Anita Desai (born 1937) has been touted by British Writers' A. Michael Matin as "one of the preeminent contemporary Indian novelists," even referred to by many as the Mother of the Indian psychological novel genre. Her meticulous depictions of modern Indian life, combined with an elevated level of linguistic skill that frequently enters the poetic realm, have secured her a place of honor in the pantheon of Indian authors.
Anita Desai was born on June 24, 1937, in the hill station of Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, India. She was one of four children: she had a brother and two sisters, all raised in what was a British colony in their youth. Desai's father D.N. Mazumdar was a Bengali engineer. Her mother, Toni Nimé, was German and met Mazumdar in Germany, then emigrated to India in the 1920s. Desai has said that it was exposure to her mother's European core that allowed her to experience India as both an insider, and an outsider. Although Desai was formally educated in English, she was raised speaking both Hindi and German in her home in Old Delhi. She attributes some of the diversity of her fictional characters to having lived among a mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian neighbors while growing up.
In the 1996 Contemporary Novelists, Desai revealed to critic Bruce King that she began writing early, saying, "I have been writing since the age of seven, as instinctively as I breathe." At the age of nine, she began her publishing career when a submission she made to an American children's magazine was accepted and published. At the age of ten, Desai had a life–changing experience as she watched her society ripped apart by the violence born of the Hindu–Muslim conflict during the division of British India into the nations of India and Pakistan. Her Muslim classmates and friends disappeared without explaination, all of them fleeing from Hindu violence. British Writers' Matin described how the "stupefying bloodshed and violence . . . erupt[ing] from the dream of independence" informed the tone of her early fiction.
Desai's formal education was in the English language, and her writing was always in English as a result. She attended British grammar schools, then Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in New Delhi. She was accepted at Miranda House, an elite women's college in Delhi, and in 1957 at the age of 20 she received a B.A. with Honors in English Literature from Delhi University. Already hard on the heels of her dream of being a writer, she published her first short story the same year she graduated, in 1957. Desai continued to compose and publish short fiction, working for a year in Calcutta and marrying business executive Ashvin Desai on December 13, 1958. They had four children, sons Rahul and Arjun, and daughters Tani and Kiran.
Life as a Writer
While raising her children, Desai maintained her efforts as an author, and completed her early novels while her family grew. The Desais lived in Calcutta from 1958 to 1962, then moved to Bombay, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Poona. Each new location provided an additional rich back–drop for the young author's fiction. Desai became a freelance writer in 1963, and has retained this as her occupation ever since. She addressed her craft in the King interview, "[Writing] is a necessity to me: I find it is in the process of writing that I am able to think, to feel, and to realize at the highest pitch. Writing is to me a process of discovering the truth."
Desai contributed to various prestigious literary publications, including the New York Times Book Review, London Magazine, Harper's Bazaar and Quest. Her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), was published when she was 26 years old. In 1965 she published her second novel, Voices in the City, which revealed Calcutta as seen by a group of aristocratic siblings, and she left India for the first time to visit England. While in Europe, Desai gathered material for her third novel, Bye–Bye, Blackbird (1971). She directed her focus inward, experimenting with both content and form. 1974 saw the release of her first attempt at juvenile literature, The Peacock Garden, and the next two years yielded another adult novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), followed by another juvenile venture titled Cat on a Houseboat (1976).
Although her first three adult novels were not favorably reviewed, her later work garnered growing attention for what the 1999 Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century critic Janet Powers refered to as "a sensitivity to subtle emotions and family reverberations . . . [an] intuitive awareness [that] emanates from a distinctly feminine sensibility." Her next three adult novels gained her international recognition. Her 1977 novel, Fire on the Mountain, featured three female protagonists each subdued or damaged in some way coming to terms with how place effects their realities. In 1978 she published Games at Twilight, a collection of short stories and the 1980 novel Clear Light of Day, a study of Delhi that combines fiction with history to explore the lives of a middle–class Hindu family. In 1982, she released another children's piece titled The Village by the Sea, followed two years later by another adult novel, In Custody (1984).
