Motherhood In Anita Desai Fire On The Mountain

Article Posted in: Research Articles


 By Dr. T K Santhi

Ashvamegh : October 2015 : Issue IX : Research Paper : ISSN : 2454-4574



Anita Desai is one of India’s foremost writers. Anita Desai uses ordinary, everyday activities to portray something greater and universal. Although there are a variety of ways to look at and analyze Desai’s work this paper seeks to examine the variety of ways that the maternal is represented in the writings of Anita Desai. The mother is the panacea for all kinds of calamities. In order to investigate the complex and often inconsistent realm wherein Indian mothers dwell, one must look not only at the daily realities and the multiplicity of experiences Indian mothers have but also the historical and mythical constructions which shape the archetypal and idealistic portrayals to which Indian women are constantly compared. Critic Anita Myles affirms that Desai’s literature allows an exploration of these themes:

Desai’s novels constitute together the documentation, through fiction, of radical female resistance against a patriarchally defined concept of normality. She finds the links between female duality, myth and psychosis intriguing; each heroine is seen as searching for, finding and absorbing or annihilating the double who represents the socially impermissible aspects of her femininity. (p. 36)

One must have a balanced view of these characteristics that make up the complex reality of to comprehend what it means to subscribe to the societal role of mother in India. She has created the image of a suffering woman preoccupied with her inner world, her sulking frustration and the storm within the existential difficulty of a woman in a male-dominated society. As scholar Brajush Kumar relates in his essay “Feminist Perspectives in the Novels of Anita Desai,” “what is more significant about her technique is that she never tries to justify the actions of the women protagonists in her fictional world but grants freedom to act in their own ways. In this way, she has made a sincere endeavor to contribute to the Indian fiction with a feminist concern, though she has carefully avoided associating herself with any feminist movement” (p. 71).


Anita Desai emerged as a writer during a time when female Indian writers were actively exploring the genre of social realism. Her fiction clearly belongs in a different domain, the realm of modernism. Anita Desai is more interested in the interior landscape of the mind rather than in politics or socio-political realities. Desai’s female characters search for an independent identity and place to call their own, a place safe from patriarchal intervention and male domination.

This paper focuses on Anita Desai’s concern with the way mythical and ideological representations of Indian women make the image of motherhood and maternity prescriptive within the context of her novels and, of course, in the larger Indian society. Figures such as Sita and the mother goddess constrain Indian women in two explicit ways, since they imply that every woman should be a mother but at the same time an ideal which no woman can attain. Desai often focuses on middle to upper-class women, which is clearly not representative of even half of India’s population. She vividly illustrates the variety of complexities and intricacies through her female characters and their search for their own motherhood and also their own authentic self.

Women culturally understood as good are wives and mothers who fulfill societal obligations of creation and procreation while women marked as bad are most likely disrupting social expectations, withdrawing from the role of procreation, and causing destruction to their community. Critic Sanjeeta Dutta agrees with this analysis:

In India, a long history of mother-goddess worship legitimizes woman’s glorification/deification as the divine mother, the source of energy, power and fertility while the same motherhood is an institutionalized form of oppression and subjugation of women. In a patriarchal kinship structure, a woman’s status in the household is determined by her ability to produce male issue for her husband’s lineage. Her identity revolves around the wife/mother roles beyond which no individuality needs to be established or recognized. (p. 84)

Desai affirms that mythological representations of womanhood keep a woman “bemused, bound hand and foot. To rebel against it – either in speech or action – would mean that she is questioning the myth, attacking the legend, and that cannot be permitted: it is the cornerstone on which the Indian family and therefore Indian society are built” (p. 972). Therefore, this Indian myth of true womanhood not only constrains women to a specific role and space within society but also creates a control mechanism of consequences which forces women into culturally appropriate behaviour.

Nanda Kaul is a central character in Fire on the Mountain (1977), a great grandmother who has grown disillusioned about her roles as a wife and mother and who, once widowed, moves to Kausali to live a solitary existence free of the confinements of her previous life. The narrator declares that she “had suffered through the nimiety, the disorder, the fluctuating and unpredictable excess. She had been so glad when it was over. She had been glad to leave it all behind, in the plains, like a great, heavy, difficult book that she had read through and was not required to read again” (p. 32). Nanda Kaul comes to Kausali to retire from the world of caring and compassion that she provided without gratitude for so many years.  In her new life at Kausali, she hopes to forget about all the memories associated with her past as nurturer and to live an isolated life with no one around to bother her.

Nanda’s solitary existence is suddenly interrupted with the appearance of Raka, her great granddaughter, who has been sent to Kausali because her mother is ill and unable to take care of her. Nanda Kaul has been caught in the psychological struggles as she tries to understand her great granddaughter Raka and herself. She is disappointed to hear of Raka’s arrival and the subsequent interruption of her solitary existence:

It was against the old lady’s policy to question her [Asha, her daughter] but it annoyed her that she should once again be drawn into a position where it was necessary for her to take an interest in another’s activities and be responsible for their effect and outcome. When would she be done? (p. 50- 1).

