Time gone by with the colonial days of the "little, dark man" trying to gain recognition among British officers of Mussoorie society or native languages obscured by the colonial hangover of "accepted course of English literature in a woman's college" have been effortlessly re-lived in Anita Desai's compilation of novellas, The Artist of Disappearance, as the novelist returned with published work after a long spell of seven years.
The Museum of Final Journeys takes you into the private collections of the last scion of the Mukherjjes, in a state of ruin as mammoth as the last treasure, a living elephant, which travelled all the way from Burma. The subdivisional officer could not live up to his promise of helping with the conservation of this colonial treasure, much in the way the nation tried hard to shed its colonial past.
The intricate details of the objects reminds us of the grandeur and aura of the days of the Raj- "Here elephants with gilded howdahs on their backs carried noblemen up bare hills to crenellated forts on the summits....lightning struck. Lines of exquisite script curled through the borders, naming their names, telling their tales."- and you can visualise the miniature paintings. Unlike Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence, the objects are not touched by shared memories but are impersonal in their grandeur.
Translator Translated breaks down the discourses of post-colonial, translation studies and subaltern to a more recognisable narrative of a lonely college lecturer trying to recreate the work of an Oriya writer in a harsh publishing world and herself succumbing to the dilemma of whether the author or the translator takes the pivotal role.
The Artist of Disapearance novella creates a comfortable pace of rustic wilderness of Mussoorie through Ravi, adopted son of a Bombay-based couple trying to find solace in the sun and life-filled terrains of the hills. He returns to his childhood home, escaping the city he never got used to and discovers the artist in himself inscribed by nature and memories.
When a group of city-based documentary makers chance upon his garden of "circles within circles of perfectly identical stones in rings of pigeon shades of grey and blue and mauve", he refuses to interact with them. Perhaps he had nothing to offer to outsiders who eventually leave on cars descending "the tawny hills, curve by curve" just like his parents. This novella seems to find a reconciliation of the past with the present unlike the other two. However, the reclusive artist remains quite obscure as the narrative doesn't tell us much about his work. The drama built in measured bits becomes diluted at the end.
Desai creates a different space in familiar time by weaving fading history into shared sensibilities. A serious read but one that does not enforce you to reside in the realm of the characters, in spite of their stark presence.