Desai entered the scholarly world in a position as the Helen Cam Visiting Fellow at Girton College in Cambridge University, England from 1986 to 1987. She came to the United States in 1987 and served as an Elizabeth Drew Professor at Smith College from 1987 to 1988 and a Purington Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College from 1988 to 1993. In 1988 she wrote another novel, Baumgartner's Bombay, and by 1989 her status as a significant postcolonial novelist had been cemented in literary circles. Fame, however, appeared far off due to the post–1947 prejudice against Anglophone literature, particularly that written by female authors. In 1993 Desai took as post as Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has remained there ever since.
In 1992, Desai's children's book The Village by the Sea was adapted and filmed as a six–part miniseries by the BBC, and in 1993 she co–authored an adaptation of her novel In Custody that was filmed by Merchant–Ivory and released in 1994. Desai wrote two more novels—Journey to Ithaca (1995) and Fasting, Feasting (1999)—and one more short story collection, Diamond Dust (2000).
Despite the fact that Desai does not view herself as a political writer, her social commentary is considered to be powerfully and accurately rendered in her fiction. Her use of image and symbol is sophisticated, and Contemporary Authors critic Anthony Thwaite points out that thanks to her mastery of the literary image, "she is such a consummate artist that she [is able to suggest], beyond the confines of the plot and the machinations of her characters, the immensities that lie beyond them—the immensities of India." It is British Writers A. Michael Matin's belief that this focus on the poetic language—one of Desai's hallmarks—has resulted in a decided lack of critical treatment of her work as a postcolonial author, because critics find her style to be Eurocentric rather than traditionally Indian in nature. Matin hopes that future scholarship will grant Desai the place she deserves among the postcolonial greats.
Contemporary Novelists' King identifies two types of Desai novels: those about "what men do," and those about "what women feel." The Bloomsbury Guide further supports this by defining Desai's fiction as novels that "frequently depict the attempts of urban middle–class women to harmonize the needs of the self with the demands traditionally made of Indian women by the family, caste, and society." The connection between family members, and the way the cultural experience of Indian women in particular affects those connections emerges as a recurring theme in Desai's work as she deals with contemporary Indian life, culture clashes between the East and the West, generational differences, and practical and emotional exile.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century's Powers identifies a frequent female character type in Desai's fiction, "a newly heroic and thoroughly modern model of the saintly Indian woman. Those qualities that enabled the traditional woman to survive in an arranged marriage are those of Desai's independent woman, who is autonomous, yet bound up with caring for others." Powers believes that "although Desai offers negative examples of women unable to realize their own needs because of oppression by traditional customs, she also presents the difficulties faced by newly liberated women in giving their lives purpose. The feminist message, that women are senselessly harmed by denial of opportunities for self–realization, comes through loud and clear; but so does the question of what an independent woman's identity might be." In an essay titled "Indian Women Writers," Desai stated that "criticism is an acquired faculty," and that Indian women have always been discouraged "from harboring what is potentially so dangerous." Desai's own work uses a sharp eye to address the changes that have complicated Indian society since independence in 1947, and the trouble outsiders face when trying to grasp the intricacies of Indian culture. Powers feels that, "read chronologically, Desai's novels demonstrate her constant experimentation and progressive maturation as a writer," treating issues like "the emotional poverty of the liberated woman," and "the demise of a rich cultural tradition."
Desai's descriptive skill is widely acclaimed by critics, despite disagreement regarding her content. Contemporary Authors critic Pearl Bell states that although Desai's "novels are quite short. . . . they convey a sharply detailed sense of the tangled complexities of Indian society, and an intimate view of the tug and pull of Indian family life." Contemporary Authors reviewer A.G. Mojtabai agrees, noting that Desai's novels "delineate characters, settings, and feelings intricately, yet economically, without extraneous detail or excessively populated scenes. Properly observed, a roomful of people is crowd enough, and in the right hands—as Anita Desai so amply illustrates—world enough." Her "elegant" and "lucid" novels have enjoyed a broad audience outside her native India, a reality that has exposed more people to her unique view, but perhaps deterred her ascension to the top of the Indian literary realm.
True Measure of Success
Desai, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaches writing at MIT has been appointed to various literary offices. She was a member of the Advisory Board for English at Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi from 1975 to 1980, and a member of the National Academy of Letters, as well as becoming a Fellow for the Royal Society of Literature in England in 1978. She was appointed Honorary Fellow for the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has produced three well–liked children's books, an unusual feat for an Indian author of her caliber.
