The title of Desai’s story is a resonant indicator of the nature of the narrative. On the one hand, it is completely literal, but it also pulls together the innocent freedom associated with ‘games’ and the metaphoric suggestions of death in ‘twilight’. That uneasy balance of life and death and the underpinning sense of mortality even in youth pervade the entire story.
The Hot Afternoon
The opening is powerfully atmospheric, building the heat of an Indian late afternoon – ‘too hot’ appears in the first sentence and the punchy short sentences ‘It was too hot. Too bright’ are in the opening of the second paragraph. Desai uses metallic metaphors frequently to emphasise the heat and the effects are made clear with the description of the animals: birds ‘drooped’, ‘squirrels lay limp’ and the dog cannot successfully ‘lift his tail in a wag’. The air is ‘sizzling’. Even the simile used for the children’s explosion into the garden adds to the picture – ‘they burst out like seeds from a crackling, over-ripe pod’.
Desai conveys the vibrancy of the children is by mixing narrative description with snatches of dialogue, which are often unfinished, left with a dash, showing both the interruptions and the inconsequentiality of the children’s complaints and arguments. Individual children are quickly characterised – the ‘motherly Mira’ bossing the others firmly, indicated by verbs such as ‘pulled’, ‘shouted’ and ‘pushing’. Raghu is uncooperative, as he ‘immediately started to protest’, but also a bully, who calls others ‘idiot’ and kicks them. Manu is small and feeble, ‘chewing his finger and close to tears’.
Ravi and the Shed
Ravi too is portrayed as a small under-confident boy, first seen finding comfort in picking his nose. His entry into the story is delayed until the fourth paragraph, but from then on he dominates and the third person narrative focalises his perspective. Despite his sense of inadequacy, he seeks refuge in the mysterious shed, surprised ‘at his own temerity’. His speed of entry is conveyed by the verb and sibilance of ‘suddenly slipped’.
The shed is skilfully presented, as Desai combines realistic details, Ravi’s perception and imagery. The details of such items as ‘old wardrobes, broken buckets and bedsteads’ and ‘an old bathtub’ are convincing contents for such an outbuilding, while Ravi’s sense of fear and disgust is apparent in the smells ‘of rats, ant hills, dust and spider webs’ and his fear of ‘less definable, less recognisable horrors’. This combination allows the reader simultaneously to appreciate the reality of the shed with Ravi’s exaggerated sense of its dangers.
His gradual relaxation as he sits for ‘hours’, the hyperbole again reflecting Ravi’s mind, allows the reader too to forget the game of hide and seek, which recedes from the story. Just as Desai described the gradual outlining of ‘the large solid shapes’ in the shed as Ravi’s eyes get used to the dim interior, she shows the passage of time by the slow loss of that definition as the light ‘grew softer, fuzzier’ before the two tiny sentence fragments: ‘Evening. Twilight.’
Encouraging the reader, like Ravi, to dwell on the details of the shed and forget about the game, is a crucial part of Desai’s technique as the reader shares his sudden realisation. Even as he remembers, he knows his failure. While he ‘burst’ from the shed, the verb portraying his pent-up energy, he does so ‘With a whimper’, showing his sense of defeat. Even as his language claims victory – ‘I won, I won, I won’ – his behaviour – ‘bawled, shaking his head so that the big tears flew’ – signals his knowledge of failure. In fact, he has become an irrelevance, as the other children ‘had quite forgotten him.’ Desai lists the activities the children have completed in Ravi’s absence, accentuated by the sentences becoming phrases. Poignantly, Ravi feels the ‘ignominy of being forgotten’ and ends the story with ‘a terrible sense of his insignificance.’
Imagery of Death
Desai equates the insignificance that Ravi feels with the final insignificance of death. While in the shed, he has, in a metaphoric way, died, the ripples of the children’s lives have stilled over him and he has been forgotten. The closing of the story makes this association explicit, as Ravi himself feels that he ‘had wanted victory and triumph, not a funeral.’ And in the twilight, the dying of the day, the children sing a song with the melancholy refrain ‘When I am dead, dead, dead, dead…’
Desai prepares the reader for this association all the way from the title, as discussed in the first paragraph. Imagery of death subtly seeps through the entire story. While the ‘squirrels lay limp’ in the heat, the birds droop ‘like dead fruit’ and the dog ‘stretched as if dead’. Raghu tells Manu ‘You’re dead’, while the metaphor ‘depressing mortuary’ is used to describe the shed where Ravi hides. His withdrawal from life in that shed, surrounded by derelict furniture, dust and small creatures, is presented as inhabiting a mausoleum. The declining light is described almost as a decaying, moving from ‘a kind of crumbling yellow pollen’ to ‘yellow fur, blue fur, grey fur.’
Ravi’s flood of ‘tears and misery’ is a response to his failure in the game, but it is also a product of the first sense of his own human mortality.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Focalised third person narration
- Descriptive writing
- Lexical and metaphoric field