- The Novels of Anita Desai: A Study in Character and Conflict
Usha Bande provides an excellent and provocative introduction to the fiction of Anita Desai, one of India's most compelling contemporary writers in English. Bande surveys Desai's major fiction beginning with Cry, the Peacock (1963) and ending with In Custody (1984). American readers of Bande's study will find helpful her documentation of the critical response to Desai's work in India.
Arguing that Desai's "real concern is with exploration of the human psyche," Bande applies concepts from Third Force psychology, as articulated by Karen Horney and Abraham Maslow, in her close readings of Desai's texts. Directed by Desai's claim that she is "interested in characters who are not average but have retreated, or been driven into despair and so turned against or made to stand against the general current," Bande uses Third Force psychology as a means to understand the often mysterious behavior of Desai's characters. Her analyses of Maya, from Cry, the Peacock; Monisha and Amla, from Voices in the City; and Bim, from Char Light of Day are most convincing. In identifying what moves these protagonists toward self-actualization, Bande eloquently describes how their aesthetic sensibilities contribute to their growth, a theme neglected by many of Desai's critics.
Bande's analysis of Desai's novels is clearly directed toward Western readers, and her text is peppered with often digressive references to English and American writers and critics. Although she often refers to Indian cultural traditions in explaining the behavior and motives of Desai's characters, Bande does not address the problem of how—or whether—concepts from Western psychology can be accurately used to analyze the subjectivity of Indian characters. Bande uncritically labels many of Desai's characters as either "normal" or "abnormal" without apparently investigating the cultural biases imported by these categories. Her analysis of Fire on the Mountain, in particular, is diminished because she labels Nanda Kaul as "abnormal" because she cannot connect with her psychotic great granddaughter. Jungian critic Bettina Knapp, whose analysis of this novel Bande apparently did not consult, argues, by contrast, that Kaul's behavior reflects her commitment to her own spiritual growth and her efforts to recognize and heal the damage that traditional gender roles have created in her life. Bande's reading of this novel shows how her reliance on Third Force psychology has unnecessarily limited her theoretical perspective.
Desai's treatment of women characters and her comments about them also indicate that feminist analyses of gender, sexuality, subjectivity, and colonialism could amplify Bande's analysis. Although Bande applies Karen Horney's model of female development, she dismisses, as irrelevant, the insights of other unnamed feminist critics, and her bibliography omits any reference to the extensive feminist scholarship on these topics. Finally, Bande's analysis was apparently very poorly copyedited; the frequent transposed letters, missing articles, grammatical errors, [End Page 298] and stylistic infelicities diminish the power of this otherwise original and important study of the novels of Anita Desai.