As Desai explained to Contemporary Novelists' King, it is writing's ability to "[enable] her to think and feel and discover truth" that has driven her to such creative height and depth. She explained that all her writing is "an effort to discover, to underline and convey the true significance of things. That is why, in my novels, small objects, passing moods and attitudes acquire a large importance . . . One hopes, at the end of one's career, to have made some significant statement on life—not necessarily a water–tight, hard–and–fast set of rules, but preferably an ambiguous, elastic, shifting, and kinetic one that remains always capable of further change and growth." British Writers' Matin maintains that if one wishes to measure Desai's true achievement, they "must look beyond those books that bear her own name on the title page" and take note of the score of current Indian Anglophile authors who have enjoyed success as a direct result of Desai's struggle to be heard.
Buck, Claire, The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1992.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol 95, Gale Group, Inc., 2001.
Contemporary Novelists, Sixth Edition, St. James Press, 1996.
Crystal, David, The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Drabble, Margaret, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol 1:A-D, St. James Press, 1999.
The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press, 1990.
The International Authors and Writers Who's Who, Thirteenth Edition, Melrose Press, Ltd., 1993.
Literature Lover's Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 2001.
Matin, A. Michael, British Writers, Supplement V, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
Murphy, Bruce, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1996.
Ousby, Ian, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Steinberg, S.H., Cassell's Encyclopaedia of World Literature, Vol Two, Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1973.
Uglow, Jennifer, The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography, New Expanded Edition, Continuum Publishing Co., 1989.
"Desai, Anita." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/desai-anita
"Desai, Anita." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/desai-anita
Nationality: Indian. Born: Anita Mazumbar, Mussoorie, 24 June 1937. Education: Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School, New Delhi; Miranda House, University of Delhi, B.A. (honours) in English literature 1957. Family: Married Ashvin Desai in 1958; two sons and two daughters. Career: Since 1963 writer; Purington Professor of English, Mount Holyoke College, 1988-93; professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993—. Helen Cam Visiting Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge, 1986-87; Elizabeth Drew Professor, Smith College, 1987-88; Ashby Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1989. Since 1972 member of the Sahitya Academy English Board. Awards: Royal Society of Literature Winifred Holtby prize, 1978; Sahitya Academy award, 1979; Guardian award, for children's book, 1982; Hadassah Magazine award, 1989; Tarak Nath Das award, 1989; Padma Sri award, 1989; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1978; Girton College, Cambridge, 1988; Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1991. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
Cry, The Peacock. Calcutta, Rupa, n.d.; London, Owen, 1963.
Voices in the City. London, Owen, 1965.
Bye-Bye, Blackbird. New Delhi, Hind, and Thompson, Connecticut, InterCulture, 1971.
Where Shall We Go This Summer? New Delhi, Vikas, 1975.
Fire on the Mountain. New Delhi, Allied, London, Heinemann, andNew York, Harper, 1977.
Clear Light of Day. New Delhi, Allied, London, Heinemann, andNew York, Harper, 1980.
In Custody. London, Heinemann, 1984; New York, Harper, 1985.
Baumgartner's Bombay. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Knopf, 1989.
Journey to Ithaca. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Fasting, Feasting. London, Chatto & Windus, 1999; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Games at Twilight and Other Stories. New Delhi, Allied, and London, Heinemann, 1978; New York, Harper, 1980.
Diamond Dust: Stories. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Circus Cat, Alley Cat," in Thought (New Delhi), 1957.
"Tea with the Maharani," in Envoy (London), 1959.
"Grandmother," in Writers Workshop (Calcutta), 1960.
"Mr. Bose's Private Bliss," in Envoy (London), 1961.
"Ghost House," in Quest (Bombay), 1961.
"Descent from the Rooftop," in Illustrated Weekly of India (Bombay), 1970.
"Private Tuition by Mr. Bose," in Literary Review (Madison, NewJersey), Summer 1986.
Fiction (for children)
The Peacock Garden. Bombay, India Book House, 1974; London, Heinemann, 1979.
Cat on a Houseboat. Bombay, Orient Longman, 1976.
