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Desai, Anita 1937–

Desai, Anita 1937–

PERSONAL: Born June 24, 1937, in Mussoorie, India; daughter of D.N. (an engineer) and Toni Mazumdar; married Ashvin Desai (an executive), December 13, 1958; came to United States, 1987; children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, Kiran. Education: Delhi University, B.A. (with honors), 1957.

ADDRESSES: Home—Cambridge, MA. Office—The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139.

CAREER: Writer and educator. Smith College, Northampton, MA, Elizabeth Drew Professor of English, 1987–88; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, Purington Professor of English, 1988–93; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, professor of writing, 1993–. Girton College, Cambridge, Helen Cam visiting fellow, 1986–87, honorary fellow, 1988; Clare Hall, Cambridge, Ashby fellow, 1989, honorary fellow, 1991.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow), American Academy of Arts and Letters (honorary fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Winifred Holtby Prize, Royal Society of Literature, 1978, for Fire on the Mountain; Sahitya Academy award, 1979; Booker Prize shortlist, 1980, for Clear Light of Day, 1984, for In Custody, and 1999, for Feasting, Fasting; Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction, 1983, for The Village by the Sea; Hadassah Prize, 1989, for Baumgartner's Bombay; Padma Sri, 1990; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1993; Neil Gunn fellowship, Scottish Arts Council, 1994; Moravia Award (Rome, Italy), 1999; Benson Medal, Royal Society of Literature, 2003.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Cry, the Peacock, P. Owen (London, England), 1963.

Voices in the City, P. Owen (London, England), 1965.

Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Hind Pocket Books (Delhi, India), 1968.

Where Shall We Go This Summer?, Vikas Publishing House (New Dehli, India), 1975.

Fire on the Mountain, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1977.

Clear Light of Day, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1980.

In Custody, Heinemann (London, England), 1984, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1985.

Baumgartner's Bombay, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

Journey to Ithaca, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Fasting, Feasting, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1999, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.

The Zigzag Way, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.

JUVENILE

The Peacock Garden, India Book House (Jaipur, India), 1974.

Cat on a Houseboat, Orient Longmans (Calcutta, India), 1976.

The Village by the Sea, Heinemann (London, England), 1982.

OTHER

Games at Twilight and Other Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1978, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1980.

(Author of introduction) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters, edited by Malcolm Jack, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1993.

Diamond Dust