The three protagonists in this trio of novellas struggle with fulfilling their desires while life in modern India speeds past them.
Stuck in a career he would not have chosen for himself, the unnamed young government officer of the first novella, The Museum of Final Journeys, finds himself posted to a mosquito-infested backwater. Starved for adventure and dreaming of being a writer, he is led to an incredible collection of colonial-era artifacts housed in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere. But his initial delight turns to claustrophobic dread as he ponders what, if anything, he can do with such useless treasures. Prema, the prematurely aging teacher at the heart of Translator Translated, also yearns for a meaningful life outside her dull routine. And after a chance meeting with a glamorous former schoolmate who runs a small publishing house, it seems as if there really is an opportunity for a different path. The publisher, Tara, allows her to translate into English the story collection of an obscure but talented female writer from the same town as Prema’s mother. The rewarding work brings Prema back to life, but a second attempt at translating a lesser novel proves problematic when the author’s nephew discovers discrepancies between Prema’s words and the original text. Like Prema, Ravi, the recluse in the final, titular novella, is his own worst enemy. As the adopted son of an upper-class anglophile Indian couple, Ravi grows up privileged (if neglected) in the idyllic mountain town of Mussoorie, in the Himalayas. Unable to connect with people his own age, the young Ravi takes solace in nature, until a family tragedy forces him to live with relatives in Bombay. He eventually returns to the mountains, though, and settles into a meager, solitary existence in what used to be his house. His peace is disturbed only when a well-meaning group of documentary filmmakers comes across Ravi’s life work, a secret hidden project that he would far prefer to keep to himself. Reading Desai’s (Fasting, Feasting, 2000, etc.) poignant and wry new effort offers a modest pleasure that suits its fragile characters.
A deft exploration of the limits people place on themselves by trying to cling to the past.