Anita Desai’s stories move along to a rhythm of their own. It has a pace so unique that it seems to stem from the characters themselves. Her characters seem to have a world within them, instead of merely existing in a world without.
Fire on the Mountain introduces us to three such unique and intriguing worlds.
First, there is Nanda Kaul a once dutiful wife of a university Vice-Chancellor’s wife, she has sought to leave behind the excessive socialization and hustle of her active life and has retired alone in the hills of Kasauli. She detests company and conversation and seeks silence and tranquility in the natural resplendence around her retirement home, Carignano. However, her memories have never been put to rest, and they keep buzzing in her head as constant reminders of the life and the person she has tried to leave behind. Nanda Kaul tries hard to obliterate the residues of her loathsome past from her memory, and yet, in her isolation, all she has left to her are memories from which she cannot distance herself.
‘She was grey, tall and thin and her silk sari made a sweeping, shivering sound and she fancied she could merge with the pine trees and be mistaken for one. To be a tree, no more and no less, was all she was prepared to undertake’
Nanda Kaul’s efforts at maintaining isolation completely fails when her great-granddaughter, Raka comes to live with her. Contrary to her fears, Raka is not a typical, spoilt, attention seeking girl. She is, instead an exceptionally quiet and observant child who spends most of her time in Kasauli wandering deep into the hills and the neighbouring villages, exploring the entire area all by herself. She has a taste for adventure, and prefers to have conversations with Carignano’s caretaker, Ram Laal, than spend time with her great-grandmother. Having suffered from multiple illnesses at a very young age, and having seen the dysfunctional marriage between her parents fall apart, Raka finds peace and comfort in her solitude.
Nanda Kaul is bothered by the distance Raka maintains from her, and tries to reach out to the child. She makes up fantastical stories about her own childhood in order to engage Raka into conversation, and attempts to accompany her on her trips around the hills. Raka appears heavily perturbed by these interactions, and seeks to escape her Nani’s presence at every available opportunity. ‘She had not a dog’s slavishness for companionship…’
That summer in the hills of Kasauli finds another unwelcome visitor to Carignano in the form of Nanda Kaul’s childhood friend, Ila Das. Ila Das’ circumstances are indeed pitiful. Life seems to have offered her an unfortunate deal at every step. A former teacher at Nanda Kaul’s husband’s university, and now a government welfare officer in one of the nearby villages, barely keeping herself alive, Ila Das’ physical appearance itself is a subject of mockery and ridicule by almost anyone who comes across her. Her attitude towards life, however, couldn’t be more different from Nanda Kaul’s. Even though she has barely anything left with her, she is always cheerful and almost painfully lively. She gives her all in her job, although the people she works for often do not take her seriously. She is courageous and despite her old age, she stands up to the village priest to fight against social ills like child marriage.
And yet, Ila Das is utterly lonely. She seeks out her childhood friend Nanda Kaul out of pure desperation for company. She tries to reach out to Nanda Kaul just like Nanda Kaul had tried to reach out to Raka. Her exuberance unsettles both Raka and Nanda Kaul just as much as their dourness leaves Ila Das wondering.
‘It seemed to her (Raka) that Ila Das was another such puppet, making her own mad music to jerk and prance to.’
And although Nanda Kaul sympathizes with her friend’s condition, she simply cannot bring herself to ask her to stay over at Carignano.
In the end, Ila Das leaves Carignano and her reluctant hosts as the story reaches a shockingly tragic climax. Given the mood and pace of the up until then, I had not expected it to end on such a dramatic note. And yet, it seemed like a perfect conclusion for the three characters- Nanda Kaul bound by her isolation, Ila Das hunted down by her loneliness, and Raka blissfully oblivious in her solitude. And in the midst of all this, Carignano, the house itself, stands a symbol of all that ails and enthralls these women.
The detailed descriptive paragraphs about the hills of Kasauli leave the reader in no doubt about the aesthetic brilliance of the scenery. Anita Desai’s writing style shifts frequently between lucidly rich text, to phases as dry and rough as the forests of Kasauli in the summer. She is a master at her art, and Fire on the Mountain is definitely worth a read for people who seek to read not just about the nature around us, but also of that within.