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Voices in the City of Anita Desai Literary Analysis Example

Abstact to the Pessimistic Novel

Anita Desai can be unmistakably called one of the most prominent luminaries of the present day fiction. Her Indian English is marked by the high level of cultural ethnicity as well as British traits that made an ineffaceable impact on the customs and traditions of this spiritual nation with the deep roots and beliefs that go back as far as the historians can identify. The most significant part of Anita Desai’s works is, first of all, her strong manifestation of the feminine sensibility as well as the focus on the predicament Indian women had and still have to face nowadays due to the lasting patriarchal norms.

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Anita Desai was never pleased with the common method of writing novels. She stresses how Indian female writers fail to create good works due to the lack of imagination and ironic attitude, nerve, courage, satirical taste, and apt criticism which can make their novels alive. Therefore, she applies these strategies widely to her essays, and Voices in the City signifies a bright example.

Voices in the City: Main Points Review Example

Reconstructing Indian Female Identity

The most important point this novel tackles is the imaginary transition of Indian women from a deeply enrooted tradition to fast-changing modernity: Monisha closes up in her own world, while Amla, so cheerful and positive about the change at the beginning, sinks into the depression after her personal relationship failed. Confusion and vulnerability follow these women who decided to blend in with the modern world which does not want to accept them, the world where rapid industrial development makes people harsh, selfish, and cruel. The characters seem to find it difficult to understand how their own country can be so different. The Himalayan village they come from and the city of Calcutta present two lives of one soul. In her essay Anita Desai tries to investigate as well as broaden the perception of human beings (particularly, females), their self-understanding and psyche.

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The Idea of Freedom in Life

Anita Desai had the opportunity to live through the circumstances that allowed her to write accurately about the challenges of the Indian women; and she shares her private vision with the readers and not only the objective observation as the majority of writers in this field do. Thus, the author does not focus only on the one-role predicament but takes into consideration the bilateral relationship between a discriminated woman and a patriarchal man; in Anita Desai’s case, this relationship is presented by the familial connection between Nirode and Monisha, as well as intimacy between Amla and Dharma, who treated his daughter rudely and cheated on his wife. It eventually caused a feeling of disgust in Amla who could not bear being with the person who did not respect such close and, hopefully, dear women to him.

The Picture of Lower-Class Society

Thirdly, Anita Desai’s strong personality and infallible spirit made her go further as for the Indian female writer of her period. She was preoccupied with the personal self-development, which can be knowledgeable enough to overcome the stereotypes and biases of both Indian society as well as modern society regarding Indian people. Individualism of the protagonists explicitly intertwines with the challenges the Indians encounter in the new environment, like Calcutta of the West Bengal in the Voices in the City. Despite the historical segregation of the Indians, the family longs for the unity, so unreachable for it, due to the controversial tradition. The author goes back to these three main themes throughout the whole book, accentuating on the importance of finding the golden mean for the Indian people if they do not want to get lost in the developing industrial society as well as lose themselves and their identity.

Body: Narrative Strategies


The genre of Voices in the City is a novel with existential and nihilistic elements which became a common theme after the World War II. The search for oneself, one’s identity and a strong outburst of individualism marked the tendency for literature, too.

Anita Desai's novel Voices in the City as well as many of her other works present the difficulties of contemporary Indian culture from a woman’s perspective as the author saw it, simultaneously accentuating on the Indian predicament of keeping up one’s identity in the world where the old traditions are still present and exert a strong influence on the society; but the new ideas, technologies, and values that come into existence are still too weak to substitute the old one. This mix makes people confused as they do not know what to believe anymore, especially the youth who cannot find its place in life being bound to the familial, traditional customs, but realizing that those values are gradually losing their power and the new ones come, but the youth does not really understand them. This transition is the main theme of the Voices in the City.

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A Discourse of Postcolonial Modernity

The existential problem of the novel is dramatic. It threatens each aspect of the protagonists’ lives, making them suffer from pain of the futility of their existence. All of the main characters stand on the verge of death and emptiness in the city, which is engulfed into heavy industrialization and loss of the traditional values. This industrialization brings with it the abundance of things, which slowly start substituting the moral aspect, turning people into egocentric and materialistic consumers that suffer from the lack of purpose and loneliness as things cannot bring true happiness.

