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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2016



Eco-Critical Reading of Anita Desai's The Artist of Disappearance

Dr. Neeta
Associate Professor, Dept. Of English, S.V. College, Aligarh

Literature mirrors the social fabric and often reflects the contemporary issues of an age. One of the major issues of modern age is environmental destruction due to ruthless attitude of human beings which has dragged the world towards a chaos. In this era of science and technology all developments are mainly anthropocentric, neglecting the issue of protecting natural environment. Such an imbalanced view of progress led to environmental crisis. In due course of time man realized that there is an acute need to turn his approach bio-centric so that the natural environment may be protected and its balance with human life may be maintained. Eco-criticism, a relatively new branch of criticism, is obviously the result of new consciousness that very soon "there will be nothing beautiful (or safe) in nature to discourse about, unless we are very careful". (P.K. Nayar, 291) Critics like Bate makes a plea for "an imaginative re-unification of mind and nature" (Bate, 2000, 245). He argues if ecology is the "language about our earthly dwelling place" a place from which we have become divorced, then literature can return us to it and for this "There is a need to recover a more visceral response to what literature can do" (James Hopkins). He explains literature can be a potent voice raised against environmental changes by trying to connect the reader to nature through a literary work and by making them aware towards devastation caused to it due to greed of human beings. A number of creative writers started to view literature as a medium to articulate their views and to sensitize the reader towards the ecological crisis.

Anita Desai, a well-known name at the scenario of Indian fiction in English, sometimes uses eco-criticism to bridge the gap between environment and literature. Though her main pre occupation as a fiction writer is to explore the inner world of her characters by psycho-analysis, yet she is not silent to the problems of the world in which they live. Nature plays an important role in her novels but she never claims herself to be an eco-critic. She is adept in using external landscapes to portray the interior states of the mind of her characters in her novels like Cry the Peacock, Voices in the City, Clear Light of Day, Where shall we go this Summers etc. The treatment of nature in these novels is reflective of the fact that if man obeys the subtle and suggestive patterns of nature, he would lead life happily but if he destroys those patterns, it may bring destruction. Her novels are suffused with the imagery of trees, birds, gardens, hills, seasons, forest etc. corresponding with the mood of her characters.

There is a constant interaction between the inner world of the protagonist and the outer world of nature and in the process of this interaction, an intense vision of life is projected (Neeru Tondon, 180)

Though she does not have any agenda of raising the issue of undue encroachment of human activities in the sphere of nature in her novels yet sometimes her concern towards this devastation and destruction becomes apparent as in as in her latest book The Artist of Disappearance , Published in 2011, which is the collection of three short novellas. In it she focuses on massive devastation of natural diversity due to growing impact of capitalism and commercialization in the name of progress and development. The book can easily be read from eco critical perspective. Eco criticism is "the field of enquiry that analyses and promotes work of art which raise moral question about human interaction with nature" (VOGEL, GOMIDES P.7). In this respect, the title novella seems to call attention to human involvement in damage caused to nature.

The protagonist of this novel, Ravi tries to find his comfort zone in nature. He is a man who identifies himself with his environment. In the novella Desai has minutely observed the conditions of his life which lead him to have a harmonious relationship with nature, leaving aside all relations based on materialistic approach. He is an adopted child of wealthy parents living in Mussoorie. Though he has been brought up with all sophistication and comfort, yet he remains neglected due to lack of emotional bonding between his parents and him. ".....Ravi the child they had adopted at the suggestion of a distant, philanthropic aunt - yet as far as anyone could see, they never made up a family"-(Anita Desai, 2011 PP. 106- 107). When his parents go to enjoy long holidays outside Mussoorie, he has to stay at home with servants and tutor. Even when his parents are at home, conditions are not different because "they required his complete invisibility and silence while the parents played bridge and canasta and drank tea or cocktails"(P.108). Perhaps this neglecting behaviour of his parents compels him to find space where he can have a sense of belongingness and consequently gets attracted towards nature. He feels a kind of suffocation with in the four walls of his home, but feels happy and relaxed when he is allowed to go outdoors. "Outdoor was freedom. Outdoor was the life to which he chose to belong.....One had to be silent, aware, observe and perceive - and this was Ravi's one talent as far as anyone could see"(P.101). Outdoor he minutely observes "a snake shed itself of its old skin", "attracting armies of ants coming to raid their fabled sweetness and sap", "The spiders", “spinning their webs in tall grass," "a troop of silver hair, black masks monkeys", "flat blue splinters of slate" etc. He feels a pleasure in observing different phenomena of nature and enjoys them in totality without having an idea to make any change or alteration in them. The very idea of violence is disliked by him, though his companion like Bhola used to get a fun in teasing the insects and other animals.

