The Fiery Characters in Anita Desai’s “Fire On The Mountain”

Anita Desai focuses on the inner world that remains suppressed in each person. The fire that burns within her women characters act as both destroyer and creator.

Like a mountain stands a Woman, looking down at the shining plains with a fire inside- the fire that has been lying suppressed under the heavy responsibilities ascribed upon her. The image of a typical Indian “housewife” whose desires and wishes are buried under the norms, duties and responsibilities imposed by a male-dominated society is mirrored in her. Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain (1977) traces the inner conflicts of such a woman named Nanda Kaul. She is the exact portrayal of an ordinary woman who can be seen in most of the Indian households. In Fire on the Mountain, Anita Desai exposes the gender ideologies that oppress women and also shows how they try to break away from society to seek comfort in a world of their own. Apart from Nanda, Anita Desai introduces two other women characters, Raka and Ila as carriers of reality and past to Nanda’s world of fantasies.

Fire on the Mountain is written in three parts and each part introduces a woman character- Nanda Kaul, Raka and Ila Das. All three woman characters undergo a conflict within their own self because of the pathogenic environment in which they live. This inner conflict of theirs makes them start a relationship with solitude and gradually, they get pulled away from their own selves. Thus, the novel is of three women who are in an utter maze of isolation.

In this novel, the central characters are victims of norms scripted by society. The conflict of Anita Desai’s characters arises from their inability to enact the role that society demands. Fed up with the act of performing different roles, these women try to abscond from the bonds of relations and the society in order to search for their lost identity. In this quest for their identity, the repressed fire bounces back in a seemingly redoubled power which destroys as well as creates. Nanda Kaul weaves a world of her own in Carignano to escape from realities of life as well as the relations from her past. She wishes to be in the company of nothing, but some fantasies to comfort her. This conflict between the reality and fantasy inside her self comes to a tragic end when Raka and Ila come as the carriers of reality and past.

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Nanda Kaul is sketched to be an old woman who wishes not to be disturbed by anything or anyone from outside the world she has created for herself .i.e. Carignano. Isolated from the ceremonious actions of the past, she has created a world of her own, close to nature. The eerie silence of Carignano comforts her and the strong and still pine trees help her to regain the strength she has lost in working for others.

She was, once, the wife of the Vice Chancellor of Punjab University. The house was always crowded with children, grandchildren, guests and responsibilities and she was always at the centre of them and led a very busy life by catering to the needs of everyone around her. To the eyes of the outside world, Nanda had a splendid life, but in reality, she led a meaningless and unsatisfying life where she failed to get mentally involved with anything or even to her own children.

The social status she received, being the wife of a dignitary, never helped her to enjoy life as all she experienced was loneliness and neglection. The Vice-Chancellor had an illicit relationship with another woman, Miss David. In order to maintain his reputation in the social circles, he demanded Nanda to continue living with him. She was used as a mere object or a decorative item needed for the efficient running of ‘his’ house. He led her life as he wanted her to live. Nanda, though burning from inside, suppressed her frustration and anger by leading a mechanical life devoid of emotions. That is the reason why she had been very glad to leave everything after Vice Chancellor’s death. She felt free from all the clutches of relations and the house as she was never attached to them. Throughout the novel, we see that whenever Nanda mentions the house she lived in ealier, she always termed it as ‘Vice Chancellor’s house’. This implies that Nanda had never felt any belongingness to that house.

Like the barrenness of the Carignano garden and its rocks, Nanda too is empty. The nature that surrounds her projects her own self which is deprived of emotions. She experiences a lack of belief in relations and sees her own children as furniture which gets blurred by the passage of time. According to the mindset constructed by Nanda, anything else entering her world would “be an unwelcome intrusion” and distraction, even if it is a postman, a phone call, Raka or Ila Das. Here, we see how the conflict of her mind has succeeded in creating a barrier against the relations and realities outside Carignano.

In order to make Nanda Kaul confront the reality, Anita Desai invited Raka to her life. Raka is the great-granddaughter of Nanda Kaul. Nanda’s daughter Asha and Asha’s daughter Tara are passive characters who appear only through letters. Tara is Raka’s mother who is caught in the same situation as Nanda and assumes a passive role to her husband. Tara is a victim of physical abuse from her husband and this, in turn, causes trauma in Tara’s and Raka’s lives. Here, Anita Desai tries to reflect how a woman is supposed to suffer everything and remain a mute victim to the brutalities of her husband and father.

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She points out the existence of a set of guidelines for a woman which is scripted by society even before her arrival on the stage. In this case, women often become the woman’s enemy. Tara’s mother, Asha, attributes Tara’s misfortune to her incapability to understand men and to be a successful wife. This traumatic experience of witnessing the chaotic life of her mother makes her develop a reclusive behaviour and she refuses to get close to any human being. She is not a child who is interested in the warmth of relations and the company of the outside world. The only thing she ever wanted was “to be left alone and pursue her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli”. Throughout the novel, “secrecy” and Raka go hand in hand. Her inner self doesn’t get revealed much except in a situation where she happens to witness a crazy party and the weird looking costumes of the people make her remind of her father and his behaviour. This incident reflects the reason behind Raka’s aversion towards Nanda Kaul and the outside world. Having lived in a broken home, she loses trust in belongingness, like Nanda.

