Journey to Ithaca:a Journey of Enlightenment

Abstract: A writer of selected diasporas, Anita Desai traverses the cultural milieu in an attempt to discover the psyche of a woman whom others call ‘Mother’ giving a hitherto unknown version to wandering in her Journey to Ithaca. This latest work of Anita Desai has had immense influence worldwide.

Keywords: Indian experience, spirituality, search of self, rites of initiation: separation-transition-re-incorporation

The latest addition to Anita Desai’s collection Journey to Ithaca has tremendous impact on the fast moving, globetrotting generation the world over. A writer of selected diasporas, Anita Desai traverses the cultural milieu in an attempt to discover the psyche of a woman whom others call ‘Mother’ giving a hitherto unknown version to wandering.

In Indian culture wandering for Enlightenment is an accepted norm for men. Young men, middle aged ones, older ones all leaving the warmth of the home and hearth in search of Self. This search is tinged with a restlessness of spirit and body and the unrest brings with it dissatisfaction. The soul of such a person will find true satisfaction only at the end of the journey. It has become a part of life for an Indian. In the west such wanderings are almost unknown. But Herman Hesse in his Siddhartha wrote about Gautama Buddha for the western audience.

Knut Hanson’s The Wanderer is yet another form of wandering which cannot be called spiritual but still enlightening. In these fictional writings the wanderer is a man. Very rarely do one come across the woman as a wanderer. Still the notion of wandering must have been there at all times in women also.

In Journey to Ithaca Matteo and Sophie form a couple with his inward looking personality and her extrovert nature. Sophie the journalist finds something quaint about Matteo and gets married to him before they embark on their trip to India in search of enlightenment. Since both come from strong bonded families, Sophie’s richer than Matteo’s, it was no problem for them to start their journey. The sceptic Sophie and the spritual Matteo go from one Guru to another in the heat, dust and rains of India. The Mother appears only much later. It is when they reach the ashram of the Mother that Sophie falls ill and is removed to a hospital. Matteo wants to remain in the ashram since he was so excited about this particular ashram where the inmates all appeared to be happy, peaceful and hardworking. Instead of meditation and prayers all the time the Mother insisted on occupying the mind and body of all the inmates. To this end she finds work for each of them as suited their nature. To Matteo also, who is concerned only with the spiritual while totally abandoning the realistic aspects, the Mother finds work. One who had done no work to earn a livelihood, Matteo balks at first but finally conforms. What Matteo’s father and Sophie had failed to achieve was achieved by the Mother.

Matteo has his own explanation for this change:

[…]Father would make me work so I could become self supporting, or so that I could take over the business from him. Father would expect me to want a big salary, a car, all that junk. But the Mother doesn’t make me work for anything. She teaches us to work without desiring the fruit from that work. Isn’t that a higher way of life? (125)

Sophie, who realiised that she is pregnant do not want to go back to the ashram but reluctantly had to accept the inevitable. The couple were given a separate cottage to live where Matteo returned after the days’ work and Sophie spent time in boredom. Two children and a few years later Sophie chaffed at the restrictions of the ashram and the Mother’s influence on Matteo and put forward to her husband the idea of returning to the west. To Matteo it was unthinkable especially when finally he found what he had been searching for all his life. It was impossible to return to the materialistic life. The thread of love that bound them together was often strained. When Sophie and their children returned to her house, Matteo seemed relived.

