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Rosarita by Anita Desai review – a haunting tale about family bonds and betrayals

Rosarita by Anita Desai review – a haunting tale about family bonds and betrayals

Anita Desai’s riddling and haunted new novel is set in motion when Bonita, a young Indian woman, meets a tricksy figure in a park in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. A student of Spanish, Bonita is leafing through local newspapers when she is approached. “The Stranger” – elderly, overfriendly and peculiarly dressed “in the flamboyant Mexican style that few Mexican women assume at any other than festive occasions” – claims to know Bonita’s dead mother, whom she calls “Rosarita”. She says they met and became friends when the latter came to pursue art under the tutelage of Mexican maestros. Bonita has no recollections of her mother painting or travelling to Mexico. She remembers, however, “a sketch in wishy-washy pale pastels that had hung on the wall above your bed at home, of a woman seated on a park bench – and yes, it could have been one here in San Miguel – with a child playing in the sand at her feet”. The woman “is not looking at the child and the child is not looking at her, as if they had no relation to each other, each absorbed in a separate world, and silent”.

Written in the second person, the novel interrogates the gulf that can exist between a parent and her child, and the sketch – forgotten and recalled – is a sly mise en abyme that also speaks to the fickleness of memory, and the ever-porous boundaries between the past and the present. Bonita has no information about who made it, when or where. Next, she is looking back on the “years no one mentioned again once they were over, the time when Mother was absent and you were taken to live in your grandparents’ house in Old Delhi”. Bonita’s memories congeal around the figure of her paternal grandmother, a woman who took great delight in running her home but quietly suffered her domineering and authoritarian husband. Time spent in her company proves eye-opening; when her mother finally reappears, the child considers her “unsuitability as a wife”. She observes how she surrenders to the demands of domesticity, and honours the lifestyle of her husband, an uppity executive, “although she showed no sign of Grandmother’s pride in such an achievement, only of an unwilling martyrdom”. Bonita will later opt to study languages – first French, then Portuguese and Spanish – fuelled by her determination to travel and escape a similar fate.

Desai writes powerfully and provocatively about family and tradition, men and women, marriage and motherhood; her theme throughout is the conflict between duty and the pursuit of meaning and autonomy. In the novel’s most compelling section, the reader is given an account of the circumstances Bonita believes led to her mother going to Mexico. More speculative than objective, it begins with her attending a life-changing lecture discussing parallels between art about the partition of India and the Mexican revolution. Confronted with horrific images of violence, including of trains “packed with passengers slaughtered along the way, oozing blood out of carriages when they are opened, then more blood and still more”, she flees from the event.

“Anyone trying to explain might suggest that some wound that had been stitched up had split open then.” Bonita wonders if it relates to her mother’s ancestral history, “that suppressed one so carefully guarded”. “Were those trains she saw on the screen with their unspeakable cargoes, the ones that could have carried the Muslims of India to Pakistan and the Hindus of Pakistan to India, also the ones that carried her family across some savage new border from which few arrived alive?” The experience in any case emboldens Bonita’s mother to embark on a journey to study Mexican art in Mexico, in defiance of familial expectations.

Unsettled by the words of the stranger, and beginning to regard them as possibly true, Bonita goes out in search of her. “You had resisted her fantastical tale but now find you would like to believe it. Could she, like a wizard or a magician, bring your mother to life again even if it is a life you never knew or suspected?” Bonita follows the woman on an emotional tour of Mexico. Together, they set off to visit the places where her mother had apparently lived, studied and sojourned; throughout, there’s a gothic sense of mystery and suspense, and as the woman whom Bonita eventually nicknames “the Trickster” grows more and more unreliable and fanciful, the narrative takes on hints of the fable and the folk tale.

Desai has been writing for more than six decades now. Thrice shortlisted for the Booker prize, she is known for the effortless lyricism of her sentences, the deceptive simplicity of her stories, and her canny eye for detail. Her last offering was 2011’s triptych of novellas, The Artist of Disappearance; not many people expected new fiction from the 87-year-old. But Rosarita, I am pleased to say, is a transcendent late gift: both a testament to Desai’s enduring genius as a writer and a wholly remarkable vindication of literature’s power to illuminate the conundrums of human experience. This is a novel of profound philosophical inquiry, pondering the enigmas of the mind and the self, the frontiers of fantasy and reality, and ultimately, whether one person can ever fully imagine and understand the life of another.

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Source: theguardian.com