Nanda begins to develop a fascination with Raka and begins to question if this is the one child with whom she could actually identify herself. She declares, “Raka, you really are a great-grandchild of mine, aren’t you? You are more like me than any of my children or grandchildren. You are exactly like me, Raka” (p. 71). Although she sees the connection between herself and Raka, and notices that Raka needs to be nurtured and loved by her, she does not fulfill the obligation. For her it seems that removing one’s self from any care taking situation is easier than actually having a child around and refusing to care for it, and she laments her inability to help. She tries telling Raka elaborate fairy tales in order to make her happy, but then realizes the irony since she herself was told fairy tales and in the end found them to be empty and fake. Indeed, the narrator declares that Nanda bitterly curses her failure to comfort children, her inability to place herself in another’s position and act accordingly.

So in the end although Nanda seeks to escape her existence as a wife and mother, she does not find fulfillment completely rejecting all caring or nurturing behaviour or when she leaves Raka alone, in dire need of love and mothering. Since Nanda is the main focus of the novel, most of the other women including Raka and her mother Tara are secondary characters. Tara is a woman who, like her grandmother, is brought into the ideological construction of Indian motherhood and assumed a passive role to her husband. Tara is not only unfulfilled by her nurturing roles as a wife and mother but also is abused by her husband.

Although Asha does not comment on the situation at Raka’s home when she asks Nanda to take her in, it is obvious that it is causing trauma in the lives of both Raka and Tara.

Woman often becomes woman’s enemy. Asha attributed Tara’s domestic misfortune to her

inability to understand men and also her inability to be a successful diplomat’s wife, which only reiterates the treatment women such as Tara sometimes receives from other women, but also what expectations Indian society puts on women in abusive situations. Like Sita, Tara is expected to handle whatever comes her way with quiet submissiveness, even if it means abuse to both herself and her child.

Raka is just another casualty of Tara’s traumatic relationship with Raka’s father, and it is obvious through her reclusive behaviour and refusal to get close to any human being that she has been profoundly damaged by her home environment. In the novel, she reflects on what she remembers about home and thinks of her father, home from a party, stumbling and crashing through the curtains of night, his mouth opening to let out a flood of rotten stench, beating at her mother with hammers and fists of abuse – harsh, filthy abuse that made Raka cover under her bedclothes and wet the mattress in fright, feeling the stream of urine warm and weakening between her legs like a stream of blood, and her mother lay down on the floor and shut her eyes and wept.

It is obvious that Raka needs help and that her early home life has damaged her and her ability to have a successful relationship. Nanda is able to see all of this but refuses to get involved in what she feels will be just another exploitive relationship. In return, Raka roams the desolate landscape trying to find escape, ultimately setting fire to the entire forest around her at the close of the novel, screaming for the attention she has been so deprived of her entire life. Obviously after witnessing so much hurt and unfulfillment within her mother’s life, Raka feels like she should run away and try her best not to get caught and forced to submit to being a mother and a wife. Nanda has the opportunity to become basically the only caring person in Raka’s life, but, instead, Raka is left to fend for herself and to know only of isolation and loneliness and not the feeling of love or of being a part of a family.

Ila Das, a social worker and old acquaintance of Nanda, emerges as a tragic mother figure. Although her family was fairly wealthy, her brothers squandered away their inheritance and forced the two adult sisters to begin working in order to squeak out a meager existence. For Ila, Nanda Kaul is always there “standing at a height, like a beacon, like an ideal,” and she can barely get by on the small salary she makes and is constantly hungry and undernourished. Instead of becoming her means of autonomy and independence, and a way for her to fulfill her desire to nurture, her job as a social worker becomes a threat and ends up being the ultimate downfall for her.


This paper sought to explore the realm of Indian motherhood within the fiction of Anita Desai and Indian Literature in English in general. Anita Desai makes it clear that there is no simple, straight forwards solution to the dilemma of woman. It is the awakening of her consciousness which imparts the required strength to conquer the bastion of male dominance.

This paper has operated as an exploration of Indian motherhood to understand the societal role of mother.

Motherhood is… difficult and… rewarding.




  1. Acharya, Shata. “Problems of the Self in the Novels of Anita Desai.” Indian Women Novelists. Ed. R.K. Dhawan. Vol. 2. New Delhi: Prestige, 1991. (50-67). Print.
  2. Desai, Anita. Fire on the Mountain. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
  3. Dutta, Sangeeta. “Relinquishing the Halo: Portrayal of Mother in Indian Writing in English.” Economic and Political Weekly. 25.43 (1990). Print.
  1. Kumar, Brajesh. “Feminist Perspectives in the Novels of Anita Desai.” Critical Responses to Feminism. Ed. Binod Mishra. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2006. (64-72). Print.
  2. Shirwadkar, Meena. Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglian Novel. New Delhi: Sterling, 1979. Print.
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