How Odysseus hit the hippie trail

Ashrams, excrement, gurus and boils: Journey to Ithaca, Anita Desai's first novel in seven years, may come as something of a shock to her traditional admirers. She talks to Marianne Brace
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It may be better to travel than to arrive, but some trips do take it out of you. In Anita Desai's new novel Journey to Ithaca, a European couple in India suffer enough to rival Odysseus. They are covered in boils and scabs, wake up nauseous in their own excrement, freak out from excessive heat and drugs, become pale, emaciated and even stricken with hepatitis.

Desai, on the other hand, is an object-lesson in mastering flight-fatigue. She has hopped off a plane from Boston, and has already taken a stroll in Hyde Park, looking fresh and elegant in a coral-coloured sari.

Journey to Ithaca is Desai's first book in seven years. Unlike earlier works - two were short-listed for the Booker Prize - this novel was written outside India.

The story, which includes abandoned children, a guru called the Mother and a troupe of Indian dancers, may perplex some readers. It is Desai's most mystical work to date and ends with a huge question mark.

In the past, Desai has kept her novels to restricted locations. Fire on the Mountain and The Clear Light of Day hardly venture beyond the garden gate. In Custody has the hapless Deven rattling back and forth between New Delhi and his home just outside the city. Baumgartner's Bombay broke the mould by tracking a German Jew from pre-war Berlin to India's major cities. But Journey to Ithaca takes in Italy, Egypt, France and India.

"I was finding it very difficult to write a book as I was moving from place to place, country to country," says the softly spoken author. "Finally I realised the only book I could write was one that reflected that way of life." Desai, who teaches creative writing at MIT, wanted to "make some kind of map of this world. And I thought how the East has lured people from the West for many, many years in quest of the spiritual."

It's 1975, and Matteo sets off to India with his wife Sophie. Taking the hippie trail towards enlightenment, they wind up in an ashram. "For others it's largely a matter of strumming a guitar. But for Matteo the search becomes more and more serious." Sophie, however, resists.

"I wanted the book to be a debate between scepticism and belief," Desai says. Matteo may marvel at the yogi who buries his head for 40 minutes without breathing, but Sophie groans, "Oh, please... what is spiritual about sticking one's head in the sand?"

In Desai's everyday India, dreams and aspirations collide with fatalism. "That's so much in the Indian air really, feeling that nothing has any effect at all." Desai laughs: "Half one's life seems to be spent lying down in the shade in the coolest place one can find."

The most sensual of writers, Desai makes you smell the floating debris in New Delhi's clogged drains, hear punishingly loud transistor radios and car horns, see betel-stained teeth. But she also describes a landscape where skies turn from "pale yellow to intense gold" above groves of oleander, and bougainvillea which gushes "out of the sandy earth in fountains of papery flowers".

Of this rankness and radiance, Desai says, "To me it's essential to put them together. This is a book that allowed me to do that." India is two places in one: "The ideal - the idea of a refuge - and the actual. And I did want there to be a clash between them."

Despite working abroad, for Desai India is always home. "Although I've spent much time in England and the States, I absolutely couldn't write about them. I don't understand them. I always feel I'm outside the house looking into a lighted window, watching people but having no idea why they live the way they do."

In India, Desai was "brought up realising that there is more than one way of looking at and experiencing India". Her engineer father was Bengali, her mother from Berlin. Her parents met when her father went to study in Germany in the late 1920s. Desai and her siblings were raised on visions of a fairy-tale Heimat, so that when the adult Desai finally visited Germany, "it didn't match my notions of it at all.

"My mother must have so idealised her childhood, she made it sound like it was nothing but Christmas time and summers in the country."

Keeping in touch with relatives during the war was impossible. "One of my childhood memories is of going with my mother to the post office with boxes of tea, sugar and coffee and sending them off to German addresses without knowing if they were reached." It is something the author touches on in Baumgartner's Bombay. She wrote this particular novel "through a desire to use the German language. I always felt a part of my tongue was under lock and key."

Desai started writing a great deal when her four children were infants, but she had "no notion of how to become a writer until I met Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who lived in the same street. I used to see her pushing the pram along with her little babies and we met when she brought her mother, who was also German, over to meet my mother."

Without this friendship, says Desai, "it would have been very lonely. In India there isn't such a thing as a community of writers because every writer practically is using a different language. There's no forum to bring you together."

In researching Journey to Ithaca, Desai read accounts of swamis and gurus. She visited ashrams, too, intrigued by "the kind of people who live there. So many are foreigners, each one with the most fascinating story to tell. It's not always the world you're born to that you belong to. Sometimes you have to leave in order to find that world."

Desai was also inspired by her friendship with the philosopher Krishnamurti. "I came to know him when he was an old man; we used to go on walks together in the park. He was picked as a little boy by Annie Besant to become the new Messiah."

Attending his lectures, Desai noticed that "he would be sitting on stage looking the picture of an Indian philosopher dressed in white with a beautiful, composed face. And people in their thousands would listen to him in absolute silence. I used to think, how can this be the same person who was telling me all this gossip just the evening before? I saw that it was possible that life can be lived on many different levels at one time."

Matteo ends up a Christ-like figure travelling a solitary mystical road. In the West such behaviour seems wild, irrational, suspect. "In India you meet people like that all the time who have heard voices, received messages. No one thinks it's strange at all."

Anita Desai's own quest lies in her writing. "I do think of each book as being a kind of exploration," she says. "You have a map, but no idea what will happen to you on the way or what the destination will be" - each one of them a short journey to Ithaca.

n 'Journey to Ithaca' is published by Heinemann, pounds 13.99

THE NOVELS SO FAR

Fire on the Mountain (1977)

Nanda Kaul finds her solitude interrupted by the visit of an unruly great-granddaughter. It won Desai the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and the National Academy of Letters Award

Games at Twilight (1978)

Eleven short stories - witty, poetic and perceptive. The cast of memorable characters includes an artist who paints birds and flowers he has never seen

Clear Light of Day (1980)

A family, revisiting their childhood home, find themselves haunted by their past - and unrealised futures. It earned Desai her first appearance on the Booker shortlist

Village by the Sea (1982)

Two children try to keep their penniless family together. Won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction - and a place on the National Curriculum

In Custody (1984)

Offered an interview with a great Urdu poet, an ineffectual dreamer deludes himself with visions of future fame. Shortlisted for the Booker, In Custody was filmed (in Urdu and Hindi) by Merchant Ivory. One critic complained, however, of "the stilted dialogue, the slow-moving plot and the sheer wimpishness of the central character"

Baumgartner's Bombay (1988)

An elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany meets a violent end at the hand of one of his countrymen - a crazed and drugged hippie

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