Fire on the Mountain
is a 1977 novel by Anita Desai, an Indian writer. Desai has been recognized three times on the Booker Prize short list and is a British Guardian Prize winner. Fire on the Mountain
received a Sahitya Akademi Award. The book focuses on an elderly widow’s isolation and loneliness, as it tells the story of Nanda Kaul who lives in Kasauli and leads a solitary existence. Publishers Weekly
said of Anita Desai, “But what’s so refreshing about Anita Desai is that she’s a modern literary writer with a straightforward approach to her work. For all the awards (and there have been many, including India’s top literary accolade, the Sahitya Akademi Award), the Ph.D. theses, and the literary journalism that has been devoted to her, Anita Desai talks of her writing as simply ‘stories,’ and of herself as a storyteller. Yet she doesn’t eschew India’s most vexing questions: colonialism, the place of women in Indian society, the caste system.”
The old woman, Nanda, lives alone in a colonial house on a hill. She lets no one intrude on her isolated life. She had spent many years caring for her husband, their children, and many grandchildren. She has become a recluse and stays secluded from everyone including a great-grandchild. This is her situation until the great-grandchild arrives on her doorstep. The child is a young girl who is sickly and is as reclusive as Nanda. The child lives in her own type of seclusion as she retreats into a world of inner fantasy where she creates adventures of chasing snakes, animals, and ghosts in the peaceful hills that surround her and her great-grandmother. The old woman sees that the two of them have things in common but that a major difference exists as well. Nanda has chosen to be a recluse while the young girl was born into that type of existence. Nanda slowly begins to want to be part of the child’s life and wants to share her world with her. Her attempts, however, appear to be in vain. Her great-granddaughter will let no one enter her life. Nanda is not discouraged and attempts to connect to the child by sharing stories with her.
She creates stories in which she intersperses bits of tales inspired by the journeys of Marco Polo with narratives of her own life. She creates a version of her father that presents him as a type of Marco Polo whose travels took him deep into the lands of the East. The stories that Nanda conjures serve to pique the interest of the young girl and a connection between the two begins to develop. Nanda continues to talk of the idyllic place in which she was born and offers stories about Kashmir that are significantly embellished with unusual tales of a house that has a private zoo and a back that leads to flooded rivers. As the child, Raka, listens, she begins to wonder about the accuracy of the stories. She asks why Nanda would have left such a wonderful place and why she does not return there. As she realizes the trick the old woman has been playing, she begins to slip back into her private world.
An important aspect of the novel is the conflict between the need of an individual to isolate in order to cope with the pressures of life and the need to stay involved in life. In Fire on the Mountain
â€‹, attaching and withdrawing are needs that seem to alternate in the lives of Raka and Nanda. Nanda creates an imaginary world, with her father being central to it, in order to attach to Raka. Raka, meanwhile, builds an imaginary world around herself. Raka is different from ordinary children. She demands nothing in life and she does not seem to need anything. All she desires is to be left on her own to live her solitary life. It is learned that she has been influenced by events in her life such as observing her drunken father beat her mother. She has not developed the ability to trust in others. A reason why Nanda’s stories do not hold Raka’s attention for long is that they are about people and their relationships and are thus not the type of tales to which Raka can relate.
In the year 2000, The Washington Post
recognized Anita Desai as a pioneer among Indian authors, saying of her, “It may be hard to imagine, what with the current boom of Indian writers who choose to write in English-Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pankaj Mishra-but when Desai first decided to pursue publication after her graduation from Delhi University, there was not one Indian publisher willing to take the leap with her. She was forced to send her work to England, where, even as she raised a family of her own, she began to publish her stories.”