Anita Desai’s fiction deals with individuals searching for their identity. This theme has been popular in Western fiction for at least two centuries, but it is a new theme in Indian literature since India was until recently a closed society. Traditionally, the family and social caste system dictated individual choices in everything from education to marriage partners. Desai’s fiction covers new territory. With a global culture and modern cities, with Western education and English as an officially recognized language, with women in the workplace, individual choice has become important, though it means erosion of the old ways. The conflict between the individual’s inner life and the outer social expectations is the subject of Desai’s fiction, particularly in terms of women and children, who had little say in the old society.
Like all of Desai’s protagonists, Ravi is much more sensitive than the others. He registers things going on around him and is easily hurt or excited. An Indian family is usually large and noisy, with many relatives visiting or residing together. During the game of hide-and-seek, Ravi slips into the dark shed and is not discovered. He dreams of being a hero, of being distinguished by winning the game, and with this hope, he is willing to stay uncomfortable in the frightening and dark shed with its rats and spiders. He wants to be ‘‘a breaker of records, a champion.’’
Outwardly, Ravi is undistinguished and unknown. His desires and inner thoughts are not understood by his mother or the other children. It is only to himself and the reader that he has individuality. His thoughts, dreams, and fears are revealed, as are his sensitivities. Ravi keenly registers the beauty of the summer day and evening. For him, the family ritual in the garden each evening has significance, with the father and mother sitting like a king and queen in their cane chairs surveying the children playing. Withdrawn into the dark shed, Ravi casts his mind over his whole family, and we know them primarily through his memory and impressions. It is his individual point of view that structures the story.
Alienation is a frequent theme in Desai’s work. Since both her short stories and her novels are told from the point of view of sensitive individuals, it is not surprising that they find themselves at odds with their environment. Ravi is not adjusted to the way the children play their games. He has expectations beyond theirs. The other children fight and quarrel and hit and scream but then forget about it and go on to the next thing. Ravi cannot take the situation so lightly. He is nervous and picks his nose from worrying about being caught. It is a life-and-death encounter for his young ego. He spends hours isolated in the dark shed, spinning fantasies in his head about what this game means to him and to the others. He is shocked to find out that his ideas about what he is doing and what is actually going on do not coincide. Ravi feels left out by the others and takes it very hard that they have forgotten about him and did not notice that he was missing. Instead of being comforted for his disappointment, he is scolded by his mother and the other children for being a baby, which adds to his humiliation. He screams out for recognition: ‘‘‘I won, I won, I won,’ he bawled.’’ Mira, the older sister, has no patience and forcibly puts him at the end of the line. His brother Raghu shoves him. Ravi does not back down: ‘‘He would not follow them.’’ He feels so passionately wronged that he makes the situation worse by alienating himself from the others in protest.
Short stories often revolve around some revelation for the character, and this one concerns Ravi’s disillusionment. The fantasy he makes up while hiding in the shed about being a hero and winning the game proves to be false, since he stays in the shed too long and forgets that to win he has to come out and hit the base or den. The deeper disillusionment, however, comes from the fact that no one missed him or wondered where he was. The other children have no idea why he is upset because they were not thinking of him or his point of view. This incident, though small, is highlighted as psychologically important because it represents a common event. It is the moment one realizes the world does not revolve around oneself. The world outside has its own life and goes on despite the inner dreams and wishes of the individual. Sometimes this moment is healthy for a person, and sometimes it is not. It can be a good thing to get a ‘‘reality check’’ for someone given to too much fantasy. On the other hand, for a sensitive person, the revelation of finding out no one else really cares or understands can be devastating. One gets a sense that this is a formative moment in Ravi’s life, and it is not positive.
The Human Condition
‘‘Games at Twilight’’ illustrates another important theme in Desai’s work: the human condition. Influenced by existential writers like Albert Camus, Desai shows the surprise of the human being who discovers his or her insignificance in the world. An existential hero struggles with the meaninglessness of life. Whatever game Ravi is playing in his mind about being a hero is an illusion in terms of the bigger world outside. Extending this farther, an existentialist does not find evidence of a benign order guiding the universe. Humans have to construct their own reality. If we took all the characters and saw the same scene from their particular point of view, there would be a dozen different stories. An existential hero finds himself a rebel, like Ravi, by rejecting the status quo, which is just a game society has made up like the children’s game of hide-and-seek. Ravi is aware that the game is somewhat arbitrary, despite the rules; it is not fair.
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.