“WHERE SHALL WE GO THIS SUMMER”:
FROM PARANOIA TO PARALYSIS
DR. T. Vasudevareddy
The key to the understanding of Sita, the central character in Anita Desai’s novel “where shall we go this Summer”, thence to the grasping of the essence of the novel and thence to the mind of the writer can be found in one sentence - “Her husband was puzzled, -therefore, when the fifth time she told him she was pregnant, she did so with a quite paranoiac show of rage, fear and revolt’.” (p.20) The sentence is pregnant with circumstantial evidence, contextual illumination and linguistic idiosyncracies that border on absurdity, which more or less lays bare the mind of the writer and throws light on her personality. Normally it is the pressure of the situation or the force of the circumstance that tilts the mental equilibrium of the person. The present situation, when viewed realistically in a balanced way leads one to arrive at a wholesome assessment that it is not the real pain of the child-birth that bothers sita’s maternal instinct and intensifies her diabolic decision but it is the excessive indulgence in horrible imagination of the notional idea of the pang of giving birth that seizes her mind in a feverish grip and throws her into a fit of paranoia.
The intensity of the feeling of paranoia is discernible in her constant fear of child-birth. Though she is now pregnant and the period of delivery has come near, she feels a strong revulsion to it and openly she says she doesn’t want to have the baby. In her married life of twenty years, she had given birth to four children, not without pride and pleasure, both sensual and emotional. It is marked by placid serenity that accompanies pregnancy and parturition. When she becomes pregnant for the fifth time, she feels a sense of horror to reveal it to her husband. She becomes mentally imbalanced and the mere thought of pregnancy turns her wild, lets her wild imagination gallop and race and makes her lose control over herself. The husband, like any other one and sensible man, feels that her present behaviour is not becoming of her and it doesn’t suit a woman of her state - a woman now in her forties; greying and ageing.
This quaint and unusual behaviour of the wife disturbs and even irritates her husband Raman who never had forced such an annoying situation throughout his married life till now. She weeps like a child at the thought of giving birth to a child. Raman’s past experience with her tells him that she was always pleased with the babies. But now she takes serious objection to his complacent use of words:
“I’m not pleased, ‘I’m frightened”, she hissed through her teeth. “Frightened”. Though this unexpected statement is pregnant with the potential of explosive material, it doesn’t make him lose the balance of his mind, and on the other hand he speaks gently to her and assures her that everything will go well and it will be easier to her. Her reply is quite characteristic of her mental perversion, the inevitable result of her mental obsession as her mind is terribly seized with this quaint idea which invades the very fabric of her thinking process. As a lady torn asunder between the horrible imagining fear of the terrible pangs of giving birth to a child and an inexplicable fright at the thought of a baby, she finds herself in a simmering situation or ebullient emotions, as a result of which she smokes bitterly through the nights and displays agony which he feels is as unbecoming to her as it is puzzling to him. Though her husband speaks to her in a tender way without ever to hurt her feelings, she fails to make any small attempt to understand his feelings.
One day when he speaks to her in a conciliatory as well as consolatory tone that “it’ll soon be over”, the storm which has been hitherto a dark-clouded cold depression breaks out. All through their married life they had preferred to avoid a confrontation. He now sees that the civil avoidance of friction through the decades has piled on the fury which explodes now;
‘It was as though for seven months she had collected inside her all her resentments, her fears, her rages, and now she flung them outward, flung them from her. Tossing clothes, cigarettes, books into the suitcases that she had dragged down from the tops of the cupboards, she was silent and blind in the face of his alarm and disbelief as he stood watching and not quite believing what he saw’. (p. 21)
The novelist’s incapacity in lending credibility to the complex character of Sita is clearly discernible in the striking clash of her behavioural patterns. She who does not tolerate her daughter Menaka crumbling a sheaf of new buds is now unequivocally prepared to crush the baby in the womb and not to let the baby be born. She has had a sense of horror towards destruction. She whose heart sank when she saw her little son Karan destroying for pure and lustful joy a toy building, a tower of blocks, enjoying more the crashing downfall than the architecture, is now obsessed with overpowering desire to destroy the baby in her womb. She who yearned for the flowering of creative impulse doesn’t intend to allow the process of creativity have any chance of progress. Her muddied mind visualizes the biological act of creation to be an act of releasing the baby in a violent pain-wracked blood-bath, and gradually but steadily she loses all feminine and maternal belief, let alone its affection, in child birth, she begins ‘to fear it is yet one more act of violence and murder in a world that had more of them in it’. The result is her defiant decision not to have the baby. ‘The line between the creative and the destructive grows so thin, so hazy, and undefinable that, gazing at it, she seemed to see it vanish altogether”. It is at this critical stage that Raman innocently first suggests escape to her in the same way as she asks her every year - ‘where shall we go this summer? She wishes to go alone. The plan to escape boils up in her mind with such suddenness that she is herself taken by surprise and she doesn’t realize that it had been simmering inside her for years. Now she realizes life in the mainland is a crust of dull tedium, of hopeless disappointment - a thin and flimsy crust that breaks apart at every alternate step, and finds herself tumbled into a crashed pile of debris. As Anita Desai describes her mental state, ‘She had no longer the nerve or the optimism to continue. No, she refused to walk another step. She would turn, go back and find the island once more’. (p. 39).
