Between her novels, Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), and Fasting, Feasting (1999) lies Anita Desai’s ambitious, sprawling and unfairly forgotten novel, Journey to Ithaca. Written in 1995, the novel encapsulates the ambitions of a literary work as it dwells on several of Desai’s concerns, chiefly that of an individual’s quest for fulfilment, the elusive nature of this search, and also packs in the intrigue and suspense of a work of mystery.

Destiny or forces beyond one’s individual agency have figured in Desai’s fiction, beginning early from her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), where the unhappy protagonist remains in thrall to a childhood prophecy. Maya is even repulsed by the advice that one must “accept” one’s destiny, which is a force beyond one’s control.

In Baumgartner’s Bombay, it is history that exerts an inexorable force – as it does in Desai’s In Custody (1984) and Clear Light of Day (1980) – when Hugo Baumgartner witnesses the Nazi rise to power, and his own escape from Berlin to Bombay. His own hermetic life in that city is an attempt to shake off this past, one that has brought him much unhappiness, but as the novel moves towards its tragic end, Desai shows, one can never truly leave behind the past, or even one’s past selves and identities.

Why the journey matters

Journey to Ithaca reflects all of Desai’s concerns – one’s divided selves and the conflict between tradition (destiny) and renunciation or abandonment – as a way of protesting against this. Taking its title from CP Cavafy’s well known poem, the novel’s theme also mirrors the poem’s message as it describes Odysseus’s return to Ithaca after the long war with Troy: it is the journey that matters, for it transforms one far more than reaching the actual destination does.

The urge to leave the past and family bonds behind, to become a seeker and an ascetic, is what drives Matteo, and in a different way, his wife Sophie in Desai’s Journey to Ithaca. It moves in time from the 1920s to the 1970s; from the Italy of Matteo’s childhood and Europe between the wars, onto India where hippies and flower children seek an ill-defined spirituality.

Journey to Ithaca is a story about seeking, the all-consuming urge to go on a pilgrimage, in the hope of finding spiritual realisation; the seeker wanting only a spiritual union with a greater spirit or truth. But Desai’s point, especially in this novel, is that renunciation – though it appears a contrast to all kinds of binds and ties – is also a total devotion to an ideal, and thus it forms a kind of bondage too.

Another novel, another journey

In his boyhood, Matteo is drawn to the spirituality of the East. Frail in health and subject to frequent bullying in school, he is tutored at home. When his tutor introduces him to Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, this book – about a group of travellers, some of them real historical characters and others mythical, who travel to the East in search of Truth – comes to enthrall Matteo totally.

In Hesse’s book (and it becomes a metafictional allusion in Desai’s novel), the travellers, as they spend the night near a particularly treacherous gorge in Europe, find themselves abandoned by their attendant, Leo. It throws the journey into confusion but as is revealed later, by the novel’s narrator – everything, including the journey, Leo’s abandonment of them has been a test, especially about their own faith in the journey itself.

Matteo’s early confusion is never revealed except in how he behaves – his hatred of boarding school, the usual games boys his age play, his misery while working in his uncle’s silk factory in Milan, and then his decision to leave his family for India. This happens soon after his marriage to Sophie, a German, whose father is a financier and an acquaintance of Matteo’s own banker father. Sophie who accompanies Matteo, is at first dazzled by India, by the flower children, and their lives of easy freedom.

However, the bitter truth about them soon dawns on Sophie as Desai dispassionately describes their cunning ways, and how they sponge off each other. Meanwhile as Matteo tries out one spiritual experiment after another – going on long, arduous pilgrimages, meditating and giving himself up to a chosen godman’s prescriptions for living – Sophie for her part, increasingly longs to be home. Yet she cannot bring herself to abandon Matteo, though she is left increasingly puzzled and then angry by this elusive search.

Seeking answers in spirituality

When they are part of a long pilgrimage procession, Sophie encounters a fellow pilgrim, a mother with her ailing, barely surviving child. The mother’s need to seek spiritual, rather than the medical help her child so urgently requires, puzzles Sophie. She also doesn’t understand Matteo when he finally appears to find some solace with a mysterious god woman he encounters in a hill town, one who has a carefully concealed past. She is called “Mother”, a name she has evidently assumed and is indeed addressed this way by all her acolytes and disciples who see her as a parental figure of some authority.

Sophie, for her part, is at once, suspicious of the Mother and sneering of Matteo’s apparent high regard of her. She is convinced that the Mother is a charlatan who has bedazzled Matteo. Her search to dig into the Mother’s past, in a quest of her own to lay bare the Mother’s “true” identity, takes on almost the contours of a detective novel. But Sophie’s journey yields for her, other essential truths, if not the truth of what she has been seeking.

Unravelling a mystery

Sophie retraces the Mother’s steps painstakingly and carefully, first to Alexandria in Egypt where the latter, as a young girl called Laila, had spent her youth. Later, Sophie follows Laila’s footsteps to Paris, where the latter’s restlessness, her impatience at her aunt’s snobbishness finally leads her to the “guru”, a dance teacher visiting with his troupe from India.

The Master’s (a figure almost like the Bengali thespian Sisir Bhaduri) depiction of Krishna, the Hindu god, leaves her entranced: in this dance form that combines passion with mysticism, Laila feels she has finally found her reason for living. Soon she leaves to be part of his troupe. But barely a few months later in Venice, she is disillusioned as she sees that the Master too is driven by practical things. He bargains with his patrons over the littlest of things, is demanding of favours and privileges, and is not averse to making the other female dancers jealous simply to get his own way.

Laila, however, is determined to go to India. Her yearning, one that is undefined and yet that takes over her every sense, has made her physically sick – a sickness in some senses that afflicts Matteo too. On a visit to the north of India, Laila finds some solace in a guru – though Desai says nothing about him, or even describes him. It is almost as if, in Desai’s vision, the individual’s quest for salvation, and even its seeming culmination, remain inexplicable and mysterious.

It is in this ashram of which the Mother is now in charge that Matteo too finds her and comes to live. Sophie thus in a way comes to understand Matteo’s need to look for a truth, however elusive. It is somewhat akin to what Sophie had also understood about Laila. In Paris, as a young student, Laila realises that what draws her always is some kind of passion – one not just of celebration but also the passion of renunciation.

Enduring concerns

In her Booker shortlisted Fasting, Feasting (1999), Desai continues with her concerns relating to tradition and the expectations that rest on the individual: Uma as the unmarried daughter forced to look after her family; Arun, the only son, on whom rest the family’s hopes and Melanie, the unhappy daughter of Arun’s American host, whose bulimia is a rebellion against her mother’s smothering concern and in a bigger way, of the overconsumption in American life.

Rebellion in Desai’s fiction, however, is always a sullen and quiet act. However, it is in Desai’s most recent novel, The Artist of Disappearance (2012), that she appears to suggest how abandonment – as a way of resisting tradition, or even destiny (to return to a word early on in her novel) – may take on self-effacement, a kind that is different from disinterest or even indifference to life.

The individuals in the three novellas who make up this collection nurture their creativity in different ways – whether it is in setting up a museum of randomly collected objects, being a little known writer in a regional language, or even creating a secret garden – in the hope of finding happiness, one that does not have to be explained to anyone. It is an answer of some kind.

Novelists and writers are of course not expected to provide answers, especially for life’s enduring conundrums, but for Desai, it has been arguably a quest to resolve the dilemma between the ascetic and the householder and their ways of life (of abandonment or acceptance), and in the Journey to Ithaca, it is the search itself that takes on the contours of a beautiful, engrossing and very engaging novel.