Most criticism of Anita Desai stresses the influence of Western writers such as Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, or D. H. Lawrence on her work. Desai makes use of her rich Indian tradition in her stories, however, not only as locale or social background, but in terms of ideas from Indian philosophical classics such as the Bhagavad Gita. Desai’s characters often quote the Bhagavad Gita in times of crisis. The theme of that book is liberation or self-realization through surrender of the self to God. In ‘‘Games at Twilight,’’ as in much of her work, East meets West in the theme of self-realization, as Desai changes the meaning of that term to reflect the Western quest for authentic individuality.
With the colonial disruption of India’s quieter civilization, the tradition of contemplative withdrawal to find self-realization was replaced by bustling mega-cities and commerce, and Indians found themselves living in the same fragmented universe described by Albert Camus and the existential philosophers. Desai’s characters have borrowed the Western anxiety and search for a meaningful postcolonial identity. They delve into their own psyches as a modern analogy to the saintly pilgrimages of the past to find wisdom. Robin Jared Lewis, in ‘‘Anita Desai: ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and ‘Games at Twilight’’’ from Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching, finds Desai’s work inspiring to younger Indian authors: ‘‘Desai’s work has given new scope to the ongoing search for self-realization in modern Indian literature.’’
Some critics have disliked Desai’s focus on the psychological life of her characters at the expense of the exploration of social and feminist themes. Minoli Salgado, in ‘‘Anita Desai’’ in A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English, remarks that Desai’s earlier fiction avoided political issues, except indirectly with her psychological portraits of Indian women re-evaluating their roles. Her later fiction from the 1980s does address social problems more graphically. Games at Twilight is ‘‘a transitional work,’’ according to Salgado, that finds ‘‘fundamental links between the personal, spiritual, and aesthetic and the social, historical, and material [aspects of life].’’ Ravi’s story seems like a simple childhood incident, but the layers of meaning reveal the interconnectedness of different dimensions of Indian life. Ravi’s quest for individuality and the possibility of finding it reflect on the crisis of the modern Indian soul itself.
Desai began writing at the age of seven and was probably a sensitive and aware child like Ravi. The story is largely filtered through his point of view. His registering of the summer twilight with its smell of water on dry earth, the ‘‘long purple shadows,’’ the white walls of the house, the color draining from the bougainvillea, and the chanting of the children at their games while he listens from his dark hiding place in the shed, is a concrete portrait of the artistic mind absorbing its surroundings. Ravi is also socially sensitive to the human landscape, wanting to find his place with the other children and to get recognition from the parents who preside over the children’s games. Seema Jena, in Voice and Vision of Anita Desai, points out that in Indian life, ‘‘The individual to a very large extent is subordinated to the group’’ and that this is difficult both for the person who wants more freedom and for the Indian writer. Indian literature before Desai was more concerned with character types. Her fiction has broken ground by depicting individual personalities and their struggles.
Ravi is dissatisfied with being one of the anonymous children. They are rough with one another, pushing, shouting, running, fighting. Ravi seems afraid of the opinion and treatment of his older brother Raghu, who is a ‘‘hoarse-voiced football champion.’’ Raghu only sees Ravi as an opponent in the game, not as a sensitive individual. Even the motherly Mira just wants to keep order and does not think of the little boy’s feelings. Robin Jared Lewis asserts that ‘‘Desai’s vision of urban India reflects a culture in which intimacy has become a form of suffocation.’’ Ravi cherishes memories of being special when an uncle took him out by himself for chocolate, or when the soda-man let him ride in his cart. Thus he spins fantasies while hiding in the shed of being a hero to be distinguished from the others: ‘‘to be the winner in a circle of older, bigger, luckier children—that would be thrilling beyond imagination.’’
Jasbir Jain, in Stairs to the Attic: The Novels of Anita Desai, mentions that Desai’s characters typically ‘‘are … engaged in trying to find out their hidden selves.’’ In order to do this, they initiate a pattern of ‘‘withdrawal before it [the subjective mind] can re-establish a connection’’ with the world. This not only accurately describes her female characters but the boy Ravi as well. He withdraws from the game, longer than anyone would do for hide-and-seek. In the dark shed, Ravi faces both his fears and his hopes in a dip into the subconscious mind. The reader gets a glimpse of his whole life in this inner snapshot. The withdrawal makes him forget the time, and even the rules of the game. He is exploring himself and his desires. This is how he knows himself as separate from the others. He wants to be the equal of the other children, to be taken seriously in his family. M. Sivaramkrishna, in his article ‘‘From Alienation to Mythic Acceptance: The Ordeal of Consciousness in Anita Desai’s Fiction’’ in Perspectives on Anita Desai, describes an ‘‘ordeal of consciousness’’ in which there is a movement that is ‘‘not always successful’’ in the central character from ‘‘existential alienation and despair to a transcendence of these through the quest for a unifying myth.’’ He means that the hero tries to find the way to unify personality, to be whole and at home in the universe.