Anita Desai includes some of the techniques in the novel, which show her rich inner world and deep understanding of the ongoing problems of the society. Fantasy, which is revealed through the “stream of consciousness”, particularly creates the feeling that the reader is starting to experience emotions, which are similar to those of the protagonists. On the one hand, this effect is the great achievement of the novelist as she had managed to choose the words which penetrated deeply into the consciousness of people giving them the opportunity to feel the real taste of the issue the Indian people, mostly women, go through. On the other hand, such a depiction makes her novel an extremely negative work of art, which does not give a hope for the change. For example, for Indian people such a depiction can appear to be a sort of a death sentence announced to them through hopeless narrative perspectives and apt oppositions.

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Voices in the City by Anita Desai was first published in 1965, just a little bit more than a decade after the country was freed from under the British rule, and could finally enjoy its longed-for independence. The book brilliantly outlines the world perception of three protagonists-siblings. The book is based on the sad realities of the middle class intellectuals residing in Indian Calcutta. The novel is a remarkable story that depicts a Bohemian brother, Nirode, together with his two sisters, Monisha and Amla, trapped in the crossroads of shifting social values. One of the main themes of the novel, which goes throughout the lives of all protagonists, reflects a dramatic predicament of the social transition in India – a challenging period, which signifies the mix of old and emerging elements, which cannot co-exist together as they have the contradictory nature. The book outlines the sorrowful impact of the urban livelihood upon an Indian family.

Some of the members of the family struggle through their lives and face a lot of difficulties. Nirode who was brought up in comfort and splendour by his pleasure-seeking mother resides in Calcutta and immerses in its tricky bohemian life. He gives up everything in pursuit of his career which is never rewarding. Simultaneously, Monisha, Nirode’s elder sister, carries out a prison-like existence within the strict and impassable limits of a usual Hindu family. She cannot put up with such stifling, living in the house of the old-fashioned, rich family.


Nirode is depicted as a totally negative character, despite all of his brilliance, whose mind is constantly filled with darkness just as the city presents itself. People from his surrounding have a strong confidence that the boy would have wealthy and happy future; however, Nirode cherishes no hope on possible improvement. The boy succumbs to the feelings of being damned for the rest of his life, and the fact that he is nothing more than a worthless creature.


Monisha is a mistress of solitude. She is married, but this marriage is the last thing she wants in her small universe. She craves for personal privacy, but the large family of her husband denies her attempt to have any sort of space to herself at all. Her life swings between death and emptiness, which is a pure anguish that penetrates each, even the smallest, cell of her body. The day comes when this anguish is so unbearable that the thought of being alive hurts more than the worst torturing method, and Monisha gives up on that precious gift called “life”, which she was granted to find her destination, and unable to do so, she commits suicide in a hysterical frame of mind.

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Their younger sister, Amla, also comes to the promising city as she thinks of it to be. In the beginning of the chapter about her, she seems to be so different from her siblings. Even if she does not have the life she wants, she is not as frustrated as Monisha and Nirode. She leaves behind her provincial environment and starts an unworthy relationship with Dharma, an artist. Unfortunately, but predictably, the result is a break-up which changes joyful Amla and makes her sink into the depressive existence as well as her elder siblings. Nirode, Amla and Monisha’s decisions and thoughts make the Voices in the City an unforgettable and skilful piece of art.

Closer to the end of the book Nirode and Amla look at life from another perspective. A turning point is Monisha’s death, which signifies the end of that painful transition of the values. The death of Monisha brings them some kind of revelation. Anita Desai has depicted the death of a girl as a sacrifice which brings out the new perception of the world for Nirode and Amla.

