FROM SELF-ALIENATION TO SELF-ADJUSTMENT
IN ANITA DESAI’S
“WHERE SHALL WE GO THIS SUMMER?”
There is an important character which traverses the path of self-alienation before making a truck with the realities of the life and self-adjustment in Sita, the heroine of Anita Desai’s novel Where Shall We Go This Summer? Anita Desai’s fictional outlook seems to have undergone a significant transformation by the time she came to write this novel. Her preoccupation with the fascinating vistas of the diseased psyche of hyper sensitive individuals is not so much altered. But whereas in her earlier novels, characters caught in the maze of life’s problems committed suicide or sought some such melodramatic solution, the heroine of Where Shall We Go This Summer? after moving dangerously off the course of the well-established and generally accepted path of life, returns to it in time to make up for the lee-way. In an interview given to Atma Ram, Anita Desai makes it clear that suicide would have been “too melodramatic an alternative” for the middle-aged woman that the heroine is.
The novel depicts the tension between a sensitive wife, Sita and the rational, practical and worldly husband, Raman. Husband-wife discord, inadequacy of their mutual love relationship and disaffection is the major theme in the novel. Like Cry, the Peacock and Voice in the City this novel also deals deeply with the theme of marital dissonance. The natural flow of affection between Sita and Raman is very often intact but more frequently it is blocked due to misunderstanding, lack of adequate forbearance and patience. The disaffection proceeds primarily from their temperaments. Raman in Where Shall We Go This Summer? is a successful businessman, realistic, having a rather pragmatic view about life. Sita is over sensitive, keen-eyed, poetic and imaginative, having more than ordinary sense. If Raman is social and extrovert, Sita is introvert. If Raman thinks only of the immediate present, Sita is foresighted and has higher notions about life than the average woman will have. Because of their temperamental differences many points of discord between them occur and their responses to life are different.
Sita, the protagonist of the novel has four children and is reluctant to deliver or to abort the fifth one. She wants to retain it in her womb because she is afraid of exposing the child to the violence in the modern world by giving birth. Fed up with the dreary metropolitan life in Bombay and tormented by the paranoiac fear of her fifth and reluctant pregnancy, she goes to the magic island, Manori in the hope of preventing the delivery with the help of miracles. There on the island, her miracles fail and instead of finding peace, she becomes alienated. She realises and returns home to continue her passive life. T. S. Anand aptly finds her reason for her return and says:
[Sita] She had realised the difference between the necessity and the wish, between what a man wants and what he is compelled to do. Her desire to bear the child and return with Raman to the main land signifies her return to life, community and society... Existence is not possible in an insulated stage of being, rather existence implies being with others.
The story of the novel is told in a series of flashbacks with a clever ordering of past events. The division of the novel orders the events. The first section is devoted to Sita’s coming to the “Magic Island” Manori along with her daughter Menaka and son Karan. The second part deals with Sita’s life at Manori for twenty years before her second visit to the islet. The third part is about her choice of the future course. Desai adopts the pattern of monsoon winds to convey the tumult in Sita’s mind. In her interview with Atma Ram, she says, “I wanted the book to follow the pattern of monsoon together darkly and threateningly to pour down wildly and passionately and then withdraw quietly and calmly”. This enables her to delineate the inner life of her heroine who is the central figure in the novel.
Sita is the daughter of a well-known freedom fighter who is looked upon by his disciples as “the second Gandhi”. As most of her father’s life is spent in jail, she has no mother to look after her. She is denied the regular life of a normal child. She lives a strange and unusual life. She was required to spend days on end away from home, at different places There was no schooling to discipline her. Her sense of belonging was extremely tenuous:
She belonged, if to anyone, to this whole society that existed at that particular point in history like a lamb does to its flock and saw no reason why she should belong to one family alone (Page 85).
