The Village By the Sea by Anita Desai [A Review]

The Village by the Sea is a simple but dark young-adult novel, which won the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize, written by Anita Desai who has been thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Hari and Lila, brother and sister, live in a small coastal village near Bombay (now Mumbai), India. Their family has hit hard times. Their mother is seriously ill, but they cannot afford a doctor for her. Their father is an alcoholic who has sold their one asset, their fishing boat, to pay his debts from drinking. Lila, only thirteen, has quit school to care for their mother, their two younger sisters and the house.

Her younger brother, Hari, has also quit school. He and his friends found it boring and irrelevant to their future. But they don’t aspire to follow their fathers in the village’s traditional fishing trade either. Instead, they believe the key to their future lies with the prospect of a new modern factory being built nearby.

Hari, though, does not share their confidence and he does not have the luxury of lazing his youth away waiting for employment to be created for him. He wants to make a trip to the sprawling metropolis of Bombay. There, he hopes, he can find work, manage to save a little bit of money and return home able to solve the family’s troubles.

Bombay! He stared out of the window at the stars that shone in the sky and wondered if the lights of the city could be as bright, or brighter. It was a rich city: if he could get there, he might be able to make money, bring home riches, pieces of gold and silver with which to dazzle his sisters.

No! he told himself closing his eyes. That was a foolish dream. He could not afford dreams, he must be practical and think out a scheme. That was not easy and the effort made him tired so that he gave up and fell asleep.

But it is an enormous risk and would mean leaving Lila behind to cope without him. But he knows that, with his mother getting closer to death, his father’s drinking getting them further in debt, and his sisters getting hungrier, it will do no good sitting around the village hoping for a miracle to find them. If there is any hope, he has to make the first move, he has to do it soon and he has to hope it pays off quickly.

The time for change had come, he had felt that. He had had to make the break he had been thinking about for so long. Had he done wrong?

Of course there was no question of turning back. […] Once in Bombay, he would have to stay, work and earn a living. Was he really ready for that? He felt unsure. He looked back over his shoulder at the flat, marshy coast of Rewas, too far for him to reach. Putting his head down on his knees, he closed his eyes in despair.

The Village by the Sea is a short young-adult novel but it is a noticeably dark one dealing with issues of alcoholism, poverty and corruption amongst other themes. Author Anita Desai says at the beginning that the book is based ‘entirely on fact’, that the village is based on a real one in Thul where she holidayed and that the characters are based on real people.

This is the first book by Anita Desai that I have read and, perhaps because it is a young-adult novel, I am not sure what I can say about her writing other than this is a good story, simply told, which readers who are not as slow as me can probably read in an afternoon. It won the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize in 1983, a prize that includes Watership Down (1973), Goodnight Mr Tom (1982) and Northern Lights (1996) amongst its recipients. Desai has also been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times but has never won it (her daughter Kiran Desai won in 2006 for The Inheritance of Loss). I have the last of those shortlisters, Fasting, Feasting, on my shelves and I think I will have to read that before I can feel I have come to know her writing.

One theme of the book is how ‘progress’ is a double-edged sword. Though his friends are optimistic about the coming factory, there seems to be little recognition of the dangers it might present. The pollution and water consumption of the factory may threaten local fishing and farming. While the best jobs created may not go to locals but to educated urbanites from elsewhere. Reduced income, unemployment and diminished quality of life may all result from the arrival of progress.

The inadequacy of government is another poignant take from the novel. There seems to be little recourse for those who wish to make their representatives accountable for their interests. There are also too many waiting in readiness to use the outrage of the people for their own political gain. A meeting point for protestors is a pedestal in the city. The pedestal used to hold an equestrian statue of Edward VII but is now vacant; as if a symbol of imperialism has been replaced by a symbol for an equally immovable faceless bureaucracy.

Though certainly not an original theme, the contrast of city and country is also at play in The Village by the Sea. The village is not a paradise, it has its vices and life there is not easy; but it has considerable beauty, community and simplicity. The city is dirty, dangerous, unfriendly and opportunity is not as easy to find as everyone expects. But the city can also provide kindness and generosity from unexpected sources.

Despite the darkness of the novel and the uncertainly of the children’s position, the novel’s ultimate message is a hopeful one. The children find that promise lies not in denying the dangers of change nor in naively assuming the promise of it, but in accepting its inevitability and searching for the change that is right for them.

Hari was silent and listened to Ramu as he went on shouting in his usual fashion: ‘Everything has to change over here – everything is going to be different.’

‘But, Ramu,’ interrupted Hari at last, ‘we have to change too, we shall have to become different as well.’

That silenced Ramu and Hari held on to the bicycle seat and looked about him at the muddy fields and the bullock carts that were dragging ploughs through them, getting them ready for the sowing of the winter crops. He could not imagine this scene changed or this life coming to an end.

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