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The concern of psychological reality by Anita Desai is clearly reflected in one of her masterpieces ” Fire on the Mountain”. The novel mainly deals with the loneliness and isolation as well as the resultant anguish and agony in the deserted life of an old widow. The novel narrates the story of Nanda Kaul who live in Carignano, a desolate and haunted house in Kasauli, away from the world “of bags and letters, messages and demands, she had wanted to be left to the pines and cicadas alone…Whatever else came or happened would be an unwelcomed intrusion and distraction”. Nanda Kaul’s happy isolation is threatened by the irritating letter from Asha, her daughter announcing the arrival of Raka, the grand-daughter of Asha and Nanda Kaul’s great grand-daughter. The unexpected arrival of Raka comes in the way of the desire to live like a recluse, far from the society. She does not want to involve herself in any responsibilities anymore, for all she wants is to be alone, to have Carignano to herself, stillness and calm are all that she wishes to entertain. But Asha’s letter has made her apprehensive and she ponders painfully: “Now, to bow again, to let that noose sleep once more round her neck that she had thought was freed fully, finally, ¦now to converse again when it was silence she wished”.
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The novel deals with Nanda Kaul’s determined detachment and non-involvement which is brought about by the unhappy conjugal ties which is seen in Desai’s earlier novels like ‘Cry, the Peacock’, ‘Voices in the City’, ‘Where Shall We Go This Summer’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, etc,. Her fierce desire to live alone is the result of her busy but, empty live as the wife of an ex Vice Chancellor of Punjab University. She played the role a dutiful wife and almost everyone envied her. But the inner reality of her life is revealed to us when we learned that her relationship with her husband was an unhappy one. She led her life as he wanted her to live out of a sense of duty. Her life as a Vice Chancellor’s wife though crowded and full of social activity was meaningless and unsatisfying. Although her busy schedule lacked warmth and understanding, she carried on because of her obligations to her husband and children. Once she discharged her duties she does not want any disturbances. “Discharge me”, she groaned, “I have discharged all my duties. Discharge”. She has done away with everyone and everything and becomes a recluse. Emotional deprivation is at the root of Nanda Kaul’s disillusionment with human bonds. Her husband did not love her as a wife and treated her as some decorative and useful instrument needed for the efficient running of his household. She enjoyed the comforts and social status of the wife of a dignitary but deep down she felt lonely and neglected. Her husband extra marital affair with Miss David had been a source of agony throughout her life. She now believes every attachment to be the preface of a new betrayal and all socialization as fake. Her bond with her husband did not involve her “self”. It was full on the surface but empty at the core. The painful memory of the days when her husband went to visit Miss David’s home haunts her even in the isolation at Carignano and on such occasions she lost her “composition and harmony”. Feelings of anguish and distrust of humanity also reveals itself as she learns the death of Ila Das, her friend who was brutally raped and murdered. The traumatic married life of Nanda Kaul is clearly sketched in the lines “nor had her husband loved and cherished her and kept her like a queen-he had only done enough to keep her quiet while he carried on a life-long affair with Miss David. And her children were all alien to her nature”. In her earlier novels, the incompatibility of temperaments or psychic complexes cause dissonance in the marital ties. But in “Fire on the mountain” an extra marital affairs disturb the conjugal relationship of Nanda Kaul and her husband. This deeply affects her outlook on life and makes her distrust all attachments and affairs.
The conflict between the need to withdraw in order to preserve one’s wholeness and sanity and the need to be involved in the painful process of life is shown vividly in the novel. This wavering between attachment and detachment reflects the need for a meaningful life. Nanda Kaul meets with a measure of success until she is drawn out of herself by Raka’s effortless withdrawal who seem to be totally absorbed in a world of her own and ignores Nanda Kaul completely when compared with the latter’s flawed experiment. Raka only wants to be left alone to pursue her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli. Nanda Kaul wants to penetrate Raka’s secret world as if Raka’s total withdrawal is a challenge to her because withdrawal does not come naturally to her. In her desire to win Raka’s affection and attention she builds an imaginary world around her father but this is of no avail. This action of Nanda Kaul also shows the unsatisfying condition of her own childhood and family life.
Psychological experiment of the writer in the novel can also be seen on the portrayal of Raka’s character. Psychologists attach great significance to the parent-child relationship, because, according to them the patterning of emotion takes place particularly during childhood. They argue that the prevailing quality of the experience the child has with his parents particularly the mother during early childhood is of paramount importance. Childhood is the most formative period of one’s personality and socialization of the child begin in the family in the company of his parents who are the first individuals with whom the child interacts. Child learns the patterns of behavior which the parents set out to teach him in order to make him an acceptable member of the society. The emotion of the child depends largely on the quality of the emotional interaction that prevails between the child and his parents. Anita Desai’s characters have strange childhood, and their experiences and interactions during this formative period when combined with their congenital hypersensitivity contribute towards their inability to establish and maintain harmonious inter-personal relationship in later life. Commenting upon her solitary and introspective character’s childhood, she observes “I agree that the experiences of childhood are the most vivid and lasting ones.” Based on this we shall study the parent-child relationship in “Fire on the mountain” and show how far the childhood interaction affects and moulds them in the ability to relate themselves with others.
