BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Diamond Dust by Anita Desai [in aOnline]

Diamond DustA word of advice: Don’t read The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (which just won the Pulitzer for fiction) at the same time as Anita Desai’s new collection of short stories, Diamond Dust. The irony is that the two books have so much in common: both collections consist of nine stories; both are about 200 pages long; both are written by a woman writer with Indian, British, and American connections; the title story is the third story in both collections; … and both title stories feature characters named Mr. and Mrs. Das. Now how coincidental is that?

So why not read them together? Besides the fact that you might get the two sets of Dases confused, to be perfectly blunt, Maladies is the superior collection – which may have unfairly colored my reading of Diamond Dust. But even if I had read them far apart, I would probably, eventually have arrived at the same revelation that given the flowing language, the poignant imagery, the you-got-that-just-perfect descriptions, Maladies is the better book … by far. This is not to say that Diamond Dust is a failure in any way – Desai, after all, is a veteran, award-winning writer in her own right with three works (Fasting, Feasting; Clear Light of Day; and In Custody) that have been finalists for Britain’s highest literary honor, the Booker Prize. As strong as it is, Diamond is just not Pulitzer material.

The collection opens with “Royalty,” about a couple who delay their exodus to their summer home in order to welcome a much in-demand guest, a young man with such charm as to overshadow his parasitic nature towards the wealthy. With rather stereotypical characters, the story doesen’t present a particularly strong start to the book, especially considering that better developed, more entertaining stories follow.

“Winterscape” is one such story, about a young Canadian woman who, when she herself becomes a mother, meets the two mothers who raised her Indian husband. As a new mother, Beth cannot understand the poignant story of these two widows who have come to visit from India – one her husband’s natural mother and the other her beloved older sister to whom the mother gave the child to raise.

The title story, “Diamond Dust: A Tragedy,” is the shortest in the collection, somewhat comical in the description of Mr. Das’s overblown devotion to Diamond, his dog “of an indecipherable breed.” Indeed, the dog becomes the most precious part of Mr. Das’s life, in spite of Diamond’s pariah status in the neighborhood – the dog is not only dirty, mangy, and a repeat runaway, he’s also exceptionally mean with a special hatred for the postman. In the end, tragedy is inevitable.

Other notable entries include “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” about a businessman who witnesses a drowning, only to realize that the victim is himself, and the final story – the collection’s longest – “The Rooftop Dwellers,” about the everyday life of a young single woman in Delhi who works in the offices of a literary review, Books.

In between are a number of forgettable pieces, “Underground,” about a couple trying to find a room in a resort town, “The Artist’s Life,” about a young girl who announces she wants to be an artist, “Five Hours to Simla or Faisla,” about a day-long traffic jam caused by an obstinate trucker, and “Tepoztlan Tomorrow,” about a college student who returns to his relatives’ hometown in his native Mexico.

In these less successful stories, Desai’s characters seem out of place, foreign, and unfamiliar, even to their author. The stories seem contrived, ending on a clumsy unexpected twist – the secrets of the hotel owner who would not take any guests, the lodger who was living an artist’s life far different from the one the young protagonist imagined, and the young man’s disappointment at how his once-familiar Mexican town and its inhabitants have changed.

Where Desai most excels – as many writers do – are in the stories that are perhaps closest to her own experiences, at least in surroundings and environment. Her strongest stories are those that take place predominantly in Indian locations, peopled with Indian characters. Good advice to the aspiring author: write what you know and the readers will follow.

ReviewaOnline website, July 5, 2000

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000


No Comment

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.