Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bye Bye Blackbird

Bye, Bye, Blackbird is one of the lesser-known works of Anita Desai, an author of Indian origin whose works have been impressive enough to have made it to the Booker shortlist thrice but who herself has never been lucky enough to hit the bull's eye unlike her daughter Kiran who bagged the coveted award for her debut novel - The Inheritance of Loss.
It is a novella set against the backdrop of Indian expatriates living in London of the 1970s, much before UK was relegated to the status of "a third-rate power" as described by a former Indian PM. The story and revolves around three characters - (a) Dev, an irritable, cynical and ambitious young man who lands in the city to pursue higher studies, and make it big back home armed with a foreign degree, (b) His host Adit, a fellow Bengali living in England for quite some time who makes every attempt to convince himself of being content with his new life and his adopted land and (c) Adit's English wife Sarah, a quiet but resilient woman whose portrayal may disappoint those who expect a certain type of flamboyant vivacity from blondes.
Dev arrives in London torn between his desire for a foreign degree and his loathing towards the various types of scorn that he is subjected to because of his colour, ranging from sophisticated condescension to outright crude abuse. His annoyance becomes more acute by the affected nonchalance of Adit, who spares no opportunity to scoff at his guest's distaste for the eccentricities of the English people and treats him with contempt when he gets scandalized upon seeing public displays of affection, a taboo in his home country. However, a hidden stream of kindness and love for his compatriot prevents Adit from showing the door to the young guest who never appears serious about pursuing a career.
Sarah comes across as a reticent and even timid character, never fully at ease with her own life but always at pains to make those around her comfortable. She feels apologetic whenever Dev fumes at a racial slur even though her husband, himself a non-white, tries to gloss it over going to the extent of ridiculing his friend and accusing him of overreacting.
The Englishwoman nurses a hidden fascination for India, though not in the exotic sense, where she had gone with Adit before their marriage, only to come back on account of her would-be-husband's dissatisfaction with the way things were back home. She speaks very little, but whenever she does she shows an uncanny appreciation of the liveliness that ran through the chaos of the erstwhile British colony.
The trio get on with life and through their encounters with diverse situations and characters of not much consequence, the reader gets to delve deeper into their respective psyches.
The story takes a major turn when the trio visit a village close to Winchester where Adit's in-laws live a secluded retired life. Strangely, Adit is excited about the tour while Sarah is not and when she finally gives in, she does so making her reluctance obvious. Dev accompanies them in a state of weary indifference towards the land where he has begun to feel disoriented.
They travel with two friends of Adit, Indians of course. One of them is a Punjabi accompanied by his Punjabi wife Mala. The other is a Bengali like Adit and Dev, who has not been able  to convince his English wife Bella to come along.
After a day of boisterous frolic, the friends depart leaving Adit, Sarah and Dev amidst the placid surroundings where they are to spend the rest of the week.
Nothing overtly dramatic takes place during the following six days though both Adit and Dev appear completely changed people by the time they return home, much to the bafflement of Sarah.
Dev, spending nearly a week amidst the serene and exquisite countryside, is struck by the simplicity of the local peasantry which makes him realize that there is more to England than its arrogance. He also slowly realizes that he can not live off his father's money and his friends' generosity for long and starts a job hunt and the bitter experiences that come along help him mature, dilute his sardonicism and infuse a bit of tenderness and compassion into his callous self .
Adit, who had planned the tour with much warmth, ends up feeling out of place at his rather cold in-laws'.  He finds himself unable to come to terms with the incompatibility he felt with them even though not with his own wife. Back in London, a nasty quarrel between his Bengali friend Samar and his English wife Bella makes him ponder, after an unsuccessful attempt at laughing the episode off, - "why does everything have to come to this - that we're Indians and you're English and we're living in your country and therefore we've all got to behave in a special way, different from normal people. He sinks into  depression and starts suffering from bouts of nostalgia, taking his wife to shabby Indian restaurants, listening to Indian music etc. His state of mind begins to reflect upon his professional life affecting the reputation he had earned by virtue of his efficiency. In between comes the news of an Indo-Pak war and Adit and his friends indulge in quite a bit of long-distance patriotism. Finally, one day he declares to his wife that he wants to go back to India and asks Sarah, now expecting their first child, whether she would like to accompany. A committed wife that she is, Sarah starts packing up, spurns a lucrative job offer and withstands Adit's mood swings while  enduring own physical and emotional travails with fortitude.
The novella ends at the Waterloo railway station, from where Adit and Sarah embark upon their onward journey. Dev, whom Adit has helped get a decent job in the firm from which he has resigned and whom Sarah has convinced to rent the same Clapham flat in which the couple used to live, has come to see them off.
"Dev stood silent, watching, for the most complex feelings of all tumbled and tossed inside him, clamouring for attention, for resolution. If plans and prophesies had any strength in them at all, it would have been he steaming out on the train to catch the boat back to India. This was what he had planned and, for some time, sincerely believed. It was Adit who had found himself a pleasant groove to fit into, with his English wife and the education that had, he so repeatedly told them, brought him up to love and understand England".
"Why, then was it Adit who was leaving and he stayed on? What made them exchange the garments of visitor and exile", Dev asks himself.
The author says in the next paragraph  - "There had been time enough in which to think of replies, sort them out and suitably dress them in conviction. But, somehow, both he and Adit had avoided the ultimate question and they parted in ignorance of the answer".

What follows is a page-long perspicacious analysis of the seemingly improbable changes that both Adit and Dev underwent. The  philosophical undertone gives a vague hint of the author's possible,  belief in the doctrine of Karma as expounded in Vedanta as well as Buddhism.
It would be an injustice to the author to give away her beautiful and concise exposition in a run-of-the-mill blog post. Please do read the small book if you find the plot interesting.


  1. Very interesting plot indeed. You have transformed it into a beautiful short story. Thanks!

  2. Seems would be helpful!