The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 30, 2002

Real life non-heroes
Bhavana Pankaj

The Village by the Sea
by Anita Desai, Puffin Books. Pages 260. Rs 199.

The Village by the SeaTHE story is simple, sweet and touching. There are Lila and Hari whose lives, "dusty and rutted" like the roads of their village, revolve around a sick mother, a permanently drunk father and two younger, school-going sisters, Bela and Kamal. Poverty and despair have shoved childhood into the cooler as they wrestle with their gloomy, uncertain future. The brightest spot in the lives of the four kids is their playful little dog, Pinto, who seems to understand their sadness.

There is the sea, of course, with its tide and the breeze, the colourful fisherwomen in their bright green and orange saris bidding for the prawns, Bombay-ducks and surmai. There is a rich fisherman’s new boat that kicks up such a row. There are glass bangles and sweets and the pink sunsets too… they are but temporary distractions for Lila who is constantly fighting and fending off the dreariness of everyday life; and Hari who secretly wishes their good-for-nothing father would at least do them the favour of dying. Yes, the story is simple and sweet. It is also real. Also sad. And I wonder if the McDonald-ed and Harry Potter-ed kids of modern, urban India would ever get beyond the vibrant cover of this splendid offering by Puffin.


There are no fairies, elves and goblins in Anita Desai’s The Village by the Sea. No magic trees and flying broomsticks either for this no "once upon a time" tale that children would snuggle up to and dream about till mornings after. Desai offers no such talismans to break the spell of mundane reality. Her characters don’t go through walls to escape into fantastic worlds.

Hari has no magic wand, only hopelessness to throw him into the big, strange and friendless world of Bombay. And as the young lad from Thul grapples with hunger, sleep, loneliness and fear, he finds some real men with golden hearts with help and hope at hand.

There is the chowkidar of a building who takes Hari to Jagu, the taciturn but kind owner of Sri Krishna dhaba for food and job. There is Mr Panwallah, the benign watch-mender next doors whose sagacious words provide Hari some respite from the heat and dust of existence. "The wheel turns and turns and turns…" Mr Panwallah says. "If you have to survive, you will have to change too… you are young. You can change… I know you will…" He introduces Hari to the small joys and wonders of childhood once again as the boy soaks in more than just the monsoon showers of Bombay.

Hari returns to Thul brimming with hope and ideas. To his small fishing village somewhere on the western coast of India where "all the birds fly out of the shadowy, soft-needled casuarinas trees... singing and calling and whistling…" where the soft, morning light filters "through the web of palm leaves and swirls of blue wood-smoke rise from fires in hidden huts and mingle with it…"

Against this idyllic setting, Desai chooses to tell the story of a family struggling for survival and happiness. The imagery is so evocative, the word pictures so redolent: "He thought of the crows picking up the crabs he caught…of the blue flash of the kingfisher as it darted from the trees… of Bela and Kamal chipping at the limpets… How he longed for them all… he shut his eyes and tried hard to see them again—beautiful and bright, his own." It’s almost like watching a film, so reminiscent of the street urchins of "Boot Polish" dancing and singing with David: ‘Nanhe munne bachche teri mutthi mein kya hai, mutthi mein hai taqdir hamari…

Hari and his family’s fortune have also turned. His mother’s getting better and father’s turned sober with help from some benefactors from Bombay and loads of courage from Lila. She takes her mother to the town hospital, comes to grips with Hari’s absence and gets down to making some money.

Revolution, feminism, the threat of the big industry to the village economy, people’s power and the force of joint action… ideas that Desai knits into the narrative. Her story is, happily, shorn of melodrama even though you might catch a lump in your throat some times. There are no heroes and heroines here—just ordinary folk lifting themselves from the commonness of their lot. And that is, perhaps, Desai’s tribute to the many Lilas and Haris and the magic of reality that she weaves so well in The Village by the Sea.