Solitary Lives, Abruptly Interrupted - Anita Desai

The crumbling, all but abandoned manor house as symbol of a social order in distress: the English may have invented that notion, but their former colonial subjects in India have also proved adept at employing it as a literary device. In the three novellas that make up “The Artist of Disappearance,” Anita Desai uses it twice, in differing circumstances and locations, but to the same convincing and plaintive effect.

Ms. Desai’s main themes in her new book are decay and disappointment, retreat and regret, so that choice seems highly appropriate. Since the publication of her first novel, “Cry, the Peacock,” nearly 50 years ago, she has often offered portraits of a certain kind of Anglicized urban bourgeoisie or rural landed gentry struggling for meaning against illusions, and “The Artist of Disappearance,” though barely 150 pages, fits neatly into that distinguished body of work.

In “The Museum of Final Journeys,” which opens the book, we’re in the lush, green east of plantations left idle by the emergence of plastic as a substitute for jute. Ms. Desai’s unnamed narrator, “a mere subdivisional officer in the august government service,” is not unlike the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”: a callow bureaucrat charged with administering a rural district whose people and customs he does not understand, and unhappy with the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him.

So when the only remaining retainer of the largest estate in the area comes to him, seeking help in preserving a “preposterous collection” of Oriental oddities accumulated by the “young master” of the family in his travels throughout Asia (and who has now vanished), he welcomes the diversion.

At first he sees “only time, and dissolution,” but as he examines the objects, he finds himself “invaded by their poetic melancholy” and “fancying myself a privileged visitor to a past world.” Yet in the end he does nothing, and readers are left wondering what happens to the collection.

The title novella is set in Mussoorie, a resort in the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi, which happens to be the place where Ms. Desai was born in 1937, the child of a Bengali businessman and a German expatriate. The main character is Ravi, the adopted son of a flighty, prosperous couple with social pretensions that have been rudely batted down, who has returned to the family’s stately hilltop home after an unhappy sojourn in Bombay, seeking nothing but isolation.

Like Nanda Kaul in Ms. Desai’s 1977 novel, “Fire on the Mountain,” also set in a hill station, Ravi is one of life’s walking wounded, uncomfortable in human company, at ease only in nature. Even after the family mansion burns down, he continues to live in its ruins, so intent is he on creating a private garden in a hidden glade. But his solipsistic existence is interrupted when a film crew arrives from Delhi, wanting to make a documentary about the environmental degradation taking place in a modernizing, industrializing India.

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