The Village by the Sea. London, Heinemann, 1982.*
Anita Desai: A Study of Her Fiction by Meena Belliappa, Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1971; The Twice-Born Fiction by Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1972; The Novels of Mrs. Anita Desai by B.R. Rao, New Delhi, Kalyani, 1977; Anita Desai the Novelist by Madhusudan Prasad, Allahabad, New Horizon, 1981; Perspectives on Anita Desai edited by Ramesh K. Srivastava, Ghaziabad, Vimal, 1984; The Mind and Art of Anita Desai by J.P. Tripathi, Bareilly, Prakash, 1986; Stairs to the Attic: The Novels of Anita Desai by Jasbir Jain, Jaipur, Printwell 1987; The Novels of Anita Desai: A Study in Character and Conflict by Usha Bande, New Delhi, Prestige, 1988; Language and Theme in Anita Desai's Fiction by Kunj Bala Goel, Jaipur, Classic, 1989; Voice and Vision of Anita Desai by Seema Jena, New Delhi, Ashish, 1989; Virginia Woolf and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study by Asha Kanwar, New Delhi, Prestige, 1989; The Fiction of Anita Desai edited by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Bahri, 1989; Symbolism in Anita Desai's Novels by Kajali Sharma, New Delhi, Abhinav, 1991; Anita Desai's Fiction: Patterns of Survival Strategies by Mrinalini Solanki, Delhi, Kanishka, 1992; Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya by Usha Pathania, Delhi, Kanishka, 1992; Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology in R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and Salman Rushdie by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993; The Novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study in Feminist Perspectives by Sunaina Singh. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1994; Anita Desai As an Artist: A Study in Image and Symbol by S. Indira. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1994; A Critical Study of the Novels of Anita Desai by N. R. Gopal. New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1995; Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai by Bidulata Choudhury. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1995; The New Woman in Indian English Fiction: A Study of Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Namita Gokhale & Shobha De by Sharad Shrivastava. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Six Indian Novelists: Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, Balachandran Rajan, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai by A. V. Suresh Kumar. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996.
Anita Desai comments:
I have been writing, since the age of 7, as instinctively as I breathe. It is a necessity to me: I find it is in the process of writing that I am able to think, to feel, and to realize at the highest pitch. Writing is to me a proccess of discovering the truth—the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality. Writing is my way of plunging to the depths and exploring this underlying truth. All my writing is an effort to discover, to underline and convey the true significance of things. That is why, in my novels, small objects, passing moods and attitudes acquire a large importance. My novels are no reflection of Indian society, politics, or character. They are part of my private effort to seize upon the raw material of life—its shapelessness, its meaninglessness, that lack of design that drives one to despair—and to mould it and impose on it a design, a certain composition and order that pleases me as an artist and also as a human being who longs for order.
While writing my novels, I find I use certain images again and again and that, although real, they acquire the significance of symbols. I imagine each writer ends by thus revealing his own mythology, a mythology that symbolizes his private morality and philosophy. One hopes, at the end of one's career, to have made some significant statement on life—not necessarily a water-tight, hard-and-fast set of rules, but preferably an ambiguous, elastic, shifting, and kinetic one that remains always capable of further change and growth.
Next to this exploration of the underlying truth and the discovery of a private mythology and philosophy, it is style that interests me most—and by this I mean the conscious labour of uniting language and symbol, word and rhythm. Without it, language would remain a dull and pedestrian vehicle. I search for a style that will bring it to vivid, surging life. Story, action, and drama mean little to me except insofar as they emanate directly from the personalities I have chosen to write about, born of their dreams and wills. One must find a way to unite the inner and the outer rhythms, to obtain a certain integrity and to impose order on chaos.* * *
If the male triumvirate—Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and R. K. Narayan—can be seen as the first generation of Indian writers in English, Anita Desai, who published her first novel in 1963, might usefully be described as in the vanguard of the second-generation of Indian writers in English, and—along with Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—among the first generation of Indian women writing in English. The daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother, her mixed background has enabled Desai to view India from something of an outsider's perspective, to see India both as Indians and as a non-Indians see it.
Desai has published novels, collections of stories, and books for young readers. In all these works, Desai has set about interpreting her country for outsiders.
The world of Desai's fiction is largely a domestic one. She is interested primarily in the lives of women in India since Independence, the lives of women in the modern Indian nation state, rather than the history or politics of the subcontinent on a more extensive scale.
Her early novels, to Where Shall We Go This Summer?, focus in various ways on the disharmony and alienation women frequently experience in marriage. And although novels like Voices in the City and Bye-Bye Blackbird in particular give the impression of being about the lives of their male characters, the focus inevitably shifts to the female characters and the limitations the patriarchal world places on them (as daughters, wives, or mothers).
