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Review of "Rosarita" by Anita Desai: A Haunting Tale of Family Bonds & Betrayals

Review of “Rosarita” by Anita Desai: A Haunting Tale of Family Bonds & Betrayals
Sketches of Mexico, in Rosarita. Photograph: Rawfile Redux/Getty Images

Anita Desai’s riddling and haunted new novel begins when Bonita, a young Indian woman, encounters an enigmatic figure in a park in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Bonita, a student immersed in Spanish, is engrossed in local newspapers when she is approached. This “Stranger” – an elderly woman dressed extravagantly in festive Mexican attire – claims to know Bonita’s deceased mother, whom she calls “Rosarita.” She asserts that they met and bonded when Bonita’s mother pursued art under Mexican maestros.

Bonita, however, has no memories of her mother painting or visiting Mexico. The only clue she recalls is a sketch in pale pastels, depicting a woman sitting on a park bench with a child playing at her feet, a picture that once hung above her bed. The woman and the child appear disconnected, underlying a theme of separation and silence.

Written in the second person, the novel delves into the emotional distance between a parent and child, using the forgotten sketch to explore the fragility of memory and the blurred lines between past and present. Bonita is left with little information about the sketch’s origin or creator. Reflecting on her past, she remembers the period when her mother was absent, and she was sent to live with her grandparents in Old Delhi. Her memories center around her paternal grandmother, a dutiful homemaker subservient to a domineering husband. This familial dynamic shapes Bonita’s view of her own mother, whom she sees as an unwilling martyr to domestic life.

Fuelled by a desire to escape a similar fate, Bonita later chooses to study languages – French, Portuguese, and Spanish – as a means to travel and explore the world.

Desai writes incisively about family dynamics, tradition, gender roles, and personal autonomy. The novel’s most gripping segment recounts Bonita’s understanding of her mother’s decision to move to Mexico. This narrative is more speculative than factual, starting with a transformative lecture that draws parallels between Indian partition art and the Mexican revolution. Confronted with haunting images of violence, Bonita’s mother feels a deep, ancestral wound reopened, linked to her family’s possibly harrowing experience during the partition of India.

Bonita imagines her mother’s journey to study Mexican art as a bold defiance of familial and societal expectations.

Stirred by the stranger’s tales, Bonita becomes increasingly convinced of their truth. She embarks on an emotional quest with the stranger, “the Trickster”, through Mexico. They visit locations where her mother supposedly lived and studied, each visit laced with gothic mystery and suspense. As the Trickster’s stories grow increasingly fantastical, the novel blends elements of fable and folklore.

Desai, now in her 80s and celebrated for her lyrical writing and nuanced storytelling, delivers a profound exploration of human experience and identity in “Rosarita.” This novel is a testament to Desai’s enduring literary genius and a reminder of literature’s capacity to probe into the depths of our minds and lives. It questions whether we can ever truly understand another person’s life.

Source: The Guardian