.....Ravi was not for such sport; a heap of dead feathers or fur were for him as unnatural as for the slain creature. Ravi was interested only in the variations and mutations of the living, their innumerable possibilities. (P.103)

By projecting this sensibility of Ravi towards nature, Desai stresses that one should not behave like a predator or try to tame nature rather one should accept nature in its various shades and colours.

His dependence on nature is so much as whatever checks his movement to the outdoor world, is disliked by him. Limitations imposed on him repress him. During the rainy season, his movement to the outdoors becomes limited, but he always wishes that he could slip out and catch the fireflies flitting among the trees because it is "the outdoor world that provided all the nourishment he wanted" (P.104). School too appears a prison to him where he reluctantly goes and studies the "Latin motto that no one understood"(P. 107). Even home with the presence of his parents is no better than a prison because he has to follow a set of rigid rules, adherence to table manners and strict eyes of his parents. Involvement of his parents in the social circle of Mussoorie makes him all the more neglected. Finally it has been decided that Ravi would go to Bombay for his management study. When he resides there with a relative's family, his soul struggles a lot in the suffocating atmosphere of city in the absence of natural environment which he used to get in Mussoorie. His utter disgust at the life, led beyond nature is clear in these lines:

The years that followed, Ravi did not count. He did not count them because he did not acknowledge them as his: they did not belong to his life because they did not belong to the forest and hills. (P.114)

He could never involve in the city life and hankers to return to the hills because "In order to survive, he needed to be at altitude, a Himalayan attitude, so he might breathe"(P.115) By showing Ravi completely dependent on nature for his nourishment, happiness and satisfaction, Anita Desai seems to suggest that man is an integral part of nature, therefore he could never imagine himself as a separate entity beyond the plan of nature. Man-made plan of life which negates the claims of nature could never provide him with real happiness. Here Anita Desai, like an eco critic assumes that all life forms are interlinked and interdependent.

The news of his mother's death provides him a chance to relieve himself from a suffocating atmosphere of Bombay. Now he returns to Mussorrie and again feels the silence of nature. During his return journey, he enjoys "a monkey clan sat on a strip of wall", "a rivulet tumbled over rocks and a rough shelter built of stones", “a pine tree leaned precariously over a cliff", an orange grove", "sharp sweetness of pine woods", "the glass-like clarity of mountain air", "birds fluting whistles through the silence" etc. His involvement in this scenery shows that his long absence from this natural scene could not lessen his sense of belongingness to this environment. One thing that distracts his attention is the line of huge trucks loaded with rocks, logs, sacks and bundles and "men perched on top, their mouth and noses wrapped in scarves against the dust and fumes of exhaust". (P.116) This scenery raises a question not only in the mind of Ravi but also in the mind of the reader "where was the silence that he remembered or the solitude?"(P.115)  It is undoubtedly an attempt of the novelist to persuade the reader to think about the possible reasons to the gradually receding silence of mountains. The imagery directly hints at the gradual deforestation, explosions in hills, cattle grazing as a result of increasing human activity in mountains.