After independence, Sita’s father has selected Manori, a small island to settle. He is accompanied by his disciples and his family. He calls his house “Jeevan Ashram”. “The Home of Soul”. It is at this island, that he tries to put his social theories into practice. Many social welfare activities are undertaken by him, including digging of a well for the villagers. He offers advice to the villagers in regard to agriculture. Many strange things happen on the island. Her father cures the people stung by scorpion. Childless people also approach for children. One of the villagers uses the world “magic” and all repeat it. In a short time he becomes a legend. His chelas who used to take care of his daughter, Sita, “called him a saint, his critics a charlatan, the villagers a wizard and each produced evidence to prove his theory” (P.75). Sita also used to spend her time in the company of her brother, Jeevan and sister, Rekha. In course of time, her father’s admirers grow large in number lured by his miracles. To Sita, her father remains an enigma. She forms uncertain and vague impressions about him. It is a mystery to Sita whether her father cures people by magic or by medicines. She is told by her brother Jeevan that her mother left for Benaras leaving her husband and children. She is upset by the sad news of her mother’s running away. Her mother’s figure even haunts her and turns her into a wanderer. All these experiences make Sita lose her grip on life and develops in her an uncertain and unrealistic attitude towards life. It is a question before her why her mother left her husband who is said to be a second Gandhi. After the death of her father, she is brought to Bombay by Raman, the son of her father’s old friend, Deedar. Raman arranged funeral ceremony of her father. She is admitted in the college by Raman. Later on, he marries her “out of pity, out of lust, out of sudden will for adventure, and because it was inevitable” (P. 99).
Sita’s husband Raman is a businessman with good public relations. He is busy with his vocational affairs and can spare little time for her. He represents pragmatism and an acceptance of the materialistic values of the society. He finds his activities more fulfilling than his relations with his wife he wants to exercise his full authority over her. His wife, Sita finds her life dull, and monotonous. She anticipates Raman to be the life lover, making her realise how valuable she is to him. Raman, however, does not fulfil her wishes. Raman focuses his energies on his business and becomes an escapist. By nature, he is a perfectionist. He has his own morals, own standards. As a consequence the temperaments of Sita and her husband remain poles apart. They suffer from marital disharmony like Maya and Gautama of Cry, the Peacock As a result, Sita hypersensitive as she is; feels marital dissatisfaction with her husband.
Sita strongly feels that marriage is a farce and all the human relationships are false in the absence of love. Unfortunately, she feels very unhappy even in the company of her in laws.
Therefore she flouts the norms and values of society. Besides this, Sita also observes that people in Bombay are just for materialistic life. They are “nothing - nothing but appetite and sex” (P. 47).
Once Sita tells Raman that she has “only one happy moment” in their long married life. It is in the “Hanging gardens” where she sees a Muslim woman, laying her head in the lap of an old man. He looks down at her and caresses her tenderly. Sita has never seen such tender and gentle moments in her life. In Sita’s view, life without love is meaningless. She says, “Their lives seemed to have one - if not meaning then a secret-a strange, divine secret” (P.148). But Raman does not understand the “divine secret”.
Fairly early in the novel, the episode in which Sita describes their encounter with a foreign tourist who was on his way from Ajanta and Ellora. “He seemed to be brave”, she observed when Raman asked her about him. For Raman, he is a fool as “he did not even know which side of the road to wait on”. “But Sita identifies herself with him. Like him, she is also a person seeking an advenrturous life. She too wants to wander like the stranger without the knowledge of the route. This shows her romantic vision of life and her immense interest in unfettered life.
Sita is estranged from her husband and children because of her emotional reactions to the incidents that occur to her in society. She does not like violence of any kind whether in nature, society or in personal life. To her disgust she finds it pervasive. In the novel, Desai depicts the gulf between Sita and her family in the episode of the eagle and the crows with all emphasis on Sita’s sensitivity to violence. The ruthless attack of crows on the eagle is a terrible sight. She is shocked at the sight of the dead eagle as Maya in Cry, the Peacock is shocked by the sight of her dead pet dog; The situation objectifies for Sita the conflict in her own life. She identifies herself with the dead eagle. However her husband, Raman views this situation in a different way. He is not worried about it. That is the reason, Charmanzel Dudt aptly remarks about the novel that: Where Shall We Go This Summer? is about two journeys, one undertaken to escape from immediate surroundings, another to move towards something in the future created out of the illusions we all held out of the past.
Raman’s sadistic delight in Sita’s failure to protect the eagle intensifies her agony. Her husband and the children do not understand her problems due to the communication gap between them. They are quite indifferent to her predicament. This trivial incident creates a gulf separating Sita from her husband and the children.
Another incident which describes the fight of ayas in the street brings out Sita’s repulsion to violence with a stress on her sentiment being Karan, Sita’s young son is sent with the aya to play with the other children of the neighbourhood. While the children are busy in their play, the ayas are immersed in the gossip about their lovers and memsahibs. But within a short time Sita found a clash and clamour of angry women. The ayas started quarreling. Suddenly, Sita comes out of the house, pulls out her son, Karan and orders her aya Rosie to come out of the fray. She reflects: “It is like living in the wilds”. She tells her husband that there is no security to anyone in this violent society. Raman who is practical and insensitive to such happenings takes it easy.