In Indian culture there are many types of rituals involving different aspects. The rites of these are almost similar though occasions may differ. The rites of initiation has three stages: ‘separation’, ’transition’ and ‘re- incorporation’. Sophie, inadvertly, is being initiated into the search; the search for the background of the Mother. The rituals that involve initiation demand that the individual change their state of life or states. This state is often symboliised by a change of place. Sophie, leaving India for her home can be regarded as in a state of separation. Away from Matteo and marital problems, she gets time to think about her future, their future. Comforted by the presence of things familiar and also by her parents, Sophie ruminates over her life with Matteo. This was also a time to lick the wounds and be healed in the body. She realiises that inner healing will take place only much later. After this peace comes a desire to know the part of the Mother who was a dancer in her former life. The partying and globe-trotting for Sophie begins here. This is also the time when she realises that she is not like other women of the modern times who indulge in casual sexual affairs. Some inner respectability forbids her from taking up such indulgences which had become common to the western world. She confronts fake spirituality when she realises that to some her Indian experience is that which fascinates since they had the notion that they can go to India with Sophie. Abruptly she drops such friendships, but the experience made her think of Matteo who was truly spiritual.

[…]Her life with Matteo had spoilt her for life with man like this Paolo; it was no longer possible. The day he suggested they travel together to India- ‘we could visit your husband at the ashram, give him a surprise-think of it!’- she spat at him, ‘You? You are not fit to even enter his presence. He-he is a God-‘and got into her car, aghast at what she had blurted out, drove off and did not return. (155)

The separation or going away leads to a seclusion which is a transition. To Sophie life had almost returned to normal but the journalist in her life felt restless. The children and the grandparents seemed to be getting on alright. It is time to verify certain facts and she sets out to do that. The narration is present/past mode with the reader getting glimpses of the young Laila, the Mother in her former life, and Sophie side by side. She meets people, holds interviews and like an expert sleuth traverses the path travelled by the Mother years ago. In her search for truth Sophie was secluded from everything else. The excitement of the search compensates for sexual gratification and young Laila seemed elusive, just beyond her reach. The pluralistic, complex culture of Europe almost sucks her into its vortex. The dance troop of Laila was yet another cultural conglomeration with the orient and the occident. The strands of truth, fiction and reality all seemed to be woven into one colourful mattress of story telling. To separate each will be impossible. Sophie tries but fails miserably. As if in a dream haze she is propelled forward, moving towards her destiny.

To Sophie it is inevitable that the journey should end with a solution. Her sudden decision to return to India was a surprise to the family. The journey back is quick and decisive. The re-incorporation, the final stage of the ritual is awaiting her. Armed and filled with the knowledge of the Mother’s past Sophie wanted to confront the woman. How or when it will be was still uncertain. But the lifeless, grief- stricken atmosphere of the ashram was not what she had envisaged on landing India; faced with the reality of the Mother’s death and the disciples’ weeping like children, Sophie searches the crowd for Matteo. The need to meet him is urgent; the meeting was like a re-union of lost souls finding anchor in each other.

The return of Sophie and her re-union with Matteo is the answer to questions innumerable; may be helped out by the Mother. Like any marriage between two personalities, theirs too refused to be subservient. Hence the clash. But the Mother was teaching something through her life-that the true devotion to the one you yearn for is the bliss. It will never be a clash. The journey is now complete. The search and the research has become one. The Mother and Sophie are like shadow and substance, inseparable, complementing each other. Anita Desai had taken the initiative to portray the journey of a woman, the soul searching as the theme of the novel with the back drop of multiculturalism.


Bhatnagar and Rajeshwar(ed).The Novels of Anita Desai. Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2000.

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.

Desai, Anita. Journey to Ithaca. London: Vintage, 2001.

Chattopadhyaya, Deviprasad. Indian Philosophy. 1964, Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 2007.

Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. U. K.: Vintage, 2001. Eco, Umberto.Faith in Fakes. U. K.: Vintage, 1986.

Hamsun, Knut. The Wanderer. 1975. London: Condor Books, 2001.

Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Hilda Rosner (ed),1951. Bantam Books, N.Y., 1971.

Prasad, Amar Nath. Indian Writing in English: Critical Explorations. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2002.

Singh, R. A.Existential Characters of Arun Joshi and Anita Desai. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot,1991.


SHERLY M.D. Is a Reader at Vimala College, Thrissur.

Default image
Is a Reader at Vimala College, Thrissur.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124