FROM PASSIVITY TO POWER
Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain
Anita Desai, the foremost and arguably the best of the second generation Indian women novelists in English, gave womanhood a touch of psychological realism. She brought about a sea-change in the portrayal of women characters and added a new dimension to the fiction of Indian women. Unlike her contemporaries like Kamala Markandeya and Nayantara Sahgal, Desai is primarily concerned with the inner life of her heroines. What distinguishes her from most of the other Indo-English novelists is her ability to portray the contemporary woman’s psychological struggle for individuality and her search for identity. Desai does not resort to sensationalism in exploring the life of women in her novels. She portrays the alienated self of women. In a large number of her novels she has created a variety of women characters who are psychologically affected as a result of their utter helplessness in asserting themselves as human beings deserving a measure of dignity. The dominant theme in most of her novels, therefore is the struggle of women against the experience of “agony of existence in a hostile and male dominated society”. Her women characters are hypersensitive; they find themselves maladjusted and misunderstood most of the time.
The Indian women is not expected to worry about her own personal happiness and comforts. On the other hand she is encouraged to sacrifice her personal happiness for the well-being of the family. The woman who want to change and create a little space for themselves appear odd and selfish to others. Desai presents the strange predicament of especially these women who experience a sense of neglect, loneliness and desperation.
Cry the Peacock, Desai’s first novel, is the story of a sensitive young wife who craves for love and affection and suffers from loneliness in her own house. There is a total communication gap between Maya and her husband, Gautama. Voices in the City tells the story of Monisha who is married, against her will, to an insensitive official, and eventually becomes a pathetic figure. Similarly Bye-Bye Blackbird and Where Shall We Go This Summer? Also deal with the theme if alienation and in communication in married life. A close look at these novels reveals that by time Desai completed writing them a very significant change had come in her approach to life and its challenges. Her novel Fire on the Mountain particularly underline the need for a Nora-like stock-taking of the marital relationship, for shedding inhibitions and falsities that women have clung to for many many generations in this country and for equipping oneself with the resourcefulness to resist and rebel against injustice in the man-woman relationship.
In this novel Desai projects Raka, a woman in the making, who cannot bear injustice and humiliation. She belongs to the fourth generation of women in the novel, the others being Nanda Kaul, Asha and Tara in the order of succession. These latter three live in their own tradition-bound world. They accept passivity and tolerance as the highest virtues of womanhood. Any deviation or disobedience is considered to be a sin. Nanda Kaul is not happy in her own house but she cannot express it. She gives birth to children without her will or love for them: “And her children the children were all alien to her nature. She neither understood nor loved them” (145). Similarly, she lives with her husband even though she knows that he does not love her.
Many years of submissiveness and servile attitude prevent her from ventilating the deeply hidden feelings of revolt against this injustice. All through she has been aware of being ill-treated and cheated by her husband, yet she has lived up to the expectations of society - obeying her husband and managing his house efficiently. Ila Das, her childhood friend who is another victim of passivity and helplessness, expresses her disapproval of male domination when she says: “In the end, the women listen to them - if not to the priest, then definitely to their husbands” (129).
Asha, Nanda Kaul’s daughter, preaches servility and submissiveness to her daughter Tara, Tara is reduced to a “helpless jelly” (14) by her husband’s ill-treatment, his affairs with other women, his drinking and brutality. Instead of asking her son-in-law to mend his ways, Asha teaches her daughter the passive way of suffering silently and getting adjusted to his irregular ways. Tara, too, does not have an individuality of her own and hence offers no resistance to the suppression. True to her mother’s preaching, she knows only how to bear the beatings and abusiveness of her husband.
Whenever such incident took place, Tara “lay down on the floor and shut her eyes and wept” (71-72). Desai’s depiction of Tara’s character as a nonentity is a conscious effort for Tara’s voice is never heard in the novel; she is presented only as a “broken” and “twittering” (64) woman, which is a symbolic presentation of feminine passivity.
While through the above characters Desai creates a world which is cut off from modernity, she presents a modern young girl in the character of Raka. This girl does not find any fulfillment in being acquiescent. It does not appear to her to be a suffering and sacrificing individual. The demands of time create in her a revolt against oppression. Raka is presented with power and fire to fight the passivity and blind acceptance. Nanda, Asha and Tara are all the embodiments of compromise, whereas Raka is a symbol of fire who will not tolerate any suppression or servility. Like the tradition-bound women, she does not crave for companionship.
She is assertive and bold. Nanda admits that where she (Nanda) failed, Raka succeeds. Raka is capable of setting the forest on fire which is a symbolic act of rebellion and assertiveness, The mountain stands for old values, tradition and custom. Setting fire to the forest is tantamount to destroying the old order where women had experienced suffering and exploitation. As a nascent revolutionary, Raka adds a new meaning to the existence of the submissive characters. Whereas the elderly ladies live in their fantasy world, bogged down by slavery and tradition, Raka wants to live freely in the real world.
Desai sets up Raka as a model for the future generations of women writers. Through Raka, she offers a ray of hope for the vast majority of suffering women. She strongly suggests that a woman needs will-power and strength to resist male domination. Raka is a symbol of the assertive and independent new woman. Women need such extraordinary power to transcend their passivity. Raka’s setting fire to the forest is suggestive of women’s journey from passivity to power. Desai implies that passivity is no longer a virtue worth cherishing but a burden to get rid of. To protect herself, a woman has to set aside her traditional role of “Silent sufferer”. Raka is the woman of tomorrow - self-willed, strong, assertive and with a distinct identity of her own.