One of the most challenging things for a writer is to keep a reader hooked to the end when you’re narrating a flow of conscience. I guess, most writers who have been successful in this haven’t cared about keeping a reader hooked at all. Having to make things ‘entertaining’ or ‘engaging’ often compromises the intensity of works, and not giving in to the temptation of popularity is what makes writers like Anita Desai so great. ‘Where shall we go this summer’ is a validation of her commitment to writing, to creating an elaborate character; and not whatsoever to popularity. Works like this one keep literature on the pedestal, which I think is a good thing.
Where shall we go this summer is a story of Sita. More so, a narrative of Sita’s consciousness and her subconscious. To the world, she is a distorted woman with hardly any feature that can make her relevant or fitting to her society. Within her mind too, Sita is habitually entangled in her sometimes sorted and often twisted thoughts that motivate her to perceive her world differently and do strange things. Her story begins with her decision to come back to an island in Manori where she grew up; with an intention to keep her unborn child inside her. Not to abort it, or not to give birth – just keep it inside her because the world, as she saw it, was not fit for her to bring another child into it. She hoped to get hold of some ‘magic’ she thought existed in the island back when her father had first brought her and a few others there. Thereon, the book is mostly about her past life on the island where she was nothing more than a constantly overlooked urchin of a girl who grew up on her own, with little or no attention given to the disturbed, disturbing world that was taking shape inside her head.
The absence of the ‘magic’ she expected and the prolonged isolation combined with resentment from her own children drives Sita further inwards into her crowded mind. It disturbs one to be reading about a woman, isolated and seemingly helpless, endure the misery of only seeing what is destructive in the world and nothing constructive. The extent of vulnerability makes the whole world, with the littlest of its things, responsive to her internal turmoil. How Anita Desai narrates this intense flow of conscience is no short of magical.
The rather suffocating existence has its very few releasing moments but the claustrophobia never refrains from closing in again. When towards the end her experiences pile up, the reader would naturally expect her explosive catharsis but Desai makes it anti-climactic. That’s how life is, isn’t it; anti-climactic. She doesn’t find the magic she came looking for. She’s not as loved as a woman her intensity should be. She’s not accomplished. Her withdrawal for the summer is not fruitful. But she gives in. And it seems normal.
Few things that caught my attention other than the narration was Sita’s observation of her surroundings during childhood. Her father was a freedom fighter, which meant she never had a proper home or a mother. There is a short phase in the novel when she mentally looks for her mother and makes assumptions about where she might be. She has a complex relationship with her older sister and her father. The tides of the sea and the palm trees on the beach respond to her. Her children are talented yet destructive. Her husband is a gentleman, but so resigned that it drives her insane. Whatever everyone else considers normal, she loathes. And the narrative is brilliant enough to justify it all.
Yes, the novel does have its negatives. The plot is rarely given attention to over the heavy inclination towards symbolism and poetry. Desai, or Sita here, seems to have her issues with everything that the society considers normal; much like Ayn Rand. But the intensity of narration overshadows everything else. Surely, it does not cater to the popular taste. But It’s sufficient to make a newbie quite obsessed with Anita Desai.