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…"
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.
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.