Nanda’s mask starts falling off as she wishes to penetrate to Raka’s secret world. Till now, she remained aloof from Raka as she was afraid to enter a child’s world which might betray her. She believed that every attachment offers a “preface to a new betray and all socialization as fake”. At this juncture, we come to realise that the so-called “withdrawal” of Nanda Kaul was in reality, forced seclusion.

Along with the reader, Nanda too realises how she has been trapped in a conflict between fantasy and reality. Anita Desai unveils Nanda’s inner self that craves for affection, attention and some love. In order to win Raka’s affection and attention, she builds an imaginary world around her and cooks up stories. But, this is of no avail as Raka, who is a loner by “choice”, comfortably avoids her and pays no great interest in the fantasies that are fake and unreal. She comes face to face with the stark reality of life that she has “enveloped herself with a feigned indifference solely to protect herself from being hurt any further”.

When Raka’s presence takes Nanda Kaul from the shells of fantasies, Ila Das, her old friend, arrives with the past which she has been trying to keep away from Carignano. Ila Das, a social worker and Nanda Kaul’s old friend leads a life filled with a series of miseries and misfortunes. Although her family was wealthy, her brothers wasted away their inheritance and forced the two sisters out of their house. From there starts Ila’s isolation and poverty. For Ila, Nanda Kaul’s life had all its glory and lavish exterior which a woman like Ila longs for.

Ila Das makes the narrative active and for the first time, someone uses the concept of ‘home’, instead of a house by calling Vice Chancellor’s house as ‘that home away from home for me’. For Ila, Vice Chancellor’s house and the past memories are ‘memories to treasure’ whereas to Nanda, they are ‘horrors of her life’. Ila is portrayed as a character who does not wish to get isolated but the time plays it in another way. Though submerged in poverty and miseries, she contains the spirit to fight back for her existence as well as for others. Unfortunately, she gets raped and killed by one whose daughter she wanted to save from the shackles of child marriage. Ila’s violent rape and death shatter Nanda Kaul’s imaginary world completely and she comes face to face with the reality of leading a futile life.

The futility of Ila’s life opens up the innermost chambers of Nanda Kaul’s mind in which she had buried her past, her longings and her desires, and realises the futility of her life as well. All these years, she had been trying to pretend, trying to mask her real self to avoid herself from breaking apart. Pretence becomes difficult for her after that; throughout her life, she has been pretending, performing and playing roles. Later, she kept up the pretence of ‘wanting’ and choosing seclusion of Carignano, though the reality was that she had no other choice. The repression of all these for so many years was the reason why she was always in conflict with her own self. When these repressed fire in her gushed out with a rebounding vehemence, she falls weak to bear it and she dies.

The novel ends with Raka setting fire to the mountains. Anita Desai makes Raka a strong figure as she never tried to pretend and she holds complete control of herself by being close to reality and nature. Thus, Anita Desai focuses on the inner world that remains suppressed in each person. The fire that burns within her women characters acts as both destroyer and creator. Nanda and Ila tried to repress it and the outcome was that it ended up swallowing them but Raka lets out the fire to end the conflict she faces, thereby creating a new hope to her life.

Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain is a neatly organised novel with accurate unifying links between paragraphs. Language is one of the main elements of her narrative style which helps her to exalt the novel from a mere narration of the story of a few people to a platform where we feel the very life, blood and soul of the characters. She uses the technique of ‘internal narration’ to delve deeper into her character’s consciousness. The outer world and the characters’ inner state is interwoven in her narration, mainly, with the use of symbols. Symbols play a vital role in displaying different states. She employs it frequently to convey deeper meanings than they state and they are open to manifold interpretations. Her unique use of imagery gives a poetic picture to the novel. The abundant use of adjectives, referring to the physical and psychological states adds the vividness and visibility of the novel. The structure of the novel is such that it regularly alternates from present to past in a zigzag pattern.

The most striking element in the novel is how Nature plays a significant role in the plot. Nature becomes one of the important characters apart from the three women. The characters are found seeking solace and comfort in the wilderness of nature and they believe in its healing power. Nature is the only thing they trust and believe to be real and interesting, unlike the darkness of society. Throughout the novel, the three women are seen compared to nature like Nanda to the pine trees, Raka to the wild jungle and insects etc. The barrenness of nature at Carignano reflects in the lives of the characters as well. Nature acts as a metaphor and externalises the inner turmoil of these women.

Thus, Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain is a symbolic, sensitive and psychological fiction which is treated in a subtle and inimitable style. It helps the readers to penetrate into the inner world of a woman to feel the flame that burns within.


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