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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2018



Survival and Resistance: An Eco feminist Study of Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain

Dr. Shagufta Naj, Assistant Professor, Department of English, MDDM College, B. R. A. Bihar University, Muzaffarpur


Literature has witnessed the roles of women evolving through ages, but until recent times, most of the renowned writers were male and the portrayal of women in literature was biased, and the woman was presented as the synonyms of delicate, innocent, weak and nothing less than household commodities. This idiosyncrasy of society turns male and female i.e. sex into masculine and feminine i.e. gender. It was during the Victorian era, that there was an unending debate over the roles of women; from the nineteenth century to the present, feminists organised to end what they perceive was their misconception. They have endeavoured to prove that social inequality is not ordinated by the laws of God or nature, but results from societal condition that can and should be changed. Sex is natural but gender is socio-cultural and man- made and, hence, the difference is made on the words ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. Also, Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex, writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (Beauvoir 301). Both Butler and Beauvoir assert that gender is a process which has neither origin nor end, so that it is something that we ‘do’ rather than ‘are’ (Salih 51).

For years the link between the world of women and the natural environment has been central to the activity and thoughts of ecofeminists. As an offspring of feminism, ecofeminism opposes the hierarchical structure that grants power to men and allows for the exploitation of women and nature; it aims to liberate all the subordinated classes erasing all kinds of dualistic notions such as nature/culture, subject/object and male/female etc. This study fosters how women and nature are wrongly exploited by the lopsided rules of the society. Deborah L. Madsen defines ecofeminism simply as the analysis of “the relationship between the patriarchal oppression of women and the human domination of non-human nature” (Madsen 123). Also, Plumwood points out that ecofeminism differs from feminism in its insistence on “making an account of the connection to nature central” (Plumwood 39). Ecofeminists like Susan Griffin, Mary Daly, Carolyn Merchant, Ariel Salleh, Karen Warren, Val Plumwood and others stress the fact that ecology is a feminist issue. As Rosemary Ruether believes that women should be aware that there is no liberation for them nor any remedy to the ecological destruction in a society whose relationships are based on domination (Ruether 204).

India is well endowed with nature and the worship of nature has been a way of life since time immemorial. People have been worshipping the natural objects like the sun the moon, the plants, rivers etc. But with changing of times the truculence towards nature has also widened. The male dominated society in Indian culture has marginalized nature as well as woman for fulfilment of their needs since the ancient times. A positive stride towards this patriarchal society has been the Chipko movement, originated in Chamoli, a district in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, India which has brought to fore the women who in large numbers took cudgels to protest against felling of trees. The conception of tree-hugging was adopted to curb activities such as deforestation, lumbering and mining. This movement was a consequence of severe turmoil  emanating  in  local  women  who  were  influenced  the  most  by  state-level  verdicts  leading  to environmental  deterioration. Moreover, Garhwal is a region where people to save the environment, perform tree plantation as an important ritual in the marriage ceremony of their daughters. At present, Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, Mahasweta Devi, Arundhati Roy and C.K Janu came together as an environment activist. In the light of such movements in India, many Indian women novelists not only explore female subjectivity in order to establish an identity, but their works also retain a voice and concern for the environment which can be understood in its broadest sense.

An ecofeminist approach towards Anita Desai’s works brings out the importance of environment and women as one of her major themes. Even the unexplored world of female psyche can be easily understood through the use of natural imagery in her works. The deeply rooted life of human beings in nature has been presented in her works vividly and effectively. Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain (1977) contains a concern for natural depletion taking place in today’s world. It orbits around three women characters Nanda Kaul, Raka and Ila Das, their interconnection, victimization and oppression with nature. Nanda Kaul, a widowed great-grandmother, is a victim of her role as a dutiful wife to an unfaithful husband and as a mother to many children. Raka, her exclusive, withdrawn great-grandchild, is the victim of an abusive father. Ila Das, Nanda’s childhood friend, unmarried and is the victim of her selfish brothers and her own reformist idealism.

The novel falls into three section: “Nanda Kaul at Carignano,” the first section deals with the lonely life of Nanda in Kasauli. The second section “Raka comes to Carignano deals with the attitudinal change of Nanda towards Raka, her great granddaughter. Nanda’s childhood friend Ila Das’ tragic end is portrayed in the third section “Ila Das leaves Carignano. Anita Desai has borrowed images and symbols from nature and thus there is a dominance of nature and imagery which acts as an important part of the theme. Desai knows that “ Nature never did betray the heart that loved her” (“Tintern Abbey” 122-123); this may have been reason for sending her protagonist Nanda to Carignano far from her tedious life who finds in Nature a true and close lover. Nanda believes that nature works like a balm and has a healing power which prompts her to “be left to the pines and Cicadas alone” (FTM 3).

