YEARS ago, when I was 15 years old, I read a short story by Anita Desai called Games at Twilight. It was about a group of cousins, playing hide and seek, told from the point of view of Ravi. During the course of the story, Ravi feels a range of emotions – the sheer joy of being outdoors and playing with his cousins, the fear of being made ‘it’ during the game, the panic of being found out when he’s hiding and the deep desolation of being so insignificant in the scheme of things for the other children, that they don’t even notice his absence. It was a stunning concept to encounter at the age of 15 – the world as viewed from the eyes of a young, unsure, insecure child. Of course, I had read books told from the child’s point of view before – Enid Blyton had been a particular favourite. But her children were merely little adults, full of a sense of honour and courage and eating such unimaginable things as tongue sandwiches. I loved reading about the adventures of the Famous Five and the midnight feasts at St. Clare’s, but the world of those British children was alien to my world. After a certain age, I felt the distance and saw the same character stencils being used to outline different children.
In Games at Twilight, however, I encountered real children. With real characteristics. The older, bossy children are affectionate and domineering by turns. Not bad at heart, but so casually cruel. Of course they forgot the existence of little Ravi. They have got a hundred other things going on in their imaginative, busy little heads. If Ravi is slow enough to fall behind, is it their fault? But the story is mostly told from Ravi’s perspective, and you get a sense of his emotional tumult. He loves playing with his cousins, and they include him in their games. But then, they also frequently ignore him. He’s a sensitive child, eager of attention and adulation, like all children are and it’s easy to feel his heartbreak at the end of the story.
What’s not easy, however, is to be able to negotiate the complicated psychological landscape of childhood and write about it. Certainly not as a child, when you’re too young and inexperienced to be sure of what you’re feeling and most definitely not as an adult, when you’ve all but forgotten the little hurts and slights of your childhood. But it’s just as difficult to really understand how a child transitions to adulthood, growing up and changing in many ways, and yet staying fundamentally the same. How certain qualities, visible in a child, remain the same when she’s all grown up and yet they feel somehow distorted. Anita Desai, one of the best writers India has ever produced, has a very sure hand when dealing with these quagmires of the mind and heart. The only other writer I know of who can do it so well is Margaret Atwood (If you haven’t read her Cat’s Eye, do so immediately). I’m sorry to use a banality here, but Desai really does put herself in her characters’ shoes.
I realised this very strongly when I recently read her Clear Light of Day. Briefly put, it’s the story of the four Das siblings: Bim and Raja , the older siblings, ambitious and smart and like two peas in a pod. Their younger sister, Tara, is passive and dreamy and clearly under the shadow of her brilliant older sister and brother. And then there’s Baba, a late and perhaps initially unwelcome addition to their family, whose slow development and emotional distance hints at autism. There are many themes that Desai addresses here: there’s a lament for the loss of an old, more cultured Delhi, where poets and intellectuals gathered regularly to read and appreciate poetry; where classical music had active patronage, and where life was lived at a more languid pace.
There is also a lament for the loss of childhood. Which is strange, given that the children don’t really have an idyllic childhood. They live in a big, mouldering mansion in Civil Lines, with few things to occupy them. Their father is practically a stranger to them; their mother is too ill to bring them up; their Mira Masi – a distant, poor relation – initially comes as the maternal figure they desperately need, but gradually unravels into drunkenness and psychosis. The children fill their time dreaming, imagining games, and planning their eventual escape from the stifling inactivity of their lives.
I don’t want to give away the whole plot here. There really isn’t one in the ‘did he-didn’t he’ sense. It’s more like a book-length contemplation on the story of one family, but I don’t want to reveal what sort of adults the children become and how that informs their relationship with one another. All I’ll say is that Desai makes us live their dreadful, passive days, she gets us to feel the same despair they do, and the same sense of abandonment. When the children run to the watermelon fields across the hot, dry bed of the Yamuna and split open the hard green shell, you can feel the joy and relief that the they feel when they plunge their hands into the cool, red flesh. You also feel their depression, as they lie underneath a lazily whirling fan and ask each other inane questions, simply to pass the time. She’s a master conjurer of atmospheres. Part of the reason is probably because this is one of her most autobiographical works (or so it is rumoured). But a big part is surely played by her shrewd observations of human behaviour. This is isn’t the story of an idyllic childhood, but it offers a wealth of insight into the minds of children and is supremely well-told.