To some, Mexico might seem an unlikely setting for one of Anita Desai’s novels. We tend to want authors to write about what we think they know or where we think they are from. Although Desai was born and raised in India, and nearly every one of her books takes place there, she observes that India is, indeed, far from her imagination. “I’ve really spent so much time away from India, so as material for my writing, it has definitely receded. I am not at all in touch with what is happening there, so I am not able, anymore, to write about India in an authentic way. As I am here, I am an outsider in India. Really, wherever I seem to go, I am an outsider!”
The Zigzag Way is a short, tight, and intense story of a young historian, Eric, who travels to Mexico on the heels of his girlfriend Em, who goes there to do research. Once there, Em goes off with her own stated purpose, leaving Eric to navigate the landscape around him.
The disjointedness of their joint experience of Mexico was repeated at every step. While Em and her colleagues passed casually through the immigration barriers and collected their baggage with the harassed air of professional business travelers, Eric found himself distracted by everything in the airport—the booths displaying textiles bright with rainbow stripes and rainbow flowers, tequila bottles shaped like cacti, sweets made out of cacti and fruit—and the arrival hall, which was swamped by more people with black hair and brown skin than he had ever encountered before.
What he discovers is, intriguingly, something about his own family who have ties to the land, and a lot about himself. In true Desai fashion, Eric’s state of mind is depicted congruent with his landscape: strange, out of place, exotic, and mysterious. The landscape is portrayed in beautiful and poetic language, often otherworldly. Reading Desai is a delight because she does not fill in all of the spaces; in fact, she leaves much to the imagination. Place becomes as much a character as Eric, the mysterious Dona Vera, Queen of the Sierra, and others.
Desai seems amused when I ask her, “Why Mexico?” Her matter-of-fact response is, “I went to Mexico without knowing anything about the place at all! Basically, I went to Mexico to escape the cold of New England. I was so shocked at how Indian the culture is. I made connections very quickly. When I walk down a street in Mexico, I have a certain comfort level—I have confidence in what I am seeing; I am continuously relating to things. I don’t even really know how to explain this but the people in Mexico feel like strangers I’ve known all my life. Mexico accepts people from all over the world. It is a place where eccentricities are allowed to flower.”
Eccentricities are present in the novel, as well, most especially in the characterization of Dona Vera, the self-styled “Queen of the Sierra,” who is believed to be a learned scholar of the native Indian culture, but is really just an eccentric German woman easily bored and dissatisfied with her life. She was brought to Mexico City by her husband Don Rodrigo:
She had quickly given up being the delightfully coquettish woman he had brought back from Europe after his frail and highly bred first wife’s death. She soon began to complain loudly of boredom and disappointment. “I am not one of these silly card-playing woman of your circle,” she told him since he obviously failed to see this fact for himself. The next step was voicing her desire, at first in company and then when she was alone with him while he was digesting a gigantic meal, having his coffee and smoking his cigar, to travel outside Mexico City and see something of this land to which he had brought her.
As Eric begins his search of his ancestors, Cornish miners who settled in Mexico in search of much needed work, Dona Vera eerily, and often mysteriously, raises more questions than she answers. Issues of displacement, loneliness, and one’s search for a true home are recurrent in Desai’s work, which spans decades, and seem to have become an ideology of sorts. This unending, almost existential yearning gives the work a haunting and rather sad quality as the exotic and mundane mingle to create an almost dream-like effect. Transplanted travelers, attempting to forge a life in foreign soil is something that Desai feels strongly about.
Commenting on the proliferation of South Asian writers living and writing in the United States, Desai feels that “they have a difficult time.” Further, she feels they are “not Americanized enough” to write authentically about their new land, which lends a “mythical aspect” to the writing. She cites Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie as examples. They are destined, she feels, “to have a foot in both worlds.” Seeking the truth becomes a goal of such writers. When I ask her what particular “truth” is that, she answers thoughtfully and quietly, “That it is terribly uncomfortable to know that you belong nowhere.”
The decision to place her characters in Mexico was “easy and natural,” she says. “Mexico, in every way, is so capacious,” she croons. And her writing can be said to be the same. “I have realized, at this time in my life, that you cannot change the world. You can hope, perhaps, to catch the bird and tame it. Pay attention and record with patience.”
The Zigzag Way is the beautiful result of an astute and sensitive author doing just that.
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.