Fire on the Mountain tells the dramatic story of Nanda Kaul who after her husband’s death retires in a cottage up the mountain at Carignano in Kasauli. There she creates a space of her own and embraces a life of solitude, privacy and confinement. Having all the required necessities and accompanied by her cook Ram Lal, Nanda prefers Carignano for its barrenness and isolation, its steep height, scary ravines and slopes and becomes one with this desolate landscape. This reveals a kind of interconnectivity and what Irigaray considers as symbiosis, a basic form of “relatedness between women and nature” (Emara 198). This is because women’s bodies especially in pregnancy are predisposed to be two in one and to host other bodies. Throughout all phases, the woman is either contained by or containing others (qtd. in Emara 198). Nanda lives out her old age in isolation in a Himalayan town Kasauli away from the world not because of any religious or social rituals or obligation but “out of vengeance for a long life of duty and obligation” (FTM 30). Nanda’s chosen seclusion is actually nursing a deep wound in her heart caused by her husband’s unfaithfulness and demeanour. Her husband never respected her as a wife or gave any importance in his life rather he regards her as an excellent hostess of all the parties arranged by him.  Externally everything appears smooth and pleasant but internally Nanda is burning with frustration and suppressed emotions, which can be noticed in these lines: “The old house, the full house, of that period of her life when she was the vice-chancellor’s wife was the hub of a small but intense world, which had not pleased her. Its crowding had stifled her” (FTM 29-30).

As Indian society follows the patriarchal and conventional ideology in which women is considered inferior compared to men. All the social values, education, religion, culture and myth are always used to repress the female feelings and emotion; they are supposed to surrender their desires and dreams and treated as ‘other’ and are compelled to be a deaf and dumb. They are not allowed to speak out their problems and needs. Whenever the question comes about their position, they are always portrayed as the second to man. From Shakespeare to Alfred Lord Tennyson, all the greatest writers present this secondary role of woman in their writings; in his poem “Princess,” Tennyson writes,  “Man for the field and woman for the hearth/Man for the sword and for the needle she/Man with the head and woman with the heart/Man to command and woman to obey. . .” (147-150). Even in Christian mythology, she is believed to borne from the left rib of the man. Identifying this issue, Indian critic and feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks “can the subaltern speak?” To answer this question she says, “there is no space from which the sexed subaltern subject can speak . . . the subaltern cannot speak” (Spivak 103). The reason, Spivak shows, is that Indian woman is always given a label of Sati or good wife. “Sati as a woman’s proper name is in fairly widespread use in India for examining the power and position of women (Emara 199).

The brutal death of Nanda’s only friend Ila Das breaks the web of self-insulation that Nanda has been weaving since her arrival in Carignano. She feels guilty that, in protecting her solitude, she has not asked her friend to stay the night. The police officer rings Nanda Kaul with a request to come to the police station to identify the dead body. Nanda is deeply shocked to hear the tragic news and suddenly lapses into reverie, into death. Wernmei Young Ade comments, “the phone call becomes a call to responsibility, specifically for [Nanda] part in the death of Ila” (qtd. in Emara 198). Throughout her life, Nanda suffers with struggle, family dispute, disagreement, frustration, psychological predicament and oppression. Nanda’s condition and predicament is not only related to her but it presents the condition of each and every Indian woman who passes her life in dissonance.

Raka, the great-granddaughter of Nanda Kaul arrived  at Carignano but is unwelcomed by Nanda who realises her arrival as a disruption of her peaceful retirement. Raka suffers the indifference of her parents. Tara, Raka’s mother, suffers a chronic nervous breakdown that emanates from a marital disharmony. Raka is sent to Carignano to recuperate from the after effects of typhoid. She is a sick and fragile girl who avoids schooling and loves to pass her time in secrecy. Although she is a little girl, she can realise and observe the abusive, rude and indifferent behaviour of her father; the negative psychological effect of which easily can be noted on her personality. In an age when children prefer to pass their time in enjoying the game and other activities, she decides to go to lead a life of loneliness and solitude like her great grandmother. The scenes of cruelty and abusive behaviour of her father towards her mother always disturbs her like a ghost and she always feels herself unsafe and neglected which can be noticed as “If Nanda was a recluse out of vengeance for a long life of duty and obligation, her great granddaughter was a recluse by nature, by instinct: she does not arrive at this condition by a long route of rejection and sacrifice, she was born to simply” (FTM 48). She is attracted to Kasauli because of its ravaged, destroyed and barren places. At Carignano, in the company of nature, there is no crying, no terror only peace in which one can hear the voice of silence. The uncivilized landscape of the mountain mirrors the damaged emotional landscape of her childhood (Emara 200). Raka and nature both seem marginalised in the novel; both are presented as barren, damaged, destroyed and mistreated. She has attraction to “ravaged, destroyed and barren spaces” and rejects the superficial civilized world “in which Raka had no part and to which she owed no attachment” (FTM 91). Raka, even as a child, recognizes the falsity of “civilized” society which tolerates and perpetuates her mother’s mistreatment. Violence in the families is the general phenomena and can be easily traced as a practice of patriarchy, a way to assert the strength and power on woman. Men having the economical and social power practice the dominance on the women and behave with them as ‘other’. Simone de Beauvoir formulates that “[m]an seeks in woman the Other as Nature and his fellow being. But we know what ambivalent feelings Nature inspires in man. He exploits her, but she crushes him, he is born of her and dies in her; she is the source of his being and realm that he subjugates to his will” (62-63).