Once Menaka unconsciously crumples a sheaf of new buds on the small potted plant, talking with her mother about a party. Sita is hurt by the sight of her daughter’s insensitivity and callousness.
Again in another incident, Sita found her husband’s indifference towards the newspaper pictures of Vietnam War the photo of a woman weeping over a grave and a crowd outside the Rhodesian jail. She did not like Menaka’s tearing Sunday water colours into “long strips of meaningless colour”, Karan demolishing his toys with Karate blows.
Sita becomes hysterical like Maya of Cry, the Peacock and starts tossing clothes, smoking cigarattes and hurling books. Raman is baffled to notice this emotional upheaval. Even though she is forty, she has no control over herself. Sita’s becoming pregnant at this age is regarded with distaste by Raman. As days pass by, the very atmosphere of Bombay becomes suffocating. She feels compelled to retreat. It causes her irrational flight to the island ostensibly to prevent the birth of her child into a violent world. While the Hanging Gardens episode clearly points out her neurotic need for the tender attention of her father, the pregnancy provides an ideal occasion to think of the magic island as a source of release. So, when Raman casually asks, “Where Shall We Go This Summer?” she almost spontaneously suggests that they should go to Manori, her father’s island..
She shifted to Manori island along with the daughter Menaka and son Karan leaving other family members in Bombay but to her surprise the magic and the special charm that once belonged to the island are no more to be found. She is disappointed with the islanders.
The escape to the island of Manori and its primitive conditions is an attempt to capture the care-free days of her childhood where time stood still and yet it was no paradise. Corruption, selfishness, egoism have all had their place there. Sita found the road, the bullock cart, the fields and the men the women of the island, all reveal the ravages of time. The fields are only “pits of mud and slush”. The old house is full of dust and cobwebs. These unpleasant changes irritate Sita who comes here for peace and tranquility. The old servant Moses and his wife Mariam become lazy. With these situations at Manori, her children Menaka and Karan express their dissatisfaction to continue their stay. Sita is disillusioned with this atmosphere on the island and soon she realises her folly. She admits, “It was no place in which to give birth. There was no magic here - the magic was gone”.
When Sita is passing through such crises in life, Raman visits Manori island to fetch her away as she finds him likeable for all that he does for the family. Moreover, her life at Manori island restores her to the world of hard facts and awakens her to the truth of her situation. In its very failure to offer the magic of the earlier era it provides her an ideal setting to fight her affliction. Therefore, she takes the final decision to follow Raman to Bombay. It is the crucial turning point in her mental journey. So far she has considered giving birth as an act of violence but now she realises, according to Usha Bande, “....a seed fallen from the tree of life into the cosmic womb, must break open. Bursting out of the enclosure of the womb is a violent activity, but in its impetuousity it is creative”.
Therefore, betrayed, defeated and humiliated, Sita is forced to come back to Bombay. She is compelled to welcome the child into the world of violence and suffering. On being asked about the fate of the fifth child, Anita Desai in her interview with Atma Ram answers:
It is born. It lives. It compromises. It accepts the dullness, either closes its eyes to or else condones destruction, ugliness, rottenness. In otherwords, it leads an ordinary life of the kind its mother tried so desperately to change only to find she could not.
Thus her return to Bombay brought her a new child safely, Menaka’s admission to medical college is gained and the children are reared. And also her return to Bombay is a symbolic reenactment of the scene twenty years ago when she followed Raman pitying herself for her helplessness but this time it is of her own free will that she follows him.
Normally Desai’s heroines act violently, but here, is a positive change. Sita reconciles herself to her lot. She strikes a balance between her inner self and the outer world, her prosaic self and her poetic sensibility, her individual self and the societal consciousness is Rightly does B Rama Chandra Rao observe: “The novel may, thus, be seen as a parable on the inability of human beings to relate the inner with the outer, the individual with the society”.
Thus Desai’s Where Shall We Go This Summer? is an answer to temperamental incompatibility and the resultant self-alienation. This novel is in contrast to the other novels like Cry, the Peacock, Voices in the city and Fire on the Mountain, in which the problems of frustration of the female characters come to violent and tragic ends. This novel presents a positive approach to the existential predicament. Sita neither dies in the end nor kills anybody nor does she become mad. She simply compromises with her destiny. Self adjustment is the remedy for self-alienation.