Book Review: Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai

Ithaca, in Homer’s Odyssey, is the home of Odysseus. In the modern world, Ithaca is an island located in the Ionian Sea, in Greece. Ithaca is also the title of a poem written in 1911 by Constantine P. Cavafy in Greek, , inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to  his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem is a long one, but here are some excerpts…..

“When you set sail for Ithaca, 
Wish for the road to be long, 
Full of adventures, full of knowledge, 
Always keep Ithaca in your mind. 
To arrive there is your final destination. 
But do not hurry the voyage at all. 
It is better for it to last many years. 
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey. 
Without her, you would not have set out on the road. 
Nothing more does she have to give you. 
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. 
Wise as you have become, with so much experience, 
You must already have understood what Ithacas mean.”

To read the full poem, click here.

Anita Desai’s ‘Journey to Ithaca’ has, fittingly, on the very first page, the English translation of this poem, but it is only when you read through the entire book that you realise how perfect is her choice of title for the book.

C.P. Cavafy’s poem, though based on an epic, is about the journey of life and the increasing maturity of the soul as the journey continues. Through the poem, the author encourages us to enjoy this journey while it lasts, for it is all that a traveller can ask for.

Anita Desai’s book is about journeys too….the journey of Sophie and Matteo, from Italy to India, in quest of spirituality. They arrive in India, like so many others, and explore the scene, travelling from ashram to ashram in search of something they have no idea of, just a belief that they will find it someday…. Or at least, that’s Matteo quest. Sophie accompanies Matteo out of curiosity and rebellion, and is quickly disgusted to realize that the India she finds is not the India she expected to find. Matteo’s journey leads him to The Mother, where he quickly finds his place, but for Sophie, this is just the beginning of her own quest – to find out more about the woman who calls herself The Mother. This is the other part of the book – the journey which transforms Laila into Lila, and eventually, The Mother.

The book is not easy to read. In fact, I had a hard time when I began, and had to try hard to not give up. After all, it isn’t easy to read about India as it appears to the western visitor, disgusted by the dust and the grime. We might complain about the mess our country is, ourselves, but it is certainly not easy to read an honest, unflattering description, especially when we know it is all true.

Whether it is Sophie’s disgust at the hovel that is their hotel in Bombay, or the crowded train journey to a suburb in search of a guru, or even her learning to bathe under a tap out in the open, Desai does not mince her words, and it is this which eventually carries us ahead with the book. She is brutally honest, showing Sophie’s revulsion at the very idea of a pilgrimage, walking long distances and living under the most basic of conditions, yet, she manages to show the other side too – of women on the same pilgrimage who not only walk the same distances and live under the same conditions, but also wash, cook and clean all along the way, and are graceful enough to share their food with Sophie and Matteo.

The book picks up pace only with Matteo’s arrival at The Mother’s ashram. The story soon turns to the eternal clash, with Matteo devoted to the Mother, and Sophie growing jealous. The situation worsens with the birth of Sophie and Matteo’s children with Sophie eventually choosing to return home.

This is where the story gets interesting, with Sophie finding herself just as restless and disenchanted with Europe as she was disgusted with India. Returning to India to care for her ailing husband, Sophie decides that the best way to draw Matteo out of The Mother’s clutches is to trace the Mother to her origins. Her quest takes her to Cairo, and then Paris, Venice and the US, eventually bringing her back to India. And it is in this journey that Anita Desai shows her mettle, showing us Laila through long forgotten memories and pages in old, decaying diaries. The words leap out of the pages, bringing Laila to life, even as Sophie traces the path she took, ages ago.

As Daniyal Mueenuddin, the Pakistani-American author, says in his introduction –

“Reading Desai, we see how much more nuanced their encounter with India was than that of the previous imperial generation. Desai’s people and places, attitudes and understandings, are made richer and more complex by the changed balances of power, the end of the Empire, and the revaluation of India in the western mind. Yet, this is very much a book about misunderstandings. Among its virtues is that it manages to convey all the innocence and confusion of the seekers from the West and all the hirsute and mundane spirituality of India, without being beguiled by either – Desai takes sides neither with one nor the other of the two cultures.”

This book was sent to me for review by Random House. The views expressed are my own.


  1. It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

    book publicist

  2. The theme sounds good and a journey based book... I will pick this up at the first opportunity!


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