Another aspect of the novel deals with the result of a stifling home environment upon the tender psyche of Raka, the great grandchild of Nanda Kaul and the only child character in the novel. She is not a normal child and shuns all tenderness viciously. Unlike children of her age who gets attracted to fairy tales, adventure stories, the colorful and gay aspect of the world, Raka possesses a weird imagination and is drawn to uncanny places and things. After getting to know her character, we are not surprise when the care-taker of the burnt-house rightly thinks of her as “the crazy one from Carignano.” She as a child loves privacy and seclusion and her rejection of Nanda Kaul is complete when she feels restless to go out for her usual roaming in the presence of the former. Without informing her great grandmother she roams around all alone in the ravine or visits the lonely burnt house on the hill. She does not care for Nanda Kaul :”She ignored her so calmly, so totally that it made Nanda Kaul breathless”.
Raka is an abnormal child in comparison to other children. She never makes demand and seems to have no need of anything. The only thing she ever wanted was “to be left alone and pursue her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli”. Solitude never disturbs her and she is therefore happy during her stay in Carignano. One day while coming back from her daily excursions, she gets late and stumbles into the club building. Out of curiosity to know what is going on inside she inquires Ram Lal, the servant of Nanda Kaul, who told her about fancy dress balls. However, what Raka sees there is like a nightmare for her and therefore is disappointing. The perverted acts of the people dressed in the most bizarre fashion remind her of her own father and his wild behavior at home: ” Somewhere behind them was her father, home from a party, stumbling and crashing through the curtains of night beating her mother that made Raka cover under her bed clothes and wet the mattress in fright”. The behavior of her parents in front of her has a deep influence on her tender mind. They have no time or inclination to cater the emotional needs of their child. Her father is a drunkard who always abuses and beats his wife. The mother is in such unhappy condition that she cannot do anything for her child. Consequently, Raka’s traumatic experience deprived her of a child’s trust and feelings of joy in the company of others. When Nanda Kaul tries to attract the child towards herself by narrating the stories of her childhood, Raka “twists restlessly in her stool, her interest lost in this talk of belonging rather than happenings”. Since in her parents’ home Raka has not been the center of attention like other normal children, she is not interested in stories about people and relations. She is, therefore happy in Kasauli with its charred house on the ridge, with its fire-blasted hilltop where nothing sounds good, but the creaking of the pines in the wind. The chaos in the life of her parents makes Raka averse to belongingness. From all the evidences we can get the impression that the seeds of neurotic drives are sown during one’s childhood. The quality of interactions between Raka and her parents, and the disturbing home environment combined together to exert a lasting influence on her tender psyche. Anita Desai calls her a natural recluse and compares her with Nanda Kaul who was a recluse out of vengeance for a long-life of duty and obligation.
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However, we cannot say that Raka is a born recluse. She is a victim of a broken home. She becomes an introvert because of the abnormal circumstances around her. She has witnessed enough of the ambiguity of life and has seen bitterness, distrust and violence. Raka is a victim of emotional deprivation. Her embarrassing loveless childhood fills her heart with distrust and suspicion. As a result, she turns her back upon human beings and their so called safe, cozy and civilized world and develops a strong fascination for the ugly, lonely, rugged and desolate aspects of nature.
Anita Desai though believing that childhood impressions shape the personality and attitude of the individual, she also states that “even adult life contains many traumatic experiences”. In this light we can explicate the inordinate desire for seclusion and non-involvement in the case of Nanda Kaul herself. Her love for privacy is not something inherent in her. In fact, her desire for seclusion is due to the unhappy relationship she has had with her husband and children. She initially, resent Raka’s arrival because it reminds her of the past memories of her selfish children and faithless husband. Her relationship with her husband was nothing beyond the obligation they have for each other. After a long life of disorder, she has reached a state of elegant perfection. The thought of having a child around her at this stage is very undesirable for her. Even when Raka reaches Carignano she tries to keep aloof as the former arrival reminds her of her past life of duties and involvement. But Nanda Kaul’s strong resolution to be alone in Carignano begins to crumble in the presence of Raka. She once again looks for someone to care for her. Her inner self forced her to reach out to others, to love and be loved. In reality, she is filled with tenderness for Raka. All her life she has tried to feel wanted and be loved. Her efforts have been to get positive response from her family for her devotion, but all in vain. Despite all the betrayals and disappointments she received from her husband and children, she feels irresistibly drawn towards Raka as she longs for love.
Fire on the mountain is largely concerned with the problems of being related. The psychological aspect of the novel is best portrayed in the relationship of the characters. Nanda Kaul and Rakas suffer at the hands of those who are related to them. They seem to develop hatred for all human contacts and cherish to live an unattached, uninvolved existence. In Nanda’s case the desire for seclusion is a mask to hide her intense longing for fulfilling emotional bond.
Anita Desai has added a new dimension by writing a novel like ‘Fire on the Mountain’ to the Indian fiction in English probing deep into the bottomless pit of human psyche, she brings the hidden contours into much sharper focus. She always emphasizes on character delineation and for exceptional characters in exceptional circumstances aiming at final essence of subjective life and consciousness. The charm of her art lies in her characters, independent, agonized frustrated and combating with angry defense. She has procured an important place for herself in the Indo-English fiction writings by shifting the refrain of her fiction from outer reality to inner reality and by carrying the flow of the mental experience of its characters she adds a new dimension to it. In a way she has presented the potentials of the post independent writers in English. It is true that Desai has her limits but she compensates her material in intensity what she lacks in variety. Desai’s unquestionable existential and psychological concerns have distinguished her from other novelist of her generation. We can say she unravels the subconscious of her highly sensitive protagonists.
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