This pattern of a withdrawal from the action to find oneself is also the central pattern of the Bhagavad Gita. In the middle of a battle, full of despair at killing his own kinsmen on the other side, the warrior prince, Arjuna, withdraws to contemplate the meaning of it all, and Krishna, who is an embodiment of God, enlightens him, so that he can return to battle to finish his duty with wisdom. Though she does not refer to the Bhagavad Gita here, Desai does so elsewhere in her fiction, if only to point out how far modern life is from such a vision. Yet, like Arjuna, her characters still search, engaging in a pattern of withdrawal in which they consider their lives. This withdrawal-search is a common pattern in her stories. Sometimes her characters experience a breakthrough, as Arjuna does, and sometimes they fail, as Ravi does. In either case, they rebel against living a meaningless life and stifling their individuality. Win or lose, they assert themselves after the withdrawal.
The dark shed is a perfect symbol of the dark of the subconscious mind. First, Ravi is full of fear and horror at what might be in the shed: ‘‘Ravi had never cared to enter such a dark and depressing mortuary of defunct household goods seething with such unspeakable and alarming animal life.’’ To go beyond ordinary and sanctioned social reality, one has to let go and experience what may teem beneath the surface. This life may be frightening and primitive, or it may be full of depressing memories. The shed contains the family furniture that is broken, another symbol for the family history. Desai’s adult characters often find memories of trauma or a lost childhood in such moments of reflection on the past. Ravi feels both fear and delight at his bravery: ‘‘Ravi shook, then shivered with delight, with self-congratulation.’’ His adventure represents multiple layers of reality. Hiding in the shed requires physical bravery. There are spiders, rodents, and snakes there. It is an act of psychological courage as he confronts his fears and wishes. It is also a metaphysical act of rebellion, as we see at the end of the story, where Ravi becomes conscious of the world as alien and himself as insignificant.
S. Indira, in Anita Desai as an Artist, speaks of Desai’s use of symbol and psychological landscape to explore her tragic vision of life. Like T. S. Eliot, one of her influences, she recreates a state of mind by linking mood to concrete objects and landscapes. Twilight, for instance, as Peter Alcock suggests in ‘‘Rope, Serpent, Fire: Recent Fiction of Anita Desai,’’ in Language and Literature in Multicultural Contexts, represents the space between two worlds, neither day nor night, inner nor outer, past nor future. It can suggest the twilight of Indian civilization, between the old and new or, psychologically, it suggests a time for reverie and an altered state of awareness where one may have an insight. Thus, the scene in the story depicts children playing hide-and-seek at twilight, but such a simple scene is able to call up the depth of the individual psyche and also suggest something about the modern Indian psyche as a whole with what Salgado calls its ‘‘subjectivity, formal fragmentation, temporal dislocation, and a quest for meaning.’’
Desai uses the Joycean ‘‘epiphany,’’ or moment of insight, to structure much of her fiction. All the inner work of the character leads to, if not wisdom, at least clarification. This short story and the others in the volume Games at Twilight build to an insight for the character, either positive or negative. If Ravi’s is negative, the insight of the boy Suno in ‘‘Studies in the Park,’’ another story in the volume, is positive. He has a vision of beauty and love that turns his life around. Ravi’s is the insight of the existentialist who finds life to be quicksand beneath his feet.
Perhaps there is an overall thrust of tragedy to Desai’s work, but it seems that at least she understands the depth of the tragic vision. As in Greek tragedy, the importance is not always the happy ending, but the moment of recognition of the truth about oneself. In a 1979 interview quoted in Jain’s book, Desai mentions that ‘‘solitary and introspective people are always very aware of living on the brink’’ and those are the ones she is interested in writing about, because they are the ones who ‘‘are more aware than others are of what lies on the other side.’’
Desai’s characters are interesting because they insist on pushing through to the other side of chaos to some kind of meaning. The author suggests the human condition through Ravi. Usha Bande, in The Novels of Anita Desai, points out that ‘‘Anita Desai creates a world in which the inner and the outer selves aspire for a harmony.’’ With this challenge, the characters either rise to achieve the harmony or they fail, but at least they make the effort to be conscious. All Desai’s work records the quest of the individual for a wholeness that seems to have been lost along the way.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Anita Desai – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Susan K. Andersen, Critical Essay on ‘‘Games at Twilight,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.