Three Indian women with distinguished careers as writers have all recently published a new work. While Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee have been publishing since the 1960s, Thrity Umrigar made her literary debut about ten years ago. Each of these writer’s new work builds on themes familiar to their fans.
Desai’s collection of novellas explores two distinct themes in her writing: the disappearance of a way of life and the place of the writer in the modern world. Two of the novellas “The Museum of Final Journeys” and “The Artist of Disappearance” center on crumbling mansions once inhabited by an elite family. In the first story, a visiting civil servant discovers the faithful retainer who watches over a house full of memorabilia assembled from exotic journeys. The fate of these objects, including an elephant, becomes the occasion for a meditation on lives lived and journeys past. Similarly, “Artist of Disappearance” ponders the fate of a burned out house, an adopted child, and the environmental impact of development. The outsiders who discover this story are urban filmmakers making a documentary on ecological problems. Characteristic of Desai’s work, the ironic portrayal of outsiders, invites us to examine our own fondly cherished political perspectives. In “The Translator Translated,” Desai examines with wit and compassion the place of indigenous language writing, English literature, translation, and the business of publishing that haunt contemporary India. For those familiar with the Indian literary scene, the tongue-in-cheek satire of feminist publishing houses and mega literary fests produce a few good chuckles. Satire and amusement aside, the story leaves us considering the larger question of what exactly is Indian literature and to whom does it all matter.
Mukherjee’s newest novel seems to be the long awaited concluding work to her trilogy which began with “The Tree Bride” (2004) and “Desirable Daughters” (2002). While the first two were set in the United States primarily and were focused on Tara Banerjee’s life, this new novel brings in Tara’s gay son, Ravi, as a secondary character who encounters the protagonist of this novel, Anjali Bose. Like the narratives of Aravind Adiga and Chetan Bhagat, this novel is focused on the new India of software business, global markets, and a liberalized economy. Told as the coming of age story of a young girl from a small town who comes to Bangalore, the software hub of the new India, to seek her fortune the narrative lays bare the dark side of globalization and the Americanization of Indian culture. Drawing rich parallels between a bygone colonial era characterized by a wealthy socialite and her large home which is now a ramshackle boarding house for young women and the new, glitzy rapidly Americanizing city with its coffee bars, night clubs, and shopping malls, Mukherjee emerges in this novel as the chronicler of the evolving Indian state in the twenty-first century.
Umrigar, like Mukherjee, also explores the India and United States link through the story of four female friends who met in college, were politically active and dreamt of changing their country through their engaged action. After college, the friends separate because of marriage and/or migration, but the one living in the United States has terminal cancer. She reconnects with her friends in India and seeks to have a reunion in the United States so she can introduce her daughter to her best friends and to also find solace during her illness. Umrigar’s narrative lovingly captures the complexities of female friendships, the different choices each woman makes and struggles within her adult life, and the role of memory in connecting the women across time and space.
These three veteran women writers have given us compelling narratives about contemporary India, its roots in a colonial past, its struggles post-independence, and its emergence as a new global power. All three books also assert a distinctly female view of these developments that make these works well worth a read.