Although both the female characters, Nanda and Raka, belong to a totally different age group, While Nanda signifies the old female self of India, Raka represents the rebellious young generation of the Indian female world (Emara 200). However, they seem similar in their way to pass a solitude life while living in a barren place; they love Carignano and its silence atmosphere, both have the same haunted and traumatic memories and refuse to be a part of each other’s life and live in “double singleness” (Rogobete 97). However they have different motivation, out of vengeance for Nanda and by instinct for Raka (Emara 200). However, R.A.Singh expresses that “. . . Raka, another kind of feminism is apparent which is more bold and aggressive” (qtd. in Emara 200). The ‘fire’ on the mountain can be related to the fire of Raka’s desires, hopes, emotions and affection; further, either it can be the fire of vengeance at the heart of her against this patriarchal society or her hatred for the abusive, brute and callous behaviour of her father used for her mother. In fact, Raka’s weird interest in decay, destruction and decomposition, as Rogobete believes, “is translated in her frequent association with fire metaphors-symbol of inner trauma, desperate quest for self-assertion and independence” (97). She can be considered a representative of “radical feminism-energetic, bold and destructive of tradition” (Lal 154).

        At the opposite side, Ila Das, a lifelong friend and admirer of Nanda, stands as an active fighter of women’s rights within the community. Both Nanda and Ila Das are two different character having different characteristics. Whereas Nanda seems superior and firmed, Ila Da is fragile and intrusive. Despite it, both share the same destiny and same “vulnerability hidden under the deceiving appearances of aloof isolation, or courageous social engagement” (Rogobete 95). Ila Das struggles hard in her life to earn some money and later works as welfare officer just for her identity. As a social reformer, she fights against child marriage to aware the people about the negative effects of this practice; however, a society rooted in patriarchal values hinders and rejects her efforts. Talking to her friend, Nanda, Ila says, “it’s so much harder to teach a man anything . . . to try and change their dreadful lives by an effort, but do you think their men will let them? Nooo, not one bit” (FTM 129). Misfortune strikes Ila Das when she is assaulted, raped and murdered by a man Preet Singh, a villager whom she stops from marrying his seven year old daughter to an old widower with six children only for a quarter of an acre land and two goats. Preet Singh, the cruel man, leaves Ila Das in a miserable condition wrapping the scarf “tighter, tighter, about her neck. . . .tore at her clothes, tore them off her . . . raped her, pinned her down the dust the goat droppings, and raped her . . .  Crushed back, crushed down into the earth, she lay raped, broken, still and finished . . . ” (143).

The fate of Ila Das shows the ultimate destiny of a woman, which is sexual humiliation or death, if she goes against the patriarchal pattern of society. This indicates the transformation of the experience of Indian women. Aroop Saha believes that, “although the Indian women are surrounded by patriarchal ideology, change has occurred in the construction of female subjectivity . . . Nanda Kaul’s experience of suppressed rage and Ila Das’ experience of violence, both physical and psychological, show an elevation to construct  a female subject” (238). In her interview with Ramesh Srivastava, Desai says that Ila Das is based on a real person whom her mother knew and who occasionally visited their home in Delhi, and that she caused much hilarity and scorn among them. Later when Anita Desai was in Kasuli, the lady had met with the violent death in a nearby village. (Srivastava 211)

        In her preface to Ecofeminism, Shiva adds that violence against women is as old as patriarchy. Traditional patriarchy has structured the minds as well as the social and cultural worlds on the basis of domination over women and the denial of their full humanity and right to equality (qtd in Mies & Shiva xiv). For the parallel exploitation of nature, from an ecofeminist perspective the rape of the earth and the rape of women are intimately linked-both metaphorically and materially (Emara 201). In the novel, the Pasteur Institute is a good example of the oppression and violence of non-human species. Normally one would associate it with humane studies; it stresses the exploitation and oppression of animals for the purpose of research. “They have rabbits and guinea pigs there, too, many animals. They use them for tests . . . they empty the bones and ashes of dead animals down into the ravine” (FTM 44). It is a good example of environmental deterioration which targets the animals devoid of feeling. Such an institute is a strong representation of male’s destructive environmental domination.