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Voices in the City reminds a spiritual, existentialistic odyssey of a journalist, who is quite lean, melancholic, and hungry in the “city of death”, Calcutta. The name of this doomed individual, who seems to be bound to the city he dislikes, is Nirode. Such a dull description defines aptly the very essence of the novel, which presents a tragic exploration of the individual suffering that is caused by the intense vulnerability of the young man with very high intellectual potential. Nirode lost his pathway in modern India. Anita Desai digs deeply into the childlike despair, which is constantly irritated by the existential fear.

Anita Desai called the emotional disturbance of the young journalist “the terror of facing single-handed, the ferocious assaults of existence”. This description is aptly outlining the main challenges Nirode has to go through. The young man seems to be going through the personal crusade against his own self, knowing that he would never be able to win in this fight, and the defeat is close, though he is still attempting to change the outcome feverishly. The situation is especially well-depicted through the portrayal of the protagonists - Monisha and Nirode. Monisha discovers hamartia (the fatal flaw, which causes the hero’s downfall (which is usually tragic) or heroine) too late. In case of Nirode, he reaches hamartia through a strong suffering which annihilates everything inside him, leaving an exhausted body that does not feel the taste of life anymore. The third main protagonist, Amla, is the younger sister of Monisha and Nirode. Their mother is another significant character of the novel.

It is interesting to note how Anita Desai depicts Calcutta, which seems to become alive, together with the four people who left their homeland, moved to another city, and plunged into quite a different culture and lifestyle marked by the industrialisation. Calcutta becomes an extremely disastrous, dominating character that strongly influences and affects the manners and moods of the newcomers.

The plot of the novel mainly circles around Nirode, who seems to possess all the features that successful people may need, but still he is in a very bad position. His brilliance, brightness, and vulnerability make him even angrier. He is like a man who is pursuing his dreams that are like oasis in the hot desert – they seem to be close but when he tries to reach them, they slowly disappear making him lost, confused, and in utter despair. Being constantly on the verge of the emotional and, therefore, physical exhaustion, Nirode is quite mentally unstable and is considered to be a psychic criminal.

The young man prefers living in “shadows, silence, stillness”, and there he would like “always to be left with”. When Nirode is first presented to the readers, he appears to have hatred and envy for Arun, his younger brother. The reason is simple and quite egotistic: Arun is going abroad to pursue his studies there. Nirode’s career started when he first edited a poem in his own poetry magazine, and the work soon gave him a promise for a successful future. Already at that time, the readers could see the boy`s tragic trait – he never tried to look for happiness as his philosophy of life dictated him another conditions based on the bitter truth – one day all people will die. Nirode could not imagine dying in the arms of happiness; it would cause the worst pain, he has ever suffered, as it would mean that as soon as he finally started to enjoy life, he should leave it forever. Such an attitude only stresses on the inability of the boy to see the value of life, and attempt to find his destination wherever it may be.

The young man does not stop surprising the readers by his unusual way of thinking and worldview. He longs for failure as he thinks that happiness cannot bring him anywhere, and that negativity has a stronger power in people’s life (Desai 40):

...I want to fail – quickly. Then I want to see if I have the spirit to start moving again, towards my next failure. I want to move from failure to failure, step by step to rock-bottom. I want to explore that depth. When you climb a ladder all you find at the top is apace, all you can do is leap off, all to the bottom. I want to get there without that meaningless climbing. I want to descend quickly.

Voices in the City Symbolism

What Nirode does not know is that he himself creates what he sees around him. The situations, people, attitudes, problems, everything is drown to his life by himself. His negative emotions are like a signal to the Universe to bring more suffering into his life. Nirode does not understand that the world starts from the responsibility, which the person takes on and does not blame everyone and everything on his way. He is afraid of happiness, so he gets more and more unpleasant things daily. His choice is to flow with the stream, which carries him directly into the abyss where the whole masses of people go; because in order to succeed, one should swim against the current, and separate himself or herself from the 98 percent of people across the world.

The Life in Calcutta

Being straightforward, Nirode is weak. He does not want to struggle but just to receive everything ready and made for him. Such a conclusion comes from the idea of his inability to see the worthiness of everything he is given. He changes works just without thinking. He lacks the sense of stability, which is often the first step to success as only persistent actions, often after recurrent failures, make people realise their mistakes, learn lessons, and do the right thing.

