Journey to Ithaca

Anita Desai's novel, "Journey to Ithaca" has, as its frontispiece, Cafavy's famous poem of the same name.

It is a compelling poem - it is the nature of the journey that matters, not the destination, the destination is in your imagination and what it compels, leads to in experience, the arrival may disappoint, be poor, but look at what it has inspired. No actual place can sustain, bear, those that are imagined. No single place can fulfil all the possibilities of experience. It is a testament to the 'romantic' nomadic (for actual nomadic people live in circumscribed, described spaces and may be expansive but not restless).

Desai's accomplished novel has three central characters - an Italian couple who travel to India in the 1970s, Matteo, the husband, inspired by an adolescent reading of Hesse's 'The Journey to the East" (and adolescent in both literal and metaphoric senses). His wife, Sophie, in his train. He dreams of enlightenment, she dreams of this worldly idylls. They are a mismatched yet bound pair. Matteo finds his way to an ashram presided over by the spirit of the Master and the yet living Mother, his spiritual consort. For The Mother, Matteo falls as guru and guide and immerses himself in ashram life. For the Mother, Sophie has contempt wrapped around a core of intrigue. The intrigue is who is this woman - part Egyptian, part French, who has wound up in India as a leader of a community. The second half of the book has Sophie going in search of the Mother's, Laila's, early existence, hoping to expose her as simply a woman with a history, not an 'immortal'.

The story carries resonances (but only these) of the Mother, who was the consort of Sri Aurobindo, and her journals are referenced in the acknowledgements as places from which Desai has learnt.

Sophie does indeed discover an ordinary woman with a passion to become a dancer, who has a lover, Krishna, the handsome and charismatic and flawed leader of an Indian dance troupe. They pass through all the obvious adventures of such a group - artistic patronage given and withdrawn, a failing tour as 'Oriental exotics' in a post-World War One America, the squabbles and resentments of any group, even the squalid guesthouses in obscure places that no romanticism can uplift. But Sophie, also, discovers, even as she resists it, a woman led by an aspiration of gathering force, not towards dance, but to the divine, seen first in the titles in an obscure Orientalist bookshop, then in dance and subsequently in an imagined, then realised India. Or did she? What do we truly know about anyone's discoveries? 

This is the tantalizing point on which the book closes - with Sophie pursuing Matteo, who with the Mother's death, has journeyed on to the mountains, the scene of the Mother's apparent enlightenment. 

Yet the book too has a strange paradox - the two Europeans are always journeying, the ideal receding but are they enriched in the way the Mother is (who appears to have arrived)? 

The journeying may be rich with experience but neither Matteo nor Sophie appear ever to rest to savor it? There may be something about arriving after all, bedding down on an Ithaca, however, poor, for as the Mother insists the divine can be found anywhere yet, as our Italians show, we have a relentless propensity to turn an anywhere into a nowhere through our restlessness. 


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