What develops is an odd, darkly comic parable of cultural imperialism. How much better, Prema imagines, this indigenous writer will be once her homely stories have felt the benefit of a more sophisticated hand. “I laughed out loud and struck my forehead with my hand,” she says. “I had never felt such power, never had such power, such joy in power. . . .My translation was an uncovering, a revealing of what had been buried, concealed in her work. In a way, you could say I was the writer.”
Feel the cringe-inducing irony? The whole story stings with that uncomfortable sensation. Prema’s hiccups of self-aggrandizement and despair manage to excite our sympathy and our revulsion, not to mention the horror that we might be seeing ourselves all too clearly. Indeed, Desai takes a certain perverse pleasure in exposing the self-pity of mediocre people; if Anita Brookner were a little meaner, she might write like this. But the story darts and feints in ways that make its point of view difficult to pin down. Politically correct left-wingers defending indigenous purity feel the heat of her satire, as do conservatives who mutter that “all this pandering to the Muslim minority, hadn’t it gone too far?” What remains out of reach, though, is the real artist, that elderly, indigenous writer whom Prema thought she would bring to the world.