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Running to stay in the same place...

Rosarita is Desai’s new work after seven years and features all the familiar touchstones: repressed women lurking on the borderlines of oppression and lovelessness, autocratic men who in auto-mode run over the dreams and aspirations of their women, the choice these women face to make domestic duties acts of drudgery or acts of pride...and women who brood, ponder, ruminate endlessly.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 22:10 IST

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The story opens on a cracker of a note. Our protagonist, Bonita, is sitting on a park bench in San Miguel, Mexico, absorbed in her thoughts. She is approached by Victoria, a dramatically dressed Mexican woman of a certain age, who insists she must be the artist Rosarita’s daughter. But Bonita’s mother Sarita has never travelled to Mexico and much less did she dabble in art.

Thus, a bewildered but suspicious Bonita falls into a rabbit hole far away from India, accompanied by the Stranger/Pursuer/ Trickster friend of Rosarita. This is typical Anita Desai territory, and we watch as the young woman in Mexico, in a pure act of serendipity, gets unwittingly drawn into retracing her mythical mother Rosarita’s steps, and a cat-and-mouse game of sorts begins. Again, typical of Desai’s heroines, Bonita too has much to come to terms with, so this becomes an internal as well as external journey for her.

Rosarita is Desai’s new work after seven years and features all the familiar touchstones: repressed women lurking on the borderlines of oppression and lovelessness, autocratic men who in auto-mode run over the dreams and aspirations of their women, the choice these women face to make domestic duties acts of drudgery or acts of pride...and women who brood, ponder, ruminate endlessly.

The narrative is in the second person and a trifle unsettling, at times almost challenging. The writing is familiar to fans of the author, the spare, cut-to-the-bone sentences which nevertheless hold rich seams of meaning in them, the partial pulling aside of curtains to give readers a glimpse of what lies beyond, leaving them to fill in the gaps themselves, long stretches where nothing much happens. The story unpeels itself like an onion but those conversant with the writer’s works will know better than to expect pat endings.

Some sentences turn so fluidly; the afternoon unfolding like a scroll, its beginning and its end both invisible. The expression on her face …of disappointment, distress, the look of failure…that allowed Father to assume his look of success …the only success of the house. Her relief is so keen she almost moans aloud.

As the daughter unboxes her memories, some of them decidedly unusual, she muses, there’s something churlish about her (Mother), isn’t that so... There hangs an air of melancholia above her, above the mysterious Victoria who drops out of the story rather suddenly, above the places and the people in this narrative.

The scenes shift but the emotions remain the same. All the characters are fleeing something which portends disaster for them. There is a lack of description to both Sarita/Rosarita and Bonita, in sharp contrast to the beautifully described rooms of an ancestral house, of arboreal spaces, of the goings-on in a plaza, and the reader soon finds themselves doing pointillist work and filling in the details. We realise Bonita is a good-looking woman only at the end of this slim volume when someone says artists would happily line up to paint her. Sadly though, this reviewer did not feel for either the Mother or the Daughter.

So, did Sarita/Rosarita lead a double life? And did she throw away one life for the other? Did Bonita find herself? It’s clarity the young woman clearly seeks, and at the end of the story, she does get some sort of clarity, which essentially is that one can run but one can’t really escape the past.

Gorgeous writing as always, interesting plot, but it all peters out into nothingness. There is more kept from the reader than revealed. However, Rosarita is a must-read for those who like Anita Desai’s rich yet restrained prose.

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Published 06 July 2024, 22:10 IST

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