to Germany because the Germany of his childhood no longer exists and hence his perennial sense of loneliness continues. The only time that Baumgartner tries to reconcile the Germany of his childhood with the present-day Germany by taking a stoned German youth, Kurt, to his apartment, he is robbed and murdered by him. It is perhaps the ultimate indictment that no reconciliation is possible and all attempts to wipe out the sense of diasporic loneliness are futile.

The German, Kurt, follows the typically decadent lifestyle of the hippies in India but another German, Sophie, from the novel Journey to Ithaca is most unlike in that regard. She has come to India following her Italian husband, Matteo, who is seeking spiritual love. Sophie cannot identify with Matteo’s ideals and does not find the Mother as inspiring as Matteo does. She is left neglected and lonely in a foreign land. It is quite ironic when Sophie discovers that the Mother herself is a seeker of divine love and is of Egyptian origin who has traveled all over the world until settling in India. But by the time she comes to make the revelation to Matteo, the Mother is already dead and Matteo has disappeared. She is left stranded bearing in her the sense of spiritual loneliness that has come out of the mysticism in the churning of differing cultures.

The Diaspora of Indian community is also not exempted from being a victim of the sense of loneliness. Since Indian independence, UK has been a prime destination for migrant Indians. The earliest of such communities constituted either of “Anglophiles,” whose purpose of migration has been to experience the pristine beauty of England, or of “Anglophobes,” who migrate to take the proverbial “postcolonial revenge”. In England both these types of migrant Indians are pressed together and marked as “the Others”. This sense of otherness is sometimes due to blatant racism and sometimes it comes out from the individual’s own inner needs. It is such a situation when both the Anglophobe and the Anglophile find themselves in the same boat that their distinctions diminish as their purposes dilute. Purposeless, they find themselves lonely.

Anita Desai’s novel Bye-Bye Blackbird is about migrant Indians in the England of 1960s. Adit lives in London with his English wife, Sarah. Dev is a newly arrived immigrant from India. Adit has well adjusted himself in the country of his adoption and has allayed his sense of loneliness by being nonchalant to its various causes. Dev, on the other hand, is critical of Adit’s attitude. He gets disturbed and angry when someone whispers the word “wog” behind his back. Obviously Dev has more reasons to be lonely and thus when he ventures into the city he feels, “like a Kafka stranger wandering through the dark labyrinth of a prison” (169). Dev’s loneliness eventually stops haunting him and he decides to stay in England. Adit, in the interim, suffers from a crisis of identity. He starts longing for the land and the people he has left behind. He feels depressed of "Mrs. Roscommon-James’ sniffs and barks and Dev’s angry sarcasm" (176) as well as from the fact that Sarah "had shut him out, with a bang and a snap, from her childhood of one-eared pandas and large jigsaw puzzles" (176). He finally decides to return to India with Sarah. What this proves is that the sense of loneliness is not a phenomenon of overpowering presence but rather of intermittent overpowering, guided by circumstances incidental and always in flux.

Just as the United Kingdom, the United States of America has also attracted Indians as a destination of academic and economic prosperity. The size of the Indian diaspora community in the US is gradually increasing in the post-globalization era. But it is quite debatable to assert that globalization has solved the problems of the diaspora Indians. No doubt, problems like racism are no longer as headstrong as before, but the problems of the inner “human condition” still plague the diasporic community. Arun, from the novel Fasting, Feasting is a very good example of an Indian in the suburbs of Massachusetts, finding himself lonely and unable to adjust to a culture of freedom. He is not only bewildered by American college life but also by the ways of the Patton family, his host for the summer. He cannot understand the passion with which Mr. Patton himself barbecues red meat after coming home early only to find his son Rod and daughter Melanie absent form the ceremony. He finds it strange that Mrs. Patton keeps her refrigerator always stocked to the full, despite knowing that there are not many heads in her family to consume that food. Arun cannot even identify with Rod and Melanie. Though Arun takes up jogging like Rod, unlike him he simply cannot devote himself to such physical exercise. Arun is appalled to find Melanie’s condition of bulimia amidst the plenty that America provides. All dysfunctional indulgences of Americans make Arun puzzled and from this puzzlement breeds his sense of loneliness. Faced with a seeming paradox of a new culture, he is lonely.

An inviting doorway does not mean that the hearth inside can make one feel like home, especially when the idea of home and family differs from culture to culture. This difference is not fundamental; it is superficial. But so are all cross-cultural conflicts and paradoxes. The first encounter that any migrant has with his/her country of adoption is with superficialities. It definitely takes time to scratch this surface of superficiality and till then it is only loneliness for company. Arun tries to seep in through the surface for he knows that the meeting place for two cultures can only be some middle ground. To reach this middle ground he has to assuage the distance that he has to travel, for which he has to know the distance of the other extremity. Arun does so by delving deep into the core of a suburban American family and invariably he is shocked at his first encounter. He takes the first step in overcoming his state of shock by giving to Mrs. Patton as parting gifts, the parcels that have been sent to him by his parents from India.

Arun may travel that extra mile and transform himself into the like of Rakesh, another of Desai’s character in the short story “Winterscape” from her collection, Diamond Dust and Other Stories. But Rakesh, so very Westernized, does not necessarily live without any sense of loneliness. What he has alienated himself from to become a Westerner gives rise to his sense of loneliness. This not only proves that loneliness is an inherent character of diasporic life but also that the sense of loneliness acts as an umbilical cord attaching oneself to one’s native place, irrespective of its existence, while living in a diaspora. It is perhaps consoling that loneliness is in this sense a necessity.

Works Cited

Butlin, R. A. & Dodgshon, R.A. Ed. An Historical Geography of Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Clark, Grahame. World Prehistory in New Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Desai, Anita. Baumgartner’s Bombay. Oxford: Vintage, 1998.

Desai, Anita. Bye-Bye Blackbird. New Delhi: Orient, 2001.

Desai, Anita. Fasting, Feasting. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Desai, Anita. Journey to Ithaca. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Desai, Anita. Diamond Dust and Other Short Stories. London: Vintage, 2000.

Kivisto, Peter. Multiculturalism in a Global Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Taneja, G.R. “Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay: A Note”. Indian English Literature Since Independence. Ed. K. Ayyappa Paniker. New Delhi: The Indian Association for English Studies, 1991.

Toynbee, Arnold. Study of History. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1995.

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors. Oxford: OUP, 1995.