Quest for the fabulously Absolute

JOURNEY TO ITHACA by Anita Desai, Heinemann pounds 13.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE West has paddled and plunged into Indian holy waters throughout this century, and in her first novel for seven years, Anita Desai cunningly examines this phenomenon. She focuses on two eras: the 1920s, when Europe and America were nibbling Tagore and finding Indian performing arts "exotic", and the 1970s when itinerant hippiedom was, for some, turning into dedicated spiritual quest.

Desai's cast is multinational: a cosseted Italian called Matteo, whose English tutor put in his hands at a formative age Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East, which sent him giggling mystically into the hills; the earthbound German banker's daughter Sophie whom Matteo marries; and the holy "Mother" of an Indian ashram (actually, she's Egyptian) who puts a spanner in the works of their wedlock.

Desai posits a flip-side to enlightenment that Andrew Harvey and Hesse fail to mention. She is almost mischievous in her portrayal of the tension between the devotee and the sceptic: what it is to be, or not to be, in thrall. Sophie prefers sybaritic Goa to the gruelling pilgrimages that drive Matteo. She is wary of the spiritual hustler Mr Pandey, who hangs around Pondicherry uttering cryptic tips, and weary of itineraries dictated by mystical signs. Matteo tries to explain that what is important in the religious assemblies they attend is satsang, "being with others who have the same thoughts, the same belief..." "Oh that's what it is," snaps Sophie. "I thought it was body odour."

Then there is the vexed question of mothering. When Matteo can scarcely be torn from the Mother for long enough to see his own wife languishing with a tricky pregnancy in a teeming Indian hospital, Sophie revolts at the parade of words: "Absolute, the Soul, the Supreme. Supra this and supra that... They are non-words," she says. "And what words do you like?" asks Matteo. "Food. Bed. Baby. House. Are those your words?"

"Yes. Yes!" comes the reply. "They are good words and I like them...I thought you had forgotten them."

In her acknowledgements Desai lists a wide array of literature on Indian spiritual sojourns, and in particular, accounts of the famous "Mother" of the Aurobindo ashram at Pondicherry, who like Desai's fictional Mother, was not born in India. It is this very non-Indianness that whets Sophie's curiosity and sends the banker's daughter on her own quest to demystify - and Matteo would say, to debunk - the Mother.

Ordinary mortals are not supposed to investigate the past life of a sadhu; it is not done to peek behind the legend, but this is what Sophie believes she needs to do to save her marriage: "I will break that spell," she vows. Having ensconced her two children with their Italian grandparents, she sets off for the second half of the book in the footsteps of the Egyptian girl called Laila who had come to India 50 years earlier in a travelling dance troupe, by way of Paris, Venice and New York. Laila found her true Master and got herself venerated. She was also initially considered by the ashram to be too tidy-minded and practical to be quite the holy ticket, but they came to rely on her. You can't take the mother out of the Mother.

Desai reserves a kind of detached sympathy for all parties. Though we know Sophie is in search of skeletons, it isn't she but an omniscient narrator who evokes Laila's wild youthful unworldliness, her dabbling in Egyptian revolutionary politics and even Islam, her infatuation with a handsome Indian dancer called Krishna who whisks her off on his cultural tour.

Structurally, however, Desai interposes this tasty 1920s narrative with brief parallel glimpses of Sophie's own voyage over the same territory, to indicate that she is literally doing the sleuthing. This trek around Egypt, various European capitals, the American east coast and back to India isn't really done in enough detail to convince, and rather strains our credibility.

But in this novel everyone is on a journey, whether in pursuit of divine or profane love, Eternal Truth or the man that got away. And reflected in the title's reference to Cavafy's poem "Ithaca" is the point that it is the travelling, not the arrival, that counts; such a journey, in any of Anita Desai's fiction, is full of both revelations and pleasures.