He finds the idea of pursuing the desirable life too challenging, sordid, and unworthy, because, despite his high intellectuality, he cannot see the simple beauty and find happiness in small things that surround him each moment. Nirode, as many people of all times, especially modern world, waits for his perfect moment to come, which never will, as each second of life is unique and perfect, the person just has to learn to be open-minded to see it. Therefore, the life in Calcutta, as it was expected, becomes a nightmare and instils the whole novel with terror of an inescapable tragedy.

The city is totally messed up and seems to ruin everyone who sets his/her foot on the ground there. It is like a wild monster, who does not know sympathy, kindness, and opportunities, but destruction of the humans’ small worlds. A person, who is unlucky or unwise to come in pursuit of a change for better, is poisoned by the ill air of Calcutta, which is doomed together with its citizens. However, the city does not have a heart and it does not have mind, which would help it understand the annihilating power of its streets, buildings, native inhabitants, and even Mother Nature, which seemed to forget about its function to protect and provide its children with all necessary means. For that reason, Calcutta continues to be the murderer of joy and hope.

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Goddess Kali

Anita Desai aptly compares the city to the universally recognised goddess of death, Kali. The goddess symbolises the extremely thin limit between the death and life in the city, holding everything in her cold deathly hands. On the other hand, Kali also represents the womanhood of India. The novelist embodies the image of the goddess to highlight the silent struggle of Indian women against the long-lasting patriarchal principles, which undermine significantly the rights of females for the equal existence in the finally independent country. Harveen Sachdeva Mann even promoted a very interesting theory that Anita Desai created a feminist ideology in Anglo-Indian literature. He stated that Monisha and Amla are two bright examples of women, who are trying to dispel the patriarchy of the country, and finally free women from unhappiness they are doomed for.

Nirode, despite a set of the positive features, is quite a negative protagonist, who cannot reveal any human passions and emotions. His heart is so cold and unattached to the rest of the world that he even calls his own mother “that old she cannibal”. After refusing to use his family name, Nirode becomes the target of the psycho-analytical research of his own. He constantly experiments with failure, considering it to be the success in life. And, at some point, it is possible to agree with such a way of thinking, as failure provides the person with a good lesson, but in Nirode`s case it does not work completely as this person seems to be rejecting the obvious things and only after the death of Monisha some realisation comes to him.

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Such analytical skills and corresponding behaviours make Nirode a real existential character, which is constantly in quest for the precious meaning of life, but the young man’s ways are ineffective, showing his own emptiness and lack of understanding despite a luggage of knowledge he carries.

It becomes clear that Nirode represents a person, who does not know what life is at all. Such a point is made due to his own psychological discussions and conflicts, which are just described but never solved or thought through. Nirode blames the world, but never himself. This lack of responsibility makes him an emotional child, who is not given a candy, which is so desirable. Nirode’s anger, irritation, and rejection accentuate his inability to cope with his own self, to listen to his desires and behave accordingly to implement them in life (Singh 36). He looks like a dog, which barks a lot but when the stranger comes closer, it runs away; Nirode runs away from his own problems.

Voices in the City Summary

Symbolically, the young journalist compares himself with the Camus’ famous insect, introducing himself to everyone as “an outlawed hermit crab”. Nirode’s tragedy appears to reach absurd limits of a completely uncontrollable mentally ill person, which does not know what life is and for what reason it was given to him. But his weakness does not even allow him to end up life with suicide as young people of his disposition can frequently do, and as his sister does. Imaging himself as Camus’ hermit, Nirode, first of all, accentuates that it was not completely his desire to become like that but the circumstances pushed him into such a predicament. However, on the contrary to the hermit, who was constantly thinking about the way out, expressed his emotions concerning his feelings and pain of the total rejection after being used by his own family, Nirode turns morally into a real insect as the human being can conceive it – senseless, emotionless, easy to be killed somewhere on the wall. Monisha aptly describes what became of her brother: “Shrunken, etiolated, wasted thing”.

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