Book Review: The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

When I was sent ‘The Artist of Disappearance’ for review, I was thrilled. I had heard and read so much about Anita Desai, but had never read any of her works. This was the book I chose to carry along on my trip to Shimla, and it was meant to give me company at least for a couple of days.

As it turned out, I finished reading the book before I even reached Shimla, and then, when I reached there, I read it again. That, by itself, should tell you what I thought of the book.

‘The Artist of Disappearance’ is a trilogy – with three short novels or novellas, if I can call them that. They are too long to be considered ‘short stories’ and too short to be ‘novels’. The title is that of one of the stories, but it is the perfect choice for the trilogy, since it encapsulates the thread running through all the three. ‘A disappearing art’ is something we hear quite often, when we talk of India and our ancient, or folk art. But here, Anita Desai twists the common phrase into the ‘Artist of Disappearance’, shifting the focus from the art to the artist. Her stories concern a reluctant museum curator, a translator, and an artist or landscapist. All the stories are set in contemporary India, but the shadow of the past is very much in evidence. The future hovering over the characters doesn’t seem to be very bright either, for there are more questions than answers, even at the end.

The first story, ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ is about a bureaucrat who stumbles upon a private museum filled with artefacts from across the world. He is asked to bring it to the government’s notice by the watchman who has been left to care for the treasures. Knowing that he really can’t do anything, he proceeds with his life, but he can’t get the museum out of his head, even years later. This is so typical of the India we know and live in...Haven’t you ever, while visiting some place, unexpectedly stumbled onto something interesting, and wondered why it hasn’t been preserved better, developed better? I certainly have, and have done nothing about it either...

The second story ‘Translator Translated’ is about the literary arts. Indian literature and publishing is a field which has so much to offer, but which rarely fails to deliver in the manner intended. This is the story of a woman who sets out to translate a regional author’s works into English, and, along the way, adds her own perspective, her own way of writing, and eventually, her own words, to her translation. Should she be true to the language, the work or the author? Questions she doesn’t really find answers to..... This is one story I especially connected with, having had the same thoughts some time earlier while doing some translation work.

The third story is ‘The Artist of Disappearance’. It is all about the neglected son of a wealthy couple who haven’t been able to cope with the changes happening in the country. The son doesn’t fare much better, returning to his old house after his parents’ demise, but shying away from meeting anyone but the son of an old retainer. He is almost a shadow, a ghost, lurking around the periphery, disappearing without notice. He finds solace in creating a beautiful, secret refuge for himself amidst the vibrant Himalayan landscape. His inertia is shattered by the arrival of a film crew seeking proof of illegal mining in the hills. Before they can find what they came for, they stumble upon his secret refuge, forcing him to disappear once again.

Each story has two central characters. In the first, it is the young bureaucrat and the watchman of the museum. The bureaucrat’s disinterest and reluctant awe of the artefacts is beautifully contrasted with the single minded love and enthusiasm the old man has for his mistress’ possessions. In the second story, the translator is the central character, but one can’t help but contrast her against the author of the regional language. The third story might be all about the artist, but once again, his instinctive fear of people is a complete contrast to the film crew who barge into his haven without thought, with the single minded ambition of filming something that will catapult them into the big league.

That is what India is all about, isn’t it? It is indeed a country of contrasts – where the new and old clash all the time, where we all want to change, but find ourselves stuck to the mould we have poured ourselves in, where there is so much to preserve, but little actually is, where we have no dearth of art and artists, but both are disappearing faster than we think.

 P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India




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