Fire on the Mountain

Nanda Kaul has never developed an expressive liking for people. Freed of the demands of being a Vice Chancellor's wife and mother, obligations she has met in exemplary if forbidding style, she has taken refuge in aloneness in a hill top house, in the direction of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Obligation stalks, however, and one summer her great granddaughter, Raka, comes to stay. Raka is from a broken home - her father, a diplomat is alcoholic and abusive, her mother, as a result, is wrecked, retreating into illness. Flying to Geneva and a new posting, the parents make a failed attempt to get on and Raka is left behind, imposed on her great grandmother.

Nanda and Raka are alike in their protective isolation and it is a similarity that sparks a complex relationship of recognition and mutual withdrawal that flips in Nanda to a determination to try and win Raka over, not for her love, that would be too much, but in order to spin a web around her, to bind her for something in her life must stay close.

For we discover, at the very end, in two moments of tragedy, one actual, the other threatened, that Nanda's stories are mostly fabrications and the solitariness of her life is an actual reflection not of need but of a failing loneliness that has accompanied her throughout. A loneliness that her great granddaughter may repeat in another key, a more dangerous key as she seeks the comfort of the harsh realities of the outside, natural world at its most austere and uncertain - the coiled snake, the snatching briar and, in the heat of summer, the prospect of forest fire - wanting to move from observation not into participation but merger and loss.

It is a beautifully told, bleak novel, that is a commentary on Thomas Traherne's observation than we are not loved either in sufficient measure or in the right manner. Each of us is a burning invitation to be approached in a deeper, more sensitive, more abiding manner; and, when we are not a compromising, disfiguring loneliness is the result, that wraps us inside ourselves, careering through life but never tasting it or immersing ourselves, but always observers whose actions fail to convince, even in their most dramatic moments.

Anita Desai's gift, for this is her novel, is to make this terrible loneliness/isolation, embedded in superficially unattractive characters, deeply memorable and seen with a compassionate eye. This seeing is doubly apparent as you catch yourself recoiling and being reeled back into the arch of sympathy.

Meanwhile her descriptions of the hill top house, its surroundings and its beauty in austerity are compelling; and, hint at another form of isolation that is the possibility of a graced and gracing solitude, a solitude sadly undermined by the participants retreating into isolation rather than being broken out into the communion of silence.


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