Ravi reaches his home and meets Miss. Wilkinson, an elderly and almost blind woman who looks after his house after his mother's death and also his childhood companion Bhola. He begins to live here without any disturbance by these two but in a turn of events, Miss Wilkinson sets fire the house and ultimately the house turns to ruins and she herself dies in the incident. From now onwards, Ravi leads the life of a recluse, withdrawing himself completely from the world around him. He decides to live in the ruined house where he has been served a plateful of food and a can of kerosene for his lamp from the house of Bhola. He is not at all bothered about the appearance of the building or the food given to him by Bhola. In fact he has acquired a habit of accepting the things as they are .This is obviously a natural way to lead life and reflects his complete submission to the ways of nature. His occasional conversation with Bhola's children and his visit to their house show that he has not forsaken the human world completely rather he is not interested in leading life according to the man-made standards of life. He loves to lead the life beyond any complexities as the real solace of life lies in simplicity. Living in the pristine foothills of Himalayas, Ravi begins to build a garden out of ruins. "Spider-like, Ravi set to work spinning the web of his vision over the hidden glade. And each day it had to be done before night fell." (P.127) Ultimately, he succeeds in building a secluded glade undiscovered by anyone. It is …..a place surely ordered by human design, human hands, not nature. Nature could not have created those circles within circles of perfectly identical stones in rings of pigeon shades of grey and blue and mauve, or hoisted fallen branches into sculpted shapes.......It looked like a bower-but of bird, beast or man? Any one of these was barely credible.( P.139)

This creation of Ravi is remarkable and hints at his harmonious living with nature which justifies that nature is an inalienable part of human life. In a way, he   seems to suggest a solution to the problem of ecological crisis without favoring ecological claims or criticizing excessive encroachment of human activities in nature's sphere. It is through Ravi's creation, Anita Desai once again emphasizes that man is merely a part in the overall plan of nature and obviously he should never try to consider himself to be the master of this plan. The objective of his life should be his coordination with the plan of nature.

One day this place which remained in oblivion for a long time is spotted by Shalini, a member of television crew who arrived at Mussoorie to make a film on the environmental degradation in foot hills of the Himalaya. The crew wants to shoot soil erosion, cattle grazing, deforestation and illegal mining etc. Revealing the objective of their arrival in Mussoorie, the crew tells Balram, a shopkeeper, "timber companies are cutting down the trees limestone quarries and phosphates mines are making the hills unstable" P.131. The above mentioned lines clearly highlight that Anita Desai wants to raise the ecological issues through her writing. Calm and serene atmosphere of the glade created by Ravi has been put in direct contrast with the human activities which are hostile to the pastoral peace. While denoting the wishes of the crew to film actual sites to catch preparators red handed, to reach the phosphate mines etc. the novelist tries to look at the problem in totality. Harmonious relationship between man and nature as represented in the bower created by Ravi works as a foil to the hostile and unharmonious relationship between man and nature at the site of destruction and devastation. The purpose of the novelist seems to attack on human carelessness, greed and irresponsibility towards nature. On one hand people are busy in destroying nature for their own materialistic interests while on the other Ravi is devotedly immersed into the project of protecting nature. Creation of the garden with the nature's objects is reflective of the careful and loving attitude of Ravi towards nature. Describing its beauty, Shalini says "it was a strange place she had stumbled on, made entirely of nature, yet not by nature."( P.141)

In fact he is an artist having high artistic ideals and therefore he could never think of destruction as creation is the only motto of an artist's life. Even the crew members have a sense of profound respect towards him. One of the crew members, Chand describes him as:

Someone who is different, someone who is not destroying the land but making something of it, something beautiful. You can see whoever it is really understands this landscape, appreciates it.(P.146)

