Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, 1977. Nanda Kaul, an old solitary lady lives in her house on the mountainside. Something depressing about her presence there, as if she was hiding away from some family secret. The house: a witness of generations of Colonial time residents, when British gentlemen and ladies used to entertain soldiers and organise parties for the rich expatriates there. Then came Independence. 1947. Everything stopped, and the house was vacated. That old lady bought it probably in the sixties, to settle away from her previous life. She appreciates the emptiness of the place, its solitude, the parched hillsides. She feels pacified when listening to “the scented sibilance of the pine trees” (this is from the opening page of the book, and you can notice already Anita Desai’s style in this simple image: the scented sibilance! A lot of the book’s charm, like that of Clear light of day, comes from the author’s fluent poetic precision. I’ll try further down to point at some of the differences with that other book).
Things really start when the aged lady must accept the visit of her great grand-daughter, because of some medical happenings in her family. To say she doesn’t welcome that visit is an understatement. She’s in a state of panic. She leaves Ram Lal, her obsequious cook, think of a menu that such a little girl would appreciate (potato chips!) She doesn’t even remember Raka: even if the author, Anita Desai (mother of Kiran), doesn’t mention the possibility, we wonder whether Nanda Kaul isn’t suffering from some form of Alzheimer’s disease. She has the stiffness, the forced amiability, the occasional incoherence and the lack of liveliness, which I have seen in documentaries showing that sort of people. On the whole, her character is extremely present and realistic; there’s a feel about her that’s unmistakable. Old age, its oddities, its painful limits and its sudden immense vistas over unexpected fields of experience.
Towards the end of the book we meet a third character, another old lady, Ila Das, who is as eccentric as Nanda Kaul is conservative, as loud-spoken as she is hushed. And that’s another narrative feat. This short volume (145 p) is inhabited by these three female figures, and each of them is as clear cut and sharp as the edges of the agaves growing in the ravines around the house. BTW, another quirkiness, which creates a very realistic effect (because something too expected, too well-fitting echoes more the writer’s world, and moves the reader away from the essence of reality): the house is called Carignano, an absurd Italian name whose origin is explained in the book, but this piece of reference simply doesn’t “fit”, in this Himalayan context, and points towards an important aesthetic choice: reality should not, cannot be harmoniously symbolised or signified in novels. Fire on the mountain is very much the result of this aesthetic choice.
Now the little girl: she’s described as a sort of insect, thin, graceful, but strangely wild and silent. At one moment of revelation, Nanda Kaul realises they are both very much alike, they are of the same genetic mould. She tells this to Raka, who characteristically recoils away from the comparison, as she recoils away from anything the old lady says or wants her to do. Everything Nanda Kaul reluctantly feels she should do, as her aged relative, is lost on the little waif. All she likes is to roam on the ragged mountainsides, near a burnt hut on the ridge, among the disturbing and dangerous refuse of the “Pasteur Institute”, a research institution which actually exists in Kasauli, where snakes and rabid jackals have bitten people under the very walls of the Institute.
What a strange creation, this Raka! What is her role in the novel? There are narrative answers, which I don’t want to disclose, but one may wonder if they’re really satisfactory: probably what Anita Desai is doing, in fact, is trying out her talent, pitting individuals one against the other, and watching the result. There isn’t much of a story in the classical sense, and while this could be very dangerous in terms of novelistic achievement, here, believe me, it works. The reader feels drawn towards the very unusual story that is made up by the coming together of these three beings, with their unfinished and bottomless personalities. Desai has that great talent: characterisation comes first, the story is only secondary. Yet a real story is written, up to a certain extent. It is made up of the bits of lives we visualise, and even if this story doesn’t coalesce in a pleasantly meaningful whole (not at all), it doesn’t matter: at the end of the book we have had our fill of human presence, of human depth, its vivid uniqueness, their completely unforeseeable destinies. For Desai, a human being is as creatively unique as cloud in the sky, yet as clearly and sharply recognisable as the pattern of seasons, the structure of a flower.
Compared to Clear light of day, Fire on the mountain strikes me a more fully successful work, even if it is shorter and earlier (the first dates from 1980, the second from 1977). Clear light of day strives at recreating a historical context of which she has freed Fire on the mountain. There is perhaps a greater literary scope to Clear light of day. But the 1977 book captures artistry in the making that the 1980 volume lumbers to display. I remember saying that the theme of Time was the great subject of Clear light of day. Well, it could also be said of Fire on the mountain. What is Nanda Kaul doing, up there on her mountain, in her retreat? She’s waiting, watching, listening, fearing, hoping. All of these time-connected activities are rather negative, as far as she’s concerned, but there will be some sort of change in her, some revelation, because of her forced interaction with Raka and Ila Das. Time will once again create something in her, as it always does if we open ourselves to it. In fact, it always opens its way through us, whether we want to protect ourselves from it or not. One could say that the story of Fire on the mountain is that of Time at work: two young creatures (I’m calling Ila Das young in a sense that the reader of the novel will understand) assaulting Nanda Kaul’s fortress, breaking down her fortifications, exposing her soft underbelly, her protected past. They only half succeed, but the message is clear, it seems to me: Truth in us humans comes when the future pours through the present and mixes with the past, when the clear waters of unexplainably new youth flood the salty tears of age, to recreate our beings.
(I don’t think the book would lend itself to any filmed version: there is no love story, no deep-set revenge, no family interest; only the windswept crags, the curious observing langur monkeys, and the night storms that magically cover the mountain slopes with a pink crêpe of morning lilies…)