The fire in forest is the best example of the domestification of land which leads to the depletion of natural sources. This is a typical male capitalist ideology and a good example of environmental classicism which usually targets the poor people. In the novel, the poor people are affected by the fire at a large level. An old lady’s house was burnt down in a terrible forest fire “she went mad and was put away. “Poor woman”, Nanda wonders if she would have preferred to die in the fire” (FTM 57). Modern technology which uses a beautiful wild area for an army camp proves the insensitivity of man towards nature and the patriarchal attitude in destroying the natural phenomena for economic purposes. Shiva describes this form of development as ‘maldevelopment’ and asserts it as “a paradigm that sees all work that does not produce profits and capital as non or unproductive work” (Shiva 7). Further she writes, that the western model of development has been violent for many people, especially women and local environments (9). . . it is rooted in the patriarchal assumptions of homogeneity, domination and centralisation that underline dominant models of thought and development strategies” (Shiva 10). This thought proves truth when we have the narrative part which has the destruction of Kasauli landscape parallels the women’s lives. Rape and murder of Ila Das is parallel to the rape of the land; tourists industry as well as the army camp is responsible for the destruction of the land. Nanda Kaul bitterly says to Raka, “it really is saddening. One would have liked to keep it as it was, a- -a haven, you know” (FTM 57). Thus, at different points, the novel Fire on the Mountain seems to convey the message about women’s oppression and the exploitation of nature. Hence, as a part of beautiful creation of this universe both the woman and the nature are the victims of exploitation. As Vandana Shiva in her article “Development, Ecology and Women,” defines Prakritias “the feminine principle as the basis for development which conserves and is ecological . . . the source of all life” (7).

Anita Desai, in her Fire on the Mountain, skilfully exhibits numerous images and metaphors in symbolic connotations. Plants and animals are used to express the inner qualities and feelings of the characters. The atmosphere and the surroundings also present the psychological up and downs of the female characters. C.G. speculates that “Desai has the power to express sensibilities in her canvas using images from nature . . . she is an artist who has the ability to carve such deep emotions within dexterous use of imagery that they announce the introduction of the exploration of the selves within the ecological framework” (Shyamala 7). In fact, Carignano adequately fulfils Nanda’s wish for solitude, stillness and silence. The quite lonely house symbolizes the solitary life of Nanda. Shyamala remarks, “The barrenness and starkness associated with it symbolizes essential human condition of alienation” (qtd. in Emara 204). Numerous striking images of birds, insects and beasts reflect Nanda’s psychic states and moods and contribute significantly to the tone of the novel. Nanda seems to be caught between the eagle’s aloofness and detachment, “she had wished, it occurred to her, to intimate that eagle-gliding with eyes closed” (FTM 19). Raka is also described as “bird fallen out of its nest, a nest fallen out of a tree” (FTM 50).

According to N.R.Gopal  Fire on the Mountain is “ the only novel . . . in which nature plays such a vital role on the level of symbolism and imagery and it has to be accepted that she [Desai] makes effective use of this technique to portray different characters” ( qtd. in Emara 205). The image of the fire is also suggestive; it refers to a natural phenomenon in the mountains due to summer heat and dryness along with it also symbolizes and connects the fire of hatred at Nanda and Raka’s heart against the patriarchal pattern of society. R. S. Sharma’s connotation refers the fire as “expressive of Raka’s resolve to destroy a world where a woman cannot hope to be happy without being unnatural” (qtd. in Emara 205). While R.A. Singh believes that the title of the novel suggests a sense of irony since mountains are “usually havens, calm places associated with holiness and divinity” (110); it is only human beings who disrupt the ‘calm’ and ‘holiness’ of their havens. At the last of the novel, the mischievous girl, Raka sets fire: “Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire, Nani-Look- the forest is on fire . . . . Down in the ravines, the flames spat and crackled around the dry wood and through the dry grass, and black smoke spiralled up over the mountain” (FTM 145-146). R. S. Sharma described it as “expressive of Raka’s resolve to destroy a world where a woman cannot hope to be happy without being unnatural” (127).

To conclude, Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain (1977) depicts the frustration, oppression and psychological predicament of the female characters along with the gradual destruction of the ecosystem of Kasauli hills by the devastating forest fire. The response of the female characters to life has been associated with natural images to express their inner disturbance. Desai’s characters carry on a dual life; the inner and the outer; all of the three protagonists are trapped in dualistic pattern where man symbolizes brutality, dominance and violence. It also embodies dualistic issues: nature versus civilization, wilderness versus domesticity and free will versus fate (Emara 206). On the whole, the novel presents the different images that reinforce to interconnect women and nature.



Works Cited

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