The words of appreciation for Ravi and celebration of harmonious living with nature obviously indicate that Desai favours such an attitude. Crew members plan to search and meet him but could not succeed because Ravi denies talking to them. In a mood of disgust he calls people from city the "barbarians" and says "their gaze alone was a desecration"(P.152). Merely the thought of their being at the spot disturbs him so much that he feels tormented at the idea of his departure from his creation. "His longing to resume what his real life was left smouldering inside him like a match blown at but not put out".(P.152). The crew members shoot the film of the garden but the scene seems drained on life without the presence of its creator. Ultimately they reject the idea of using the film for their documentary, though they wished if they could find the artist. Ravi's attempt to efface himself from the crew members can better be understood, if we muse over Desai's concept of an artist. She asserts at a place, "I cannot explain it, but I know it the creative art is a secret one. To make it public, to scrutinize it in the cold light of reason is an act of violence, possibly murder". (James Warner, 2012). Obviously, Ravi as an artist is not ready to kill his own creation.

The end of the novella highlights man made destruction of nature in the name of development. Gradually receding number of pine trees, increasing heat in the atmosphere, dry grass etc. in the back journey of crew indicate urbanization and its impact on ecological conditions of the place. Their jeep comes to an abrupt halt and they observe a band of men waving red flags as an alert for a series of dull thuds, coming from inside the hill. They confront "great gashes that had opened out into caverns of white limestone" blinded by explosion of "the dynamite blast" which produced "more white dust"(P.155). It causes everyone to cough and choke. Once the echoes of the blast subside, men with their hair and clothes cloaked in white dust start to move with pickaxes and shovels and begin to dig, hammer, excavate and finally load the trucks for the journey down the plains. This ugly face of devastation attract the head of the crew members, Bhatia and in a state of excitement he shouts, "That is what we need for a finish", "Get the Camera, Let's shoot!”The scene of explosion in the hills with thundering sounds and a lot of white dust and involvement of difference kind of people like, miners, guards, drivers etc. very well depict the ugliness of human greed. Bhatia's excitement at this ugliness to be presented on the T.V. Screen obviously hints at the hollowness of human perception of beauty. Through the scene Anita Desai tries to uncover the ugly face of human greed and the changed perception of man about beauty.

The title novella The Artist of Disappearance raises the issue of ecological devastations, not in a way to politicize it rather to sensitize people through this literary work. It clearly criticizes the attitudes of greedy capitalist people who for the sake material pelf never think about interdependence of man and nature. Though Ravi has not been presented as an environmentalist, yet his efforts to unify man and nature are pro-environmental. Like an eco-conscious artist Anita Desai very well portrays the attitude of different classes of people towards man-nature relationship. The crew members consider nature no more than an object to be observed outwardly. Their purpose is not to show the hidden beauties of nature, rather its ugliness because it would be befitting for the success of their documentary. They are least concerned about the consequences of environmental destruction. On the other hand Ravi belongs to that group of people who consider nature to be an inseparable part of human existence. Another class of people is of unknown capitalists who look at the nature for their own material prosperity. They consider it a commodity and use it for their own benefit. They feel no hitch in creating violence against the holy plan of nature. Through the novella, Anita Desai seems to suggest that the greed of capitalist class and gradually growing consumerist spirit in man are mainly responsible for causing destruction of nature. No doubt man is moving ahead on the path of progress but the ways he has adopted are dangerous as these may give rise to an imbalance on planet earth. The solution of the problem lies in understanding the fact that man is merely one of the various components of the ecosystem and his plans to change the established plan would definitely affect his own existence adversely.


Bate, Jonathan. The song of Earth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.
Desai, Anita. The Artist of Disappearance, India. Random House 2011. All the references from this text have been quoted with page numbers only. GOMIDES; VOGEL, 2007
Hopkins, James. "In the Green Team", Archive, May 12, 2001. http://, 485023.00.html
Nayar, Pramod K., Literary Theory Today, New Delhi: Asia Book Club, 2006.
Tondon, Neeru. Anita Desai and Her Fictional World, New Delhi. Atlantic Publishers, 2008. Warner, James. “Secret Museums: Anita Desai and the Desecrating Gaze.” Open Democracy. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2015 < https://www. open