The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai thrives on the motif of disappearance. The epigraph (by Jorge Luis Borges) of the book,
“One thing alone does not exist – oblivion,”
similarly brings in an oft debated idea of what stays on eternally and what disappears from this world. I would think, contrary to what Borge points out, oblivion is the ONE thing that is absolutely constant. A person cannot protect or fight against oblivion. It is inevitable.
Yet the three short stories of The Artist of Disappearance, question whether oblivion is in fact inevitable and if it is possible to fight it.
The first story, The Museum of Final Journeys, is about a Civil Servant Officer, who recently finished his training and is now traveling to a remote place: his first posting. Soon the banality of his office and work overtakes his life and is only broken when an old faithful caretaker of the erstwhile Mukherjee estate nearby requests the officer to take over a now crumbling museum that is replete with bric-a-brac collected from all over the world. The caretaker even takes the officer to the equally dilapidated estate and shows him the various rooms filled with these curious objects – carpets and rugs from across the world, stuffed birds and animals, miniature paintings from bygone Indian empires, fans and kimonos, myriad masks, weapons of war and much more.
The tour ends with the caretaker’s request once again. The story dwells simultaneously on a world of opulence and ruin. It conveys the oblivion that past must eventually face. Though of course it will live on in the memories of the caretaker and of the officer but that itself is finite. There is something utterly melancholic about that thought and one would cling on to the hope that perhaps this long, forgotten museum could be resurrected. and for once the past could be relived, atleast in fiction if not in reality.
What do you think the young civil servant did? Did he let it disappear? Did he take an active initiative that would change the fate of the museum and perhaps enliven his own boredom?
The second story is Translator, Translated. The protagonist Prema, a lecturer at a women’s college, meets Tara, a publisher and her former classmate, at the Founder’s Day of their old school. Through Tara she gets an opportunity to translate a little know Odia author, Suvarna Devi, into English.
The story then chronicles, through alternative first (Prema’s) and third person point of view, how Prema had decided to conduct her PHD research on this Odia author (when everyone else was busy researching on canonical English authors for better job prospects), how her new task of translating Suvarna Devi’s work had reinvigorated her otherwise (according to her) bleak life and how once the translation was published, she felt pride for her new role, for her attending the indigenous conference of writers that led to an ecstatic meeting with the author herself. Soon she began on another translation of a new work that Suvarna Devi sends her.
The story asks thought provoking questions about authenticity to the original text and how much creativity can the translator imbue into the original. Does too much creativity then become a false translation and alter the meaning of the original completely? Or does creativity in a work help translators to get a sense of direction in the work they translate?
These and more questions plague Prema as well. She had added in several changes to the new book since the original (according to her) seemed flat and insipid. This then eventually forces her to face the wrath of the bilingual readers who accuse Tara’s publishing company of printing a book that had many discrepancies. Eventually Prema gives up translations and returns to her mundane job, ruing the fact of how the slight window that had opened up for her had now disappeared for good.
The last, eponymous story is as fragile as the rest, where the threat of oblivion looms large, though subtle. The protagonist, Ravi, a recluse, lives on a hill among some ruins, far away from the bustling centre of Mussoorie. Since his childhood, the outdoors meant freedom for him. His house, an opulent European styled one, he found suffocating. His adopted Westernised parents, Hasni and Tehmi, vacationed in luxurious European cities and that was the time Ravi was left alone, and that’s when he found freedom in the forests. After suffocating in Bombay with his cruel relatives, he returned to his beloved hills only after his mother’s death. The British woman, Mrs. Wilkinson, assigned to take care of his mother, stayed on till a fatal mistake burnt down the house and her cats. Ravi decided to continue staying there. He lived a monk like life, living cut off from both the world and its people. His only contact remained with the son, Bhole, of the previous servant in his house, Hari Singh. In his spare time, Ravi marvellously built a picture perfect abode ensconced deep within the forest. He had filled it painstakingly with pebbles and stones. But when a filming crew arrived and heard about this mysterious man and his garden, they tried to find out more. This further pushed Ravi to abandon his ruined home and use an ingenious way to hide himself. The adventures or rather the misadventures of the film crew also form part of the story later on and through the crew we also come to see the attitudes of the urban crowd and that of the natives toward city dwellers.
Disappearance suffuses the last story – the house, an erstwhile British way of life, the serenity in Mussoorie, Miss Wilkinson and her cats and eventually Ravi himself, making him a true artist of disappearance.
All three stories of The Artist of Disappearance bring out the poignant subtleties of disappearance and attach a specific raw emotion to each kind of disappearance, making the readers muse on it, while the emotion tastefully lingers on.