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Desai's 'Disappearance': Three Tales Of Art And Time

Novelist Anita Desai is a professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has also written <em>Journey to Ithaca</em>, <em>Village by the Sea</em> and <em>Clear Light of Day</em>.
Jerry Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Novelist Anita Desai is a professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has also written Journey to Ithaca, Village by the Sea and Clear Light of Day.

Anita Desai's new collection of stories, The Artist of Disappearance, reads a bit like three symphonic movements in a minor key. They're three novellas, set in modern India, where the past is giving way. In one story, a government official inspects the forgotten treasures left behind in a fated mansion. In another story, a translator becomes a little too creative; and in the third, a man living in solitude finds his world upset by roving visitors.

There are no car chases or explosions — just the drama of people confronting themselves. Desai, has written more than a dozen novels and collections, and has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the origins of her three stories.

In "Museum of Final Journeys," a civil servant is called in to appraise an old collection of antiquities. They are not works of art per se — there are globes and travel posters, stuffed birds and lizards, masks, daggers, scrolls, bells and clocks long broken. The civil servant calls it a "gloomy storehouse of abandoned, disused, decaying objects"; he says he wishes to "break free and flee."

Desai says the idea for the story came to her while she was walking through a museum — the objects, taken from their original homes, seemed orphaned. "Having been removed from where they belonged, where they'd been made, they had lost the quality of life," she says. "They all were just objects — shut up in glass cases, which made me wonder: What makes people collect such objects? What can it mean to anyone?"

In the second story, a professor named Perma Joshi translates a novel from an Indian language — and finds that she loves how powerful it makes her feel. Desai says she based the story on translators that she has known over the years.

"I realized that all translators, they all long to be writers themselves," Desai explains. "If they didn't have that longing, they probably wouldn't be very good translators, but a lot of them do have that creative urge — and my character Perma Joshi simply gets carried away with that."

Desai says she's never felt that her own work was translated unfaithfully, but her daughter, Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai, once wrote a very funny book that, when translated into Scandinavian languages, didn't make anyone laugh. "There was no humor left in it whatsoever," Desai says.

Desai was pleasantly surprised when her daughter became a writer. "All my children told me they never wanted to become writers," Desai recalls. "They said, 'You lead such a boring life. We don't want to live like you do.' "

Anita Desai always told her daughter that she wrote wonderful letters, but it wasn't until Kiran's college professors encouraged her to write that she really took it seriously. Now the mother and daughter write together, in the same house. "It's wonderful to be able to talk about our work, about each other's work, about the books we are reading," Desai says.

In the final story in the collection, a character named Ravi is living a hermit-like existence — working on a splendid rock sculpture hidden in the Himalayan foothills.

"He's never really entered the adult world, and he retains the child's point of view," Desai explains. "He never really thinks of himself as an artist. He has no desire to reveal it to the outer world. He simply doesn't have those adult impulses and ambitions."

But when a television crew from Delhi comes to visit, they view Ravi and his work in a different light. The story raises the question: Is there art without an audience?

Desai certainly thinks so: "All of us who have ever written, composed music [or] painted know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world, we are completely withdrawn from it and in our own world. We are re-creating an inner world."

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