You can get a taste of India in a short and not so recent novel and I am referring to The Village By The Sea by Anita Desai, published in 1982. It's always nice to read or reread this writer. The novel has something autobiographical, as she herself says in the introduction. The plot is simple. In the novel there are already threats of a change, because that enchanted place is going to be unsettled with a giant fertilizer factory, with all the consequences of pollution of the land and sea.
Nehru, India's founding father, for that matter, had declared dams and factories would be the temples of modern India. The novel tells of a family of an alcoholic father, an ill mother, with four sons, Bela, Kama, Hari and Lila, who lived in extreme poverty, since they did not possess anything, neither a cow, nor a boat, or had access to proper healthcare or educational services. Of the four children, Hari and Lila, are the protagonists, who can no longer afford to go to school.
With them there is also Pinto, a small, hairy dog, who die after being poisoned. From the first pages we come into contact with nature from the dew that shine on the cobwebs, butterflies gliding with ease and countless birds remembered by their name like robins, crested bulbul, pheasants and pigeons. They are the voice of the village of Thul, as was the murmur of the waves and the wind rustling in the palm grove.
Often there are remembered plants such as frangipani or magical flowers like marigolds, jasmine, hibiscus, allamanda. Some people like Ramu's friend Hari, hopes for a great change, because after the large factory comes up, it should bring many jobs. It will produce fertilizers, chemicals, nitrogen, ammonia, urea, to grow the plants. A modern and scientific thing that would replace the manure or fish powder, to grow palm trees, and produce tons and tons of material to sell to farmers all over India and abroad.
Hari's mind was crowded with images of wonderful plants, tall chimneys, clouds of smoke, strange odor and a crowd of people who crossed the gates. For men of Thul the only alternative to fishing was cultivating fields along the coast, but things could change with the arrival of large factory. This would also mean the loss of the lands that produced, rice, vegetables and coconuts.
There was talk of the factory, but it all seemed quiet and as usual gaudy saris were hang out to dry. Women watered the holy basil on the courtyards, the market women sold garlands of flowers on banana leaves on trays, but the sleepy atmosphere gave way to a resentful and angry atmosphere. But there are those like Adarkar, a member of parliament from the state of Maharashtra, who was fighting for the rights of farmers and fishermen, to continue with the traditional production system.
Hari is uncertain whether to join the farmers and fishermen and march on Bombay protesting against land theft and jobs, as he had neither land nor boat or take the side of the government and of the factory and hoped to get a job. He had confused ideas, but all in all the idea of going to Bombay lured him more. He will go to Mumbai on the day in which it was organized a demonstration by Adarkar and, at the sight of the city, with its slender buildings, which are impressive in front of the viscous waves of the sea, he will be overcome by a kind of awe.
With new smells and noises, and the traffic, Hari gets excited as well as scared as he had never seen a traffic light, or so many iridescent neon advertising signs that go on and off in green, blue and orange hues.
Adarkar reiterates in his speech that the factory in Thul-Vaishet will emanate deadly chemical gases like dioxin, ammonia and dust that will contaminate a vast area in Bombay, which is already heavily industrialized, crowded and polluted. Bombay is the city of palaces with elegant pink, green and yellow buildings with names like Seagull and Sunbeam, a glittering world of luxury apartments, where they lived the rich.
Hari cannot find a job in Bombay and thanks to the solidarity of the poor people, he start working for a rupee a day for Sri Krishna, an all black inn, the more miserable he had ever seen. He also knows a kind and generous watchmaker, Mr. Panwallah, who will teach the basics to adjust the clocks, although in Thul no one owns a watch. Everyone regulated the time with the sun or the tides.
At Thul, meanwhile, the dying mother is rescued by the De Silva family, who were on vacation and is taken to the hospital, and for the father, they will attempt to detoxify him from alcohol.
Hari return to Thul, in whose mind are firm the watchmaker's words: The wheel never stops, learn, always learn, my boy, to grow and change. With a few rupees in his pocket, he comes back in time to celebrate Diwali with the family, the festival of lights, at the end of the monsoon, one of the most important Indian festivals which symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
The novel ends with the hope of a better life together in the village, although it is incumbent on the factory with its promises of work, but especially with the threat of a radical change.
We are in the seventies and Anita Desai, in an India cyclically plagued by famine and hunger, interprets the fears of the economic policy of the successor of Gandhi, Nehru, who had carried the heavy industrialization programs between 1947 and 1964, when he was the prime minister.
It's almost a prophetic novel of Desai, if we think of the Bhopal disaster of 1984, the pesticide plant, which was constructed in 1969, that caused more than 2000 deaths and changes in the genomes of animals, plants and above all human. How not to think today in the battles of Arundhati Roy, architect, writer, author of another great novel, The God of Small Things (1997).
Anita Desai was born and lived for a long time in India, in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi, and is the daughter of a German mother and Bengali father. Desai spoke German at home and Hindi with friends and neighbors and then graduated in English Literature in 1958. Today, however, she lives in the US and often returns to India. Anita lived in Bombay and whenever possible ran away from a crowded city full of problems, to go to a small fishing village by the sea, to live in an idyllic atmosphere and run barefoot on the warm sand into the sea, watching the boats return to shore at sunset with nets filled with fish and in the torrid afternoons, she rest in the shade of rustling palms and quench her thirst with fresh coconut water.