Voices in the City
is the second novel by Indian writer Anita Desai. It is considered one of the author’s lesser works, though it deals with many of the same themes that appear in later novels that won her international recognition and several prestigious awards in India and abroad.
First published in 1965, Voices in the City
tells the story of three siblings as they struggle to find meaning while living in the Indian capital of Calcutta. The book is based on the time Desai spent in Calcutta in the early 1960s, and is a chronicle of the social changes in a modernizing India, exploring what happens when traditional Indian ways of life come into conflict with new ideas, and the effect this has on young people.
Descriptions of Calcutta occur frequently throughout the text. The city is presented as a force that helps shape the three characters at the center of the narrative. Desai does not shy away from presenting the negative side of living in Calcutta, emphasizing the crowds, noisiness, frenzied pace, and lack of places to think and reflect. The city is also presented as a place where young people are unable to find happiness in their lives or jobs due to constant pressure.
The three siblings in Voices in the City
are Monisha, Nirode, and Amla. Monisha, the oldest, is neurotic, sensitive, and prone to overthinking situations. She has married into a very traditional family, where she outwardly plays the role of a dutiful and devoted wife. However, internally, she is in deep turmoil due to the ugliness of her surroundings. She is unable to bear a child, one of her primary duties as a wife, which she interprets as an unwillingness to bring another life into a world that seems to her ugly and meaningless.
At the end of the novel, Monisha commits suicide by burning herself alive in the bathroom. Though her siblings at first do not understand her seemingly out of character action, they soon find a diary that details her inner thoughts.
Monisha’s younger brother Nirode also has trouble adjusting to life in Calcutta. At the beginning of the novel, he has a good job at a newspaper, which he soon quits because he cannot find meaning or a mode for self-expression in the work. Though his mother, a wealthy widow who lives in the countryside, offers to help him find a new job, Nirode rejects her aid, preferring to fail on his own.
Nirode attempts several business ventures, including starting a magazine of his own and writing a play. However, all his attempts fail as his magazine folds and his play is rejected by theater groups. He begins to equate the city of Calcutta with the goddess Kali, a deity of destruction that kills creativity and self-expression. Nirode attempts to model his existence after a painter named Dharma who seems to be at peace with his life in Calcutta, though Dharma is a mysterious figure and Nirode is ultimately not able to understand his motivations. A visit from his mother finally resolves his conflict when Nirode has a dream of his mother as Kali and recalls that the goddess with destructive powers also has the power to preserve what is important.
Amla, the youngest daughter, struggles with many of the same issues as her siblings but is still relatively naive and hopeful at the beginning of the novel. She also encounters Dharma, and he has a greater effect on her. Dharma, considering Amla the ideal model for his paintings, draws her into his circle of literate, cosmopolitan friends. At first, Amla is excited, but she soon grows tired of the cynical artists, as well as disillusioned when she finds out that Dharma is a philanderer who treats his daughter poorly.
However, the experience also gives her a new perspective on her life, allowing her to come to terms with her dull job and boredom living in Calcutta. The death of her sister serves as a secondary shock that further motivates her to make changes in her attitude. Though her boring job at an advertising agency does not satisfy her, she finds something that does: making illustrations for a translation of the Panchatantra
. This piece of ancient Indian political philosophy appeals to her because she finds its message meaningful and its way of being conveyed – through fables about animals – to be interesting and creative.
People dissatisfied with their lives in modern society are common in Anita Desai’s fiction. Though some of the novels that followed Voices in the City
take place in London, Mexico City, and other locations around the world, many deal with characters who feel out of place, bored, or existentially troubled. As a writer, Desai explores the ways people try to find meaning in their lives. Sometimes, her characters succeed, as Amla does, and sometimes they fail, like Monisha.