Reading Time: 8 minutes

Anita Desai has added a new dimension to Indian fiction in English by writing a novel like Fire on the Mountain, which probes deep into the bottomless pit of the human psyche and brings the hidden contours into a much sharper focus. 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 named Nanda Kaul. Like a mountain stands this woman, looking down at the shining plains with a fire inside -the fire that has been lying suppressed under the heavy responsibilities ascribed upon her. The image of a typical Indian housewife whose desires and wishes are buried under the norms, duties and responsibilities imposed by a male-dominated society is mirrored in her. The novelist exposes the gender ideologies that oppress women and also shows how they try to break away from society to seek comfort in a world of their own.

Apart from Nanda Kaul, Anita Desai also introduces two other women characters, Raka and Ila Das as carriers of reality and past to Nanda’s world of fantasies. Fire on the Mountain is written in three parts and each part introduces a woman character. All three woman characters undergo a conflict within themselves because of the pathogenic environment in which they live. This inner conflict of theirs makes them start a relationship with solitude and gradually, they get pulled away from their selves. Thus, the novel is of three women who are in an utter maze of isolation.

Nanda is sketched to be an old woman who wishes not to be disturbed by anything or anyone from outside the world she has created for herself close to nature. The eerie silence of Carignano comforts her and the strong and still pine trees help her to regain the strength she has lost in working for others. She was the wife of the Vice-Chancellor of Punjab University. The house was always crowded with children, grandchildren, guests and responsibilities and she was always at the centre of them and led a very busy life by catering to the needs of everyone around her. In the eyes of the outside world, Nanda had a splendid life, but in reality, she led a meaningless and unsatisfying life where she failed to get mentally involved with anything or even with her children.

The Vice-Chancellor had an illicit relationship with another woman, Miss David. To maintain his reputation in the social circles, he demanded Nanda to continue living with him. She was used as a mere object or a decorative item needed for the efficient running of ‘his’ house. He led her life as he wanted her to live. Nanda, though burning from inside, suppressed her frustration and anger by leading a mechanical life devoid of emotions. That is the reason why she had been very glad to leave everything after Vice Chancellor’s death. She felt free from all the clutches of relations and the house as she was never attached to them.

Like the barrenness of the Carignano garden and its rocks, Nanda too is empty. The nature that surrounds her projects her self which is deprived of emotions. To make Nanda Kaul confront reality, Anita Desai invited Raka to her life. Raka is the great-granddaughter of Nanda Kaul. Nanda’s daughter Asha and Asha’s daughter Tara are passive characters who appear only through letters. Tara is Raka’s mother who is caught in the same situation as Nanda and assumes a passive role to her husband. Tara is a victim of physical abuse from her husband and this, in turn, causes trauma in Tara’s and Raka’s lives. Here, Anita Desai tries to reflect how a woman is supposed to suffer everything and remain a mute victim to the brutalities of her husband and father.

Having lived in a broken home, Raka loses trust in belongingness, like Nanda. The traumatic experience of witnessing the chaotic life of her mother makes Raka develop reclusive behaviour and she refuses to get close to any human being. She is not a child who is interested in the warmth of relations and the company of the outside world. The only thing she ever wanted was “to be left alone and pursue her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli”. Throughout the novel, “secrecy” and Raka go hand in hand.

Nanda’s mask starts falling off as she wishes to penetrate Raka’s secret world. Till now, she remained aloof from Raka as she was afraid to enter a child’s world which might betray her. At this juncture, we come to realise that the so-called “withdrawal” of Nanda Kaul was in reality, forced seclusion. Along with the reader, Nanda too realises how she has been trapped in a conflict between fantasy and reality. Anita Desai unveils Nanda’s inner self that craves affection, attention and some love. To win Raka’s affection and attention, she builds an imaginary world around her and cooks up stories. But, this is of no avail as Raka, who is a loner by “choice”, comfortably avoids her and pays no great interest in the fantasies that are fake and unreal. She comes face to face with the stark reality of life that she has “enveloped herself with a feigned indifference solely to protect herself from being hurt any further”.

When Raka’s presence takes Nanda Kaul from the shells of fantasies, Ila Das, her old friend, arrives with the past which she has been trying to keep away from Carignano. Ila Das, a social worker and Nanda Kaul’s old friend lead a life filled with a series of miseries and misfortunes. Although her family was wealthy, her brothers wasted away their inheritance and forced the two sisters out of their house. From there start Ila’s isolation and poverty. For Ila, Nanda Kaul’s life had all its glory and lavish exterior which a woman like Ila longs for.

Ila Das makes the narrative active and for the first time, someone uses the concept of ‘home’, instead of a house by calling Vice Chancellor’s house ‘that home away from home for me’. Throughout the novel, we see that whenever Nanda mentions the house she lived in earlier, she always termed it as ‘Vice Chancellor’s house’. This implies that Nanda had never felt any belongingness to that house. For Ila, Vice Chancellor’s house and the memories are ‘memories to treasure’ whereas to Nanda, they are ‘horrors of her life’. Ila is portrayed as a character who does not wish to get isolated but time plays it in another way. Though submerged in poverty and miseries, she contains the spirit to fight back for her existence as well as for others. Unfortunately, she gets raped and killed by one whose daughter she wanted to save from the shackles of child marriage. Ila’s violent rape and death shatter Nanda Kaul’s imaginary world completely and she comes face to face with the reality of leading a futile life.

The futility of Ila’s life opens up the innermost chambers of Nanda’s mind in which she had buried her past, her longings and her desires, and realises the futility of her life as well. All these years, she had been trying to pretend, trying to mask her real self to avoid herself from breaking apart. Pretence becomes difficult for her after that; throughout her life, she has been pretending, performing and playing roles. Later, she kept up the pretence of ‘wanting’ and choosing seclusion of Carignano, though the reality was that she had no other choice. The repression of all these for so many years was the reason why she was always in conflict with herself. When these repressed fire in her gushed out with a rebounding vehemence, she falls weak to bear it and she dies.

The novel ends with Raka setting fire to the mountains. Anita Desai makes Raka a strong figure as she never tried to pretend and she holds complete control of herself by being close to reality and nature. Thus, the novelist focuses on the inner world that remains suppressed in each person. The fire that burns within her women characters acts as both destroyer and creator. Nanda and Ila tried to repress it and the outcome was that it ended up swallowing them but Raka lets out the fire to end the conflict she faces, thereby creating a new hope in her life.

Anita Desai

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 Raka 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 a fulfilling emotional bond. The conflict between the need to withdraw 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.

A psychological experiment of the writer in the novel can be seen in 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. Anita Desai though believing that childhood impressions shape the personality and attitude of the individual, 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.

The most striking element in the novel is how nature plays a significant role in the plot. Nature becomes one of the important characters apart from the three women. The characters are found seeking solace and comfort in the wilderness of nature and they believe in its healing power. Nature is the only thing they trust and believe to be real and interesting, unlike the darkness of society. Throughout the novel, the three women are seen compared to nature like Nanda to the pine trees, Raka to the wild jungle and insects etc. The barrenness of nature at Carignano reflects in the lives of the characters as well. Nature acts as a metaphor and externalises the inner turmoil of these women.

Anita Desai always emphasizes character delineation and exceptional characters in exceptional circumstances aiming at the final essence of subjective life and consciousness. The charm of her art lies in her characters, independent, agonized frustrated and combating with angry defence. 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.

Previous articleICT Enabled Learning
Next articleICT in ELT
Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.