In her first new work since 2011, Desai tells the story of a language student from India in Mexico; it’s a tale of mistaken identities, and the allure of all the lives we never lived

Siblings grapple with a sense of disconnection from each other and their family. A character becomes obsessed with a prophecy from years ago and feels estranged from her husband. A woman is trapped in a stifling domestic environment while her brother struggles with being out of place as a student in a foreign land. Such is the world of Anita Desai’s novels and stories, in which she sensitively probes states of alienation, if not isolation, often stemming from familial responsibilities and childhood experiences.

In a departure from her customary Indian settings, The ZigZag Way, one of her later novels published in 2004, unfolds in Mexico. This choice might seem unexpected, but she has explained her affinity with the Latin American country on more than one occasion. As she remarked in a recent interview, everything about it felt Indian: “The dust, the smells, the bougainvillea. The small houses. It was so familiar to me. It’s a very Indian country: the family life, the religious life. All of it.”

The strain of estrangement

“It is a country that gets me writing, always,” she continued. Rosarita, the 87-year-old author’s first new work after The Artist of Disappearance in 2011, is another testament to this connection. This elegant novella braids haunting images with the visceral impact of uncanny encounters to sustain an ever-present strain of estrangement.

From the start, Rosarita plunges us into the predicament of Bonita, a language student from India in Mexico. In a park in the city of San Miguel de Allende, she is approached by an elderly stranger who claims that Bonita is the daughter of her old friend, an Indian who had come to Mexico years ago to study art. “Of course you are, you must be, my adored Rosarita’s little girl,” the woman exclaims. “You are the image of her when she first came to us, an Oriental bird!” What could have been an anecdote about mistaken identity starts to develop into a web of unsettling possibilities.

A bewildered Bonita replies that her mother’s name was Sarita, not Rosarita, and she had never visited Mexico to the best of her knowledge. Yet, the woman insists: “But you have her looks, her manner — what to say, her comportment. The mouth, the eyes. You cannot not be my dearest amiga’s daughter!” Unconvinced but intrigued, Bonita starts to wonder if there is something to the woman’s claim, and recalls a pastel sketch of a woman on a park bench that had hung on the wall above her childhood bed at home.

An impressionistic, phantasmal tone

Could it be that her mother, whom she remembers as part of a claustrophobic and restrictive domestic environment, was at one time a budding painter, venturing as far as Mexico to hone her art? How could she have embarked on this journey, wonders Bonita to herself, “without uttering a word to you, to any of her family, then return simply to resume the life she knew?” This question consumes her, and in the course of other meetings with the mysterious woman, she is taken to locations where her mother supposedly lived and studied.

As an aside, Desai mentions in an afterword that the painter Satish Gujral’s own trip to the country led him to draw parallels between the Mexican Revolution and India’s Partition. This is not made explicit in Rosarita, but could well have permeated into its concerns of displacement and fractured identities.

Desai’s gossamer sentences and the second-person narration create an impressionistic, phantasmal tone, sustaining the tension between what is and what could have been. In this sinuously constructed story, moments of clarity, such as they are, arrive like the rumble of distant thunder.

What we bring to the world

At times, the attention to topographic detail creates a mood of overbearing lushness. In one setting, “the paths wind in and out of stands of palm trees and drooping Peruvian pepper trees, lined with beds of lilies and oleanders”. In another, there is “a paved courtyard, orange and lemon trees in great clay pots placed around a fountain blue and yellow…in the shade of pomegranate trees”. These descriptions can be undercut by vivid and sometimes disconcerting similes. A flicker in the eyes is like “a fish darting out of the undersea into the light”. Hills appear on the horizon “like the incoming waves of a prehistoric sea”. And a sunset is like “an orange rotting”.

During one excursion, Bonita sees a vacant lot where a house might once have stood, but now is a scene of absence: “a plot of scrubby soil where the remains of a house and the lives lived in it can barely be deciphered: a single piece of wall left standing, tiled as in a bathroom, a few paving stones with weeds growing in the cracks, one yellowing tree”. This image could well serve as a metaphor for the entire book itself, with the character conjuring up the past through a distorted lens of the present in an attempt to refine aspects of other lives as well as her own.

In these quicksilver ways, Desai records how Bonita reacts to her environment and to the enigmatic woman referred to as the Magician and the Trickster, with the change and unpredictability that those designations imply. By depicting how the external is filtered through the internal, Rosarita asks whether what we bring to the world is merely a version of what the world has done to us.

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