Desai, Boman 1950-
DESAI, Boman 1950-
PERSONAL: Born March 4, 1950, in Bombay, India; son of Phiroz Desai (a civil engineer) and Vera Saklatvala (a piano teacher); married Marsha Lynne Dixon, September, 1972 (divorced, September, 1976). Education: Attended Illinois Institute of Technology, 1969-71, and Bloomsburg State College, 1971-72; University of Illinois—Chicago Circle, B.A., 1977. Politics: "Personal." Religion: "Personal."
ADDRESSES: Home—567 West Stratford, No. 305, Chicago, IL 60657.
CAREER: Writer. Worked variously as a musician, farmhand, bartender, dishwasher, bookstore clerk, telephone operator and interviewer, demographics researcher for market analysis, secretary, teacher, and auditor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Short story prize, Stand magazine, 1989, for "A Fine Madness"; Illinois Arts Council award, 1990, for "Under the Moon."
The Memory of Elephants (novel), Deutsch (London, England), 1988, revised edition, HarperCollins (India), 2000, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.
Asylum (novel), HarperCollins (India), 2000.
Also contributor of short stories, essays, and articles to periodicals, including Chicago, Chicago Tribune, Debonair, Sonora Review, Stand, Times of India, Vox, and Weber Studies Journal.
SIDELIGHTS: Boman Desai once told CA that his novel, The Memory of Elephants, "is an account of the personal and collective remembrances of a whiz kid from Bombay, Homi Seervai, who comes to America to study how memories become encoded in the brain. Everything goes according to plan until he falls in love with an American woman who dumps him after their first night together. Homi's research is advanced enough to allow him to build a 'memoscan' with which he can reactivate the memory of his only night with his lover—which he does ad infinitum. Unfortunately, the machine malfunctions, and as it slips from his personal memory into his Collective Unconscious (the memory of Mankind), Homi slips into a coma during which he becomes a voyeur to the history of his family dating back to the late nineteenth century, and of his race dating back to the seventh century in Iran, the Parsis, who fled to India from the first conquering armies of the Arabs."
Desai continued: "There is a basis in fact for the reproduction of memories as indicated in the novel. During the early 1950s, Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon, conducted research on epileptics. He administered a local anesthetic to his patients, peeled back their scalps, and probed their exposed brains with electrodes. By asking his patients what they felt after each probe he was able to locate the areas of the brain that corresponded to various motor functions, movements of toes, elbows, eyelids, et cetera. He was also able to locate the ridge of tissue corresponding to an epileptic fit, and by removing it to cure or greatly improve the condition of the epileptic in seventy-five percent of the cases. More importantly (from the perspective of my novel), he was able to establish a link with memory. During one of the probes, a middle-aged housewife from New Jersey exclaimed that she was giving birth to her first child all over again, and proceeded to report, vividly, the sights and sounds and smells of the delivery room as if the events were taking place again before her eyes. During another probe, a young woman found herself in the living room of the house in which she had grown up, the march from Aida playing on the phonograph; when Dr. Penfield removed the probe the music stopped, when he applied it the music started again."
Desai's use of this technique from science and psychology for his artistic purposes results, according to Lynda Schrecengost in Contemporary Novelists, in a novel "grounded in history, both panoramic and intimate . . . a visually evocative story chiefly concerned with memory—collective, personal, and perceived." Schrecengost believed (unlike New York Times Book Review contributor Barbara Finkelstein, who found the memoscan, "a device whose artificiality seems to inhibit the story rather than inspire it") Desai's use of the invention "enhances the omniscience of the omniscient narrator." It allows the narrator another way into characters who are not his contemporaries, people from the distant past who are, however, linked through a family tie. "The various characters are deftly sketched, and not only do they come alive with distinct personalities but some will remain memorable," wrote Pratapaditya Pal in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. And, in the view of Homai Shroff of the Indian Post, Desai creates "a variety of strikingly life-like characters, drawn with a warm feeling of kinship, yet with much humour, and often with a penetratingly satirical observation, [giving] the novel a vibrant sense of reality."
All the same, Schrecengost suggested that Desai captures more than a series of genealogical sketches. She noted, "With these and many other familial trysts as backdrops, the author is able to explore far deeper issues: the definition of the self in a colonialized culture . . . the strange contradiction of an India that is culturally chauvinistic yet submissive in its relation to England; and the freeing and fearsome aspects to being foreign, inside and outside of one's own culture." The reviewer added that, by having his character obsess on the memory of his lost love, instead of one of the great mysteries of life, Desai highlights an aspect of human nature. "It is a nice touch on the author's part to suggest that it is a peculiar propensity of humans to shun the profoundly wise in favor of the emotionally and egotistically persuasive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Indian Post (Bombay, India), December 18, 1988, Homai Shroff, review of The Memory of Elephants.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, Pratapaditya Pal, review of The Memory of Elephants.
New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1990, Lynda Schrecengost, review of The Memory of Elephants, p. 20.
World Literature Today, summer-autumn, 2002, A. L. McLeod, review of The Memory of Elephants, p. 88.