Bye-Bye Blackbird, which moves out of India to look at wider postcolonial issues of displacement, is the most accomplished of Desai's early novels. Ostensibly a typical third-world immigrant novel focusing on the lives of Dev and Ajit, two Indians in Britain, and the racial discrimination with which they have to contend, it is ultimately more about the alienation Ajit's wife, Sarah, suffers in her own country following her marriage to an Indian and her changed position in relation to the (British) nation state.
Desai's exquisitely crafted fifth novel (and probably her most powerful work to date), Fire on the Mountain, brings a definite sense of politics to her hitherto essentially family-focused dramas. It is another female-centered narrative that portrays the lives of three women—the elderly Nanda Kaul, her great-granddaughter Raka, and Nanda Kaul's lifelong friend Ila Das—who one by one retreat to Carignano, a small villa in the Himalayan hill station of Kasauli, to escape the brutal patriarchal worlds in which they have each lived. Criticism of Fire on the Mountain has tended to focus on Desai's detailed study of her three female characters—particularly her presentation of Nanda Kaul—without paying sufficient attention to her attack on patriarchal oppression, which, Desai forcefully suggests in this novel, not only limits the opportunities given to women in India, but mentally and physically damages them.
In Clear Light of Day, although the fires of Partition riots burn in the background, Desai's interest is again firmly focused on the difficulties facing a woman who attempts to assert her identity within the family framework, on the relationships Bim, the central female character, has with the various members of her family. It is about the fragmentation of a family played out against the backdrop of a fracturing nation.
In Custody, in many respects a delightful and sad comedy in a Narayanish sort of vein, marks a broadening of Desai's oeuvre. The novel plots the disillusionment of Deven, a young Hindi lecturer at a college in the small town of Mirpore, and the various calamities that befall him after he is persuaded to go to Delhi to interview his hero, India's greatest living Urdu poet, Nur—only to find himself being dragged deeper and deeper into Nur's unsavory world. For all its comedy, there is a certain despair in this novel, which presents the decline of Muslim Urdu culture in the North of India in the years following Independence and Partition.
Despair of a different hue characterizes Baumgartner's Bombay. Here, through a series of flashbacks, Desai looks at the life of a now-elderly German Jew who fled to India fifty years earlier in the 1930s to escape the Nazis, and who stayed on after Independence only to be murdered in Bombay by a German youth he tried to help. It is another brilliant portrait of alienation.
Desai continues her interest in Europeans in India in Journey to Ithaca. The novel focuses on Matteo, a guru-seeking Westerner in India, his wife Sophie, and the charismatic Mother that Sophie desperately struggles to keep him from. This incursion into territory so definitively mapped by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Desai's least successful novel.
The various strands that can be traced through her previous nine novels are brought together in near perfect synthesis in Fasting, Feasting. In keeping with her earlier novels, there is a return to a focus on the family, and in particular the lot of women trapped in traditional family structures in a rapidly changing postcolonial world. At the same time Desai extends her interest in the West in this cleverly structured novel. Fasting, Feasting is an almost plotless novel that looks at the lives of two daughters and the son of a traditional Indian family in the modern world. The novel opens with Uma, the eldest daughter now in her forties, still at home and firmly under the authority of her parents. Through a series of flashbacks, the first part of the novel looks at how Uma came to be in this position. It is a view of a traditional Hindu family, including arranged marriages. The second part of the book shifts abruptly to the United States. If in the first part India is presented for Western eyes, in the second part the tables are effectively turned and America is viewed through Indian eyes when Arun, in the U.S. on a college scholarship, finds himself living with the Patton family during summer vacation. It is a carefully balanced novel of contrasts: between East and West; lack and excess; lack of ambition (for Uma and Melanie) and too much ambition (for Arun and Rod). It further explores the gendered condition of the nation state, both in Indian and the U.S.
Desai is undoubtedly one of the major Indian English writers of her generation. If her reputation was established on her early portraits of domestic disharmony in traditional Indian families and the suffering of women in a largely patriarchal world, her later novels demonstrate that she writes equally well about the world of men, about Indians abroad, and about Westerners in India. Above all, she demonstrates again and again how gender issues are central to politics and the nation as well as in the family.
—Ralph J. Crane
"Desai, Anita." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/desai-anita
"Desai, Anita." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/desai-anita