Parminder Sohal/ The Hidden Mystery of Human Psyche in Anita Desai’s The Village by the Sea

Parminder Sohal


Department of English

Lovely Professional University

Phagwara, Punjab

The sheer existence of man is a psychological effort to move along the path of life, at times fighting for existence and at other time feeling the ecstasies of unsaid pleasures. The Village by the Sea is such a beautiful piece of writing wherein the writer Anita Desai brings forth the struggle of man for evading the psychic pressures of life in the hope of survival. She portrays lives and social structures. She denounces the flaws of society by painting small scenes of everyday life; she shows the reader how society works and how it can put pressure on people sometimes to the point of destroying individuals. She said in an interview:

“I am interested in characters who are not average but have retreated or have been driven into despair and so turned against or made to stand against the general current. It is easy to flow with the current, it makes no demands, it costs no efforts. But those who cannot follow it, whose hearts cry out ‘the great No,’ who fight the current and struggle against it, they know what demands are and what it costs to meet them.”1

The present paper is an attempt to study Desai’s fiction The Village by the Sea with an analysis of how poverty brings forth many misfortunes with it. The story starts with the drudgery of the eldest girl of the family Lila managing the household and bearing the responsibilities of the family at a tender age. The head of the family is in the calm repose and an uncaring bliss of liquor. His mere presence is inconsequential. The mother of the family being ill does not in any manner support the children of the house. They are left to pave their own ways of life. The aspirations of the children have no repose. Battered and bruised by the pains of life Hari, the only son, leaves the house in a numb state. He moves to the so called greener pastures of Bombay. The precarious situations there again strive in him the longing for his native place which he had denounced so readily due to the pathetic conditions of the family. Here the eagerness of a soul for freedom has been depicted perfectly by Anita Desai. Hari is burdened by the anxieties of the city life which torment him. Though towards the end of the story, he is able to scrape enough money to please his sisters when he ultimately returns to his family which had adjusted to the pressures of existence. Anita Desai very smoothly brings forth the torments of a common man and the way man accepts and fights for a better existence by succumbing to the truths of what life has to offer. Salman Rushdie evokes his admiration for Anita Desai as a novelist,who presents in her“private universes” characters which are shaped by“the moods and events of the circumstances.”2

Anita Desai is a well-known Indo-Anglian Novelist of Post-Independence era. Her contribution is considered as more significant in the development of Indian English novel. Most of her work deals with inner life which is crowded by psychological problems. Desai’s characters are usually women who are haunted by a peculiar sense of doom, withdraw themselves into a sequestered world of their own, become Neurotic, self-destructive and unhappy. She presents powerful characters with full enthusiasm and encouragement in every circumstance and in each and every walk of life. She herself says says “My style of writing is to allow the story to unfold on its own. I try not to structure my work too rigidly.”3 Sensitiveness is a dominant feature in all her novels. The Village by the Sea is Anita Desai’s one such work where one finds man in a constant urge for development. The pace of life desired by man is supposed to be fast and smooth, but life on the other side holds plans which are not always compatible with man’s desires. She portrays this pathetic picture in the dull life of the small family of Thul. The family suffers from poverty and is forced to stops the education of the younger members of the family. They have neither hope, nor peace as Lila cries “Father’s still lying there, asleep. He sleeps all day. He will get up only at night and go straight to the toddy shop.’(p.15) There is no chance of betterment but only struggle for survival. The mother leaves an indelible stress on the minds of the children with her sickness. The children are worried for their mother’s medicine. Life is victimized somewhere. The children tend to take care of their parents. This is destiny. The ones who gave birth are in oblivion of the faith of their children. Lila and Hari are scared and afraid of what life has in store for them. They become the unsaid guardians of their younger brother and sisters. The environment is full of unsaid pressures for all the members of the family except their father who is always drunk. The hope of the son is nothing but the death of his father. He thought of this not out of fear, but hope. “Maybe a poisonous snake will bite him. He may step on one and be bitten, there are so many of them and it is dark. Then he would die.” What else can be bitter than this where in a son is so fed up with the habits of his father that he hopes for his father’s death?(Desai,p33) But psychology says after being disappointed so many times you begin to lose hope in everything. It leads to alienation and separation as Psychologist Frank Johnson defines alienation as “separation (or distance) between two or more entities and one is filled with negative feelings”.4 D.K. Pabby says “feelings like paranoia, frustration, fear-psychosis can become consequences of such a feeling. It also creates very negative feelings about the person himself, mainly depreciation, generating loneliness and a disjunction from the self and from the environment he lives in”.5 But the pressures for sheer survival added with the developing world serves much anxiety to the family members. New aspirations energize again when the news spreads that a factory is to be set up at Thul. It urges afresh the desire to get more from life. Hari is told by his friend about the setting of a factory in the city. He also says that Biju, a rich merchant, is building a big boat equipped with refrigeration etc which can be sent afar in the sea for a big haul of fish. Now the urge to move forward in life is so much for Hari that he wants to work for Biju at any cost. Ramu tells Hari “Oh, don’t work for Biju, Hari. You just said that he is a smuggler. He may turn you into a smuggler.” But Hari replies” Then I’ll be rich, like him,” Hari chuckled, “and buy you gold necklaces and silver toe rings.”. “ ….the police will catch you and put you in jail.” To all this Hari replies “Then they will take me to Bombay. At least I will go to Bombay.” [pg.44] There is another option in the village: the opening of a factory. Hari is prejudiced against it. Man’s worth is realized at the time of necessity. He firmly believes factory might not be a good option. He also speculates about the big boat of Biju. Somewhere the psychological burden of living and fending his family has instilled fortitude in him to move forward and do something for a better survival.

Time is a great preacher. Hari who lived in the shadow of his father now spreads his wings to save his family. He gradually takes the place of his father when the De Silva’s came for their summer vacations; it was Hari this time that fetched bread and grocery for them from the market. On the other hand Lila took the work of house care taker for the De Silva’s. Life endeavors to move on un trodden paths. Superstitions also plays galore in their life when Lila takes medicine from the man with a holy cow who gives some ash as medicine for the ailing mother.[ 77] This becomes the plight of a person who is dejected from life. Any recourse to improve it seems to be a good option.

Hari had silently heard the strange man from Alibagh. He said, “I have come from Alibagh to ask you to join us. We are all concerned in this matter…….Everyone of us is threatened. Our land is going to be taken away. Where we grow coconuts and good rice for our families, they want to build their factories. Our crops will be destroyed so that they their factories can come up instead. All the filth of their factories – for when you produce fertilizers, a lot of effluents are created which have to be disposed off –these will be dumped in the sea and will kill the fish for miles around. How will we live without our land, without the sea?” [95] This speech changed the thinking of the people around especially Hari. His idea of joining the boat of Biju for a job vanishes. Now he is in a dilemma whether to go with the group to Rewas to protest against the government’s opening of a factory in Thul or to join the factory for a job. Earlier he was in a confused state of mind whether to join Biju in his boat and enter into a job in the fishing business or should he move to Bombay? [99] The thought of going to Bombay attracted him.

At times a particular instance brings a dramatic change in a person’s life. This blow was received by Lila, Hari and all the family members when their dog, Pinto is poisoned to death just because Hari’s father was unable to repay a debt he had taken. It comes as a final blow to the already depressed state of mind of Hari. The longing of becoming free from the shackles of life urges human mind to move away from the present conditions of life. The same happened to Hari. When his dog Pinto was poisoned, he knew who did it. The frustration took a bearing on him. “Debt, debt, debt,’ Hari gnashed his teeth. “Father’s always in debt because of toddy.” He got up and turned away from the dead dog and his wailing sisters. He would get away. He would go to Rewas.[ 102] This is a pathetic plight when you are ready to leave the ones you love so much because you cannot help to change the existing situation. Man succumbs to the circumstances and reacts either by moving along that stream of dejection or throwing himself on unknown paths of life just as an escapist. When Hari comes to know of the death of his dog just because his father was unable to pay his debts , he just leaves his wailing sisters and dead dog to a place where he can be far away from all this. He just knew that he had to get away from his house. When he thought of all his troubles – his drunken father, Silva’s insult, the lack of work and money – Hari wished he too could soar up into the sky and disappear instead of being tied to the earth here, trudging round the temple which was not even a pretty one. [p.59]At times the psychological pressures of life can make you move away from your loved ones also.

Hari moves to Bombay without a planned future. He is so fed up with what life has to offer that the best recourse for him is to move to Bombay. In such circumstances a person is not able to make his thoughts understood. He does not want to explain his plight even to the people around him. He is so dejected by life that the love of those people he cherished also does not help him overcome his fears of survival. If we think that dejection is only for the people who are poor. That is a fallacy, because life does not pardon the rich too. It’s just a matter of time. Biju , who was thought to be a good business man with a big boat and very intelligent too, also seems to fail. His unbounded joy crashes to the ground when his boat fails to go into the deep waters of the sea to fulfill his dreams of success. [106] He is scoffed by those people around him, who were envious of his achievement of sailing his dream boat’ Jal Pari.’ But the psychic pressures do not burden him up. Biju also becomes the target of ridicule when his first attempt to launch his boat in the sea fails. Maybe he belongs to a class of the rich. He has the moral support of his riches. Unlike Hari the pressure of failure does not allow him to leave his work. He goes on striving day after day for the boat to move in the deep seas. Ultimately the boat ‘Jal Pari’ slides silently in the dark sea at night. He succeeds in his mission. Things move back to normal for everyone. The pressure of Biju is released by the boat sliding into the water: whereas the people of Thul calm down to see the success of Brij. [p.106]Hence making it clear that the pressures around life are not only from within but also from the people moving around you and observing you carefully.

On the other hand, the sisters of Hari reconcile to their fate. They start doing the work of Hari also. Lila cleans the house of de Silvas and does the routine household work for them. She goes to the market to buy vegetables and the other necessary things of the house hold. In return she gets some money, food, etc. This keeps her busy. She has very silently taken the guardianship of her family. The roles are reversed easily. Though Hari is missed by the family but life starts moving ahead at a smooth pace. The younger girls too forget the fish which was brought by Hari. They move ahead with the stark realities of life. They reconcile to what is being offered to them. Lila automatically realizes the needs of the family. Circumstances teach her to tackle the problems of her family in the best ways in which she can afford. Lila talks about her mother’s illness to de Silvas saying “She has been very ill for so long – she has grown very thin and weak. I don’t know what medicine to get for her. A doctor must see her. There is a hospital in Alibagh. I thought – I thought if you can take her there – and I’ll work for you – then the money you pay me – uh – that can pay for the doctor and the medicine.” [p.155] the hesitation shown in her dialogues is a clear indication that she is not used to take obligations. Her self- respect emerges from the fact that she does not want free treatment for her mother. She is ready to compensate for the bills of the doctor and hospital. Mr. de Silva accepts this exchange offer and admits her mother to a hospital in Alibagh. The hospital authorities promise to look after her providing her with fresh meals and clothes. No one is to stay with her. The nurse assures Lila, “Don’t look so frightened,” “We will look after her – we have very good doctors – you needn’t worry now.” But the inner emotions of a person never seem to die. On a superficial edge an impression is given that a person does not care for anyone but when time strikes its alert it is only then that a person emotes properly. So when Lila’s father finds out that his wife is missing from the house he panics. He throws all the things here and there when he realizes that his wife has been admitted to the hospital. He shouts, “How could you leave her alone? What if she needs something? What if she asks for me? Did you think of that?” Cook some food, quick – I will take it to her.” [p.159]He is not even bothered that it was late for leaving for Alibagh. Thus clearly indicating that emotions are an inherent part of human psyche and cannot be obliterated by the effects of ‘toddy.’ He stationed himself in the service of his wife and even left his toddy to be sober for her. So much so that when Lila went to visit her mother she couldn’t realize that actually her father was sitting and taking care of his wife, perhaps for the first time in life.

Hari moves on the ways shown by life. He enters Rewas with the help of a man in a bullock cart and then moves on to Bombay: his dreamland. He enters an alien city with just the address of de Silvas. To his dismay he finds that they had gone to Thul. He then starts working at a tea stall which is a type of a small road side restaurant. It is decided by the owner, Jaggu that Hari will get a small amount of money as well as food twice a day and he could sleep on the bench of the restaurant. He is happy with this condition. He works hard by serving tea to the people and washing dishes. He also feels happy to save money for his sisters. His longing to see them increases. He wants to collect money and go back to his native place where his loved ones reside. He now realizes the need of his family. He is now eager to learn how to repair watches too from Mr. Panwaala , his neighbor in the city who has a watch repair shop. He learns all what can help him to open his shop in Thul. Now Hari wants to go back to Thul for Diwali .He is overjoyed. It is wonderful to be able to choose what you wanted to do in life, and choose he would. [p.212] He collects his savings and goes back to his loved ones. He no more wants the city life about which he had dreamt of since his childhood. He goes back to his family where he is mesmerized by the joy and happiness he sees on the faces of his family members. His face lights up at the look of his parents. Time has changed everything, he thinks. He gets his mother discharged from the hospital and takes her back home. Now their father too has sobered .All of them start making plans for investing Hari’s money in a fruitful business.

Hence The Village by the Sea represents the psychological pressures of man due to the changes brought about in his life. Very truly Hari says to his friend towards the end of the novel ‘But Ramu, we have to change too, we shall have to become different as well.”[p.240].This is the lesson of life he learnt from his mentor Mr.Panwallah- “and if you want to survive, you will have to change too. The wheel turns and turns and turns; it never stops and stands still.” [p.210] Man at every stage of life is burdened by his psyche’ He tries to live a life free from hassles but is entangled in the mesh of nerves. The portrayal of each character of this novel clearly reveals the slow reconciliation to what life offers: be it good or bad. Very beautifully the writer Anita Desai has shown her prowess by revealing the psychological pressures of man’s life and his struggle for existence.


Desai, Anita. The Village by The Sea. London: Penguin, Puffin books, 2001.

  • Johnson, Frank. ‘Alienation : Overview and Introduction.’ In Alienation: Concept, Term and Meaning, FrankJohnson, ed. New York: Seminar Press, 1973, p. 4.
  • Pabby, D.K. ‘Alienation Versus Affirmation: Protagonists in Dilemma in the Novels of AnitaDesai.’ In The Fiction of Anita Desai, Vol I, Suman Bala and D.K. Pabby, eds. New Delhi:Khosla Publishing House, 2002, p.25


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