The three main characters are victims of patriarchy in different ways. Nanda Kaul has spent her life in a loveless but not childless life. Her husband loved a different woman, but that didn't stop him from expecting Nanda Kaul to bear and raise children and run his household. Raka regularly witnessed the abuse of her mother by her father and was thus traumatized in her childhood. Ila was left poverty-stricken after her brothers squandered all her family money. She is later raped and killed after she protests a child marriage. All these women are trying to find a way to live life on their own terms in a patriarchal society.
Aspects of the natural world describe the characters and provide context for what they are experiencing. For example, the women are compared to birds, Raka means "moon," and Raka is fascinated by fire, dust, and wildness. Elaine Yee Lin Ho notes that the characters seem to want to "return to nature, or to be transformed into part of the environment, to reintegrate the human self into the ecological system. However, in this desire, there is also paradoxically a death-wish, and it is through this death-wish that the text undermines the promise of Carignano."
Nanda Kaul never says as much to Raka, but she slowly begins to learn for a connection with her great-grandchild. She begins to concoct stories to engage her in conversation and even lies about her upbringing and marriage. Ila Das also yearns for Nanda Kaul and is revived after meeting her, but Nanda Kaul, who feels that she deserves solitude after years of following her responsibilities, doesn't return that feeling. Raka shies away from human connection, only trusting Ram Lal because he provides interest and security and asks nothing from her in return.
Memory can be ameliorative, as it is for Ila Das who recalls her salad days at the university, but it can also be terrible, as it is for Nanda Kaul and Raka. Nanda Kaul tries to repress her memories of her unhappy life as a wife and mother and live fully on her own terms. This leads her to repress more than she needs to and to hurt those for whom she actually cares. Memory for Raka is horrifying and traumatic, destroying her sense of self. It is something she wishes to escape and something she converts into a desire for destruction, oblivion, and purification.
Truth and Lies
Nanda Kaul tells herself numerous lies in order to mitigate her burdensome and painful past and, hopefully, to entice her great-granddaughter to become interested in her. The lies she tells Raka end up destroying what she was trying to create between the two of them (compare, for example, how well Raka receives the actual truth from Nanda Kaul regarding her mother's new hospitalization). Her lies do more harm than good to her own psyche, haunting her and dissociating truth and memory.
Nanda Kaul is happy to escape her former life of toil, self-abnegation, and mute acceptance of her role as wife and mother. At Carignano, she convinces herself that this is exactly what she wanted: exile, solitude, and independence. Though she did not choose to come here fully of her own volition, she does begin to ossify her thinking on what kind of life she wants, and it is fully separate from those of other people. Yet Nanda Kaul's exile is not truly enough for her, which is evinced in the way she begins to admire and even love Raka. It also leads to her to reject Ila Das's silent request to live with her in order to remain safe and secure, meaning that Ila Das's fate is a tragic one.
Perils of Motherhood
Desai depicts motherhood as something that can be problematic or perilous, using each character to make a comment on the subject. First, Ila Das is not a mother and is thus perceived to be a distasteful spinster. When she does engage in a nurturing role as a social worker, she is punished for it; this reveals that even when acting in a motherly capacity, the violent patriarchal system can still see fit to do as it pleases. Second, Raka's mother, Tara, has been rendered weak, impotent, and mentally and physically ravaged by her husband, so she cannot act as a strong mother for Raka. This is traumatic for Raka because she does not have a strong mother figure—and, of course, it is also traumatic for Tara, whose embodiment of the role of mother does not preclude her from experiencing violence. Third, Nanda Kaul is a mother who does not really enjoy being one. Children were exhausting and unsatisfying to her, and she only wished to live her own life on her own terms. All of these examples suggest that motherhood is not a paradise, nor perhaps a natural role, nor even something that offers safety and solace.
Fire on the Mountain Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fire on the Mountain is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Raka is left to Nanda after her parents, an abusive father and oppressed mother, move to Geneva while she is still sickly after having recovered from Typhoid. She is unlike other children and instead of looking for company of other children, finds...