The title of Anita Desai’s novel with its overtly manifest question, smacking of the aura of seemingly disarming simplicity, yields to a searching spirit the crisscrossing currents of illusions and allusions. The commonness of the question, as it seems to be on the face of it, assumes dialectical dimensions and stretches itself to uncommon proportions of confounding elasticity, Sita with her mind in a state of Paranoia longs to go to the island which she had discarded years ago and which now appears to her paranoiac mind a magic place of all those values of life which seem to have vanished from the mainland. She wishes to enter alone the island which appears to be haven to her frenzied soul. Raman, as an affectionate and dutiful husband, pleads to her in a tone that rings of his sincerity; ‘Don’t be silly’, ‘Sita, don’t behave like a fool’ ‘Think of your condition’. In all earnestness he gives this piece of advice or suggestion, not in an authoritative tone of a traditional husband but in the pleading manner of an earnest mend, guide and well-wisher. But his advice only accelerates her fury and intensifies her state of paranoia. She flares up and hurls slippers, papers and nightgowns into the suitcase saying he has not understood her condition. He accepts that he doesn’t understand her fully but he understands her present state which requires proper care and attention: ‘you must stay where there is a doctor, a hospital and a telephone. You can’t go to the island in the middle of the monsoon. You can’t have the baby there’. She cries. ‘But I don’t want to have the baby, I’ve told you’. This statement at this period shocks her husband. The brutality and the murderousness of this statement seems to attack him with the clubs and spears of a bestial civilization; moreover it seems too shockingly out of character with a woman who couldn’t see the sight of a wounded eagle being attacked by the crows.
Raman is not against family planning and his objections stem from his fear of the danger to her life. He says, ‘You should have thought of it earlier; It’s too late now’. Her obstinate reply - ‘Too late? It’s not born yet’ - makes him hate her fiercely: ‘One can’t have an abortion at this stage’. Strangely enough she says in a gasping tone that he is quite mad and he doesn’t understand her; she doesn’t mean abortion - ‘I mean I want to keep it – I don’t want it to be born’. He feels stunned and stupefied at the colossal stupidity of her statement and says ‘you’ve gone mad’. He knows that what she has said in intense emotion is a contradiction in terms. How can anyone keep the baby in the womb without wanting it to be born? The idea itself is a clear proof of the speaker’s height of absurdity. The irony lies in the fact that she doesn’t realize the irrationality as well as the irritability of her thinking; like any other mad person, she in a fit of madness, thinks everyone around her is mad and tells him ‘What I’m doing is trying to escape from the madness here, escape to a place where it might be possible to be safe again’ (p. 23).
Raman is a rational character capable of making a realistic appraisal of the unrealistic situation. He is at once practical and amiable, sympathetic and teasing, ironic and earnest. He faces a critical situation as this, which is at once serious and awkward, with patience and tenderness, without loosening his grip over his mental composure. Trying to make the situation appear light and laugh it away, he speaks: ‘So you’re running away-like the bored run-away wife in – in a film’. Refusing to catch the glimpse of sense in the statement, she only retorts, which only proves that she is blind to the reality of the situation and she fails to see the truth of life. Sita seems to be a typical modern woman, who feels bored with the restrictive field of her domestic life. Raman’s statement makes clear another interesting fact, which is more of a painful reflection of an unwholesome situation of Indian life, i.e. the negative influence of the Indian film which is packed with romantic nonsense and sentimental stuff. As a woman, free from financial worries, and living in Bombay, she has the opportunity of going to the films and parks, and the Indian cinema invariably has its irresistible influence on her sensitive mind which is more of Gothic mould, which would definitely compel her romantic mind compare her dull domestic life with the more adventurous lachrymose lives of the fictional celluloid heroines.
In a way Raman plays the role of Mr. Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. While Jane Austen succeeds in the delineation of both Henry and Catherine, representatives of realistic and romantic trends, Anita Desai fails in portraying her central characters - Sita and Raman in convincing terms. It is not merely a failure of her fictional strategies, but it is a failure of the novelist’s basic ability to draw characters that are alive. Her treatment of Raman is marked with inadequacy, while that of Sita is with inadequacy coupled with eccentricity.
The question which poses the ageing central characters is – ‘Where shall we go this summer’ and what for? The novelist herself furnishes the answer in clear terms that leaves no scope for any semantic obscurity: ‘she had come here in order not to give birth.....she had arrived, she was on the island, in order to achieve the miracle of not giving birth’. But once on the island, her mind is seized with fear and loneliness. She feels a spasm of fear at her bravado and her impulsive action that has flung them alone on this island of Manori surrounded by wild seas. As soon as she enters the island house with her daughter Menaka and son Karan, they see not light, and in and around it there is total darkness. In fact it is Menaka who complains of darkness and not her mother Sita. ‘I can’t see’, Menaka complains, stumbling in the knotted monsoon grass. ‘There’s no light’. Karan, the little boy, is nearly paralysed with the fear of the pitch darkness of the night and the nightmarish Miriam the servant maid. Even Sita is compelled to remark that everything is dark and she too cries for light. The cry she makes frantically is an external manifestation of the internal restlessness and psychological fear, and audible expression of her paranoiac state.
She who has come here with the only purpose of achieving the miracle of not giving birth to the child is now seized with the fear – ‘It was no place in which to give birth. There was no magic here – the magic was gone. She laid her hand protectively on her swelling stomach. For all her inspired words, she knew she could not shelter it inside her for ever’. The more she thinks of the threatening results of her escapade, the more she feels frightened. She feels so lonely and the loneliness is so terrible that she begs her children to stay with her and begins to pity her abject state. Now it is quite obvious that the strong citadel of her resolute will gets invaded and strong erosions into her will power recur. But it is an incursion into her paranoid state, and now and then her motherly instinct makes a desperate attempt to overpower her. The oddity in her character grows to preponderous dimensions of absurdity, when she tells her husband in all earnestness that the happiest moment of her life was the joy she felt when she saw in a park a fatally anaemic Muslim woman lying in the lap of a bespectacled grey-bearded old man who might be her father or husband or lover, who caressed her face so tenderly.
Instead of allowing her actions speak out her character, the novelist draws the sketch of her career in bold colours – ‘Had not her married years, her dulled years, been the false life, the life of pretence and performance, and only the escape back to the past, to the island, been the one sincere and truthful act of her life, the only one not false and staged”? Such a description rather mars the intrinsic weight of Sita and one wonders how she could choose to be a heartless hypocrite all through the years of her married life and how she could deceive her husband and ultimately indulge in self-deception. But this hypocrisy is not one with her true character; it seems rather quite unnatural to her, either borrowed or thrust cruelly on her by her creator. Though she is intensely sentimental and emotional, she makes a desperate bid to conceal it by superimposing on it her recently acquired discontentment, the result of her perverted thinking, as amply evidenced by her words – ‘children only mean anxiety, concern pessimism. Not happiness. What other women call happiness is just – just sentimentality’ (p.107). It pains the heart of her husband who feels the agony ‘like a large grey bird in despair’. From a paranoiac state of mind she comes to he island desperately in search of throbbing life and excitement and to achieve a miracle, but soon after arriving on the island and entering the ‘Jeevan Ashram’, paradoxically enough she finds herself ‘in a kind of paralysis’. Though the novelist adds that ‘her paralysis melted a bit and gave way’, she continues to be in a state of partial psychic paralysis. It is pitiable that Sita, with all her inner potential, instead of facing life with courage and conviction, becomes an escapist and a fugitive, the unhappy result of her deliberate misguided outlook. As a matter of fact, all though the novel, Sita lies betrayed neither by her husband nor by the surroundings but by the novelist herself. Though the novel ends in facilely compromising way of Sita’ s returning with her husband and children to the dull and disgusting Bombay life, she doesn’t make any attempt to liberate herself from the shell of psychic paralysis and resigns herself passively to the inanimate and insipid life of Bombay which in reality is a limbo of death in life.