'Games at Twilight' is a book of short stories
by Anita Desai
(an Indian writer who is well respected in Western literary circles - not quite of Salman Rushdie
's calibre though): 'Games at Twilight' is also the name of one of the stories within it: if you haven't read the story, then a lot of the discussion below won't be of much use to you. If you have, however, then there are some interesting ideas
'Games at Twilight' is, as I see it, a story of contrasting emotions, with the protagonist Ravi, entering a phase in his growth that involves learning through experience, and the realisation of some bleak facts of life.
Desai opens the story with imagery that mirrors the contrasting sentiments. Elements of pathetic fallacy are used, with the humid, hot climate reflecting the simultaneous captivity and latency of the children. We are told, ‘Their faces were red and bloated with the effort, but their mother would not open the door … their lungs were stuffed with cotton wool.’ Immediately we realise their actions are controlled, and they have very little freedom at this stage. Through the dulled metallic colours Anita Desai uses, the enforced captivity does not appear as malign as it normally would, since there are always underlying images of energy and growth: ‘the birds still drooped, like dead fruit … a band of parrots suddenly fell out of the eucalyptus tree, tumbled frantically in the still, sizzling air.’
The images of stasis are broken by the streak of colours, and this mirrors the moment afterwards, as the children are released; yet the morbid imagery – ‘The outdoor dog lay stretched as if dead … some squirrels lay limp.’ – runs throughout the story, perhaps as a pre-echo to Ravi’s metaphorical death at the end. This adds a distinctly malign streak in the story. Furthermore, as Ravi enters the garage we are told, ‘It had a muffled smell, as of graves,’ and, ‘Except for the white-hot cracks along the floor, there was no light.’ The reference to the cracks appears to be a reference to hell, and the continuing morbid imagers leads me to believe that the garage functions as a memento mori; the death occurring metaphorically, of course. In addition to this, Desai uses the game of hide-and-seek to compare the children to predatory animals hunting for prey that raises a sinister aspect to these games. She's almost tring to signify that all childhood games have an underlying motive, and represent a part of human instinct. In the case of hide-and-seek, the game reveals humans’ natural desire for survival.
All this contrasts sharply with the transformation of the garden into an idyllic scene, with the use of Edenic imagery: ‘It would be evening soon … water would fall lavishly through the air to the ground, soaking the dry yellow grass and the red gravel and arousing the sweet, intoxicating scent of water on dry earth.’ This imagery also has a nostalgic tint to it, and perhaps this is designed to show the manner in which many look at heir own childhood; regardless of low-points, it seems like a peaceful, enjoyable time, when one is free from responsibilities. However, we see the same situation from the children’s point of view, and they see the very opposite, feeling cooped up and trapped. However, even while this scene is being describes, we are told, ‘Ravi wondered if it would not be better to be captured by Raghu and be returned to the milling crowd as long as he could be in the sun, the light … and the familiarity of his brothers, sisters and cousins.’ - he's always drawn back. It's like Freud's death-drive and life-drive - always torn to the opposite side.
Here is where the emotional conflict begins in earnest, with Ravi questioning the value of exerting his own identity, something he later decides outweighs being part of a group. He willingly undergoes the isolation in expectation of lone victory, and the suffering he takes illustrates the degree to which humans will suffer in return for glory. However, the imagery turns far bleaker as the evening progresses. ‘It grew darker in the shed,’ we are told, ‘as the light grew softer.’ Desai again using pathetic fallacy shows us this as the moment when the truth begins to set in for Ravi, and I find the situation very bleak; the underlying malign streak in the story finally rises, and ironically Ravi has indeed singled himself out, yet discovers the truth that the world moves on without him.