The Village By The Sea, an award-winning novel by the prolific Indian author Anita Desai, is a heartwarming, life-enriching story. Written with a simple sensibility, the novel offers readers a glimpse into the complexities faced by an impoverished family in a small Indian village. This ingenious, inspiring work of fiction has touched the hearts of millions, including mine.
The story is set in a small fishing village, Thul on the western coast of India, some 14 kilometers away from metropolitan Bombay, now Mumbai. In the beginning of the book, Desai mentions that the story is based entirely on fact, as she visited Thul during weekends with her family. Her characters are based on people living in the village. There are certain words in the native Indian language in the novel, which may be unfamiliar to young English readers, and Desai has provided a glossary.
The main characters of the story are Lila and Hari, two siblings in a family struggling to make ends meet. Lila is 13 and Hari is a year younger. They have to shoulder the responsibilities in order to survive the harsh realities of their family's bleak financial situation. With their mother chronically ill and their alcoholic father, they have to earn money to run the household and educate their two younger sisters. As a result, both Hari and Lila have given up their studies.
Life is miserable for them. Lila has only a few days of work as a servant and Hari works a small plot of land to grow crops. The crops never yield enough food for them and his small fishing net never catches enough fish to fill the stomachs of his family. Hari is strong and wants to get a better job but he cannot tolerate the turmoil of his family. He runs away to Bombay, known as "The City of Dreams," without telling his family, leaving Lila to manage things on her own. The way the siblings make their way through this story and their grinding poverty is remarkable!
Desai brings Thul to life with subtle and vivid imagery. The vibrant descriptions help the reader delve right into the book and reach the place metaphorically. Don't read this book just for the amazing storyline. Read it for the "scarlet hibiscus blossoms," the "sweet-smelling spider lilies," the "bright, butter-yellow allamanda flowers." Read it for the exotic species of birds -- the curlews and sandpipers, herons and kingfishers, swooping to catch glistening fish in the "whispering waves." Desai describes the hue of the ocean from coffee to peacock blue to emerald green. The reader is awed by the beauty sculpted in nature's mould.
The only drawback I found was the lack of tension in the first half of the book. The story proceeds quite slowly in its initial phase. But as you reach the second part, the story picks up and you won't want to close the book until the last page is turned. I became personally involved in the story and could even feel my presence in Thul. I could feel the "salty tang" of the wind and the freshness of the waves. A good book like this takes you straight to the scene of the story and makes you feel like one of the characters. What more can a reader ask for?
The book is not only to be read as a beautiful literary work, or for pleasure, but for inspiration. One has to accept the challenges of life and strive to meet them with dignity. This book is about how Hari and Lila rise above their struggles and emerge victorious in their quest for survival.
The characters are well drawn. Hari represents hard work and determination; his moral fiber streaked with emotion. Lila is poised, patient, and tolerant. The story of their struggles and their indomitable spirit is inspiring to those in similar circumstances and sure to regenerate lost willpower and offer hope. The book is very well written and aroused my emotions; it made me feel sympathy towards all of the characters. I cried about their struggles and pains, laughed and rejoiced for their progress and gains.
An important message the book conveys is the need for change for the better. Our surroundings and environment are constantly changing and we must adapt our outlook accordingly. We have to broaden our vistas in order to progress. As Heraclitus once said, "Change is the only constant." There is one wonderful line from the novel regarding the same idea, "The wheel turns and turns and turns; it never stops and stands still."
Desai's writing style is pure and passionate. Her stories are straight from the heart. They contain the flavor of the soil, and acquaint readers with Indian culture and traditions. I think readers from most age groups will enjoy this novel. It is beautifully written, intricately woven, and replete with creativity. Anita Desai has given us a literary gem. She truly deserved the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, which she received in 1983. Kudos to her!
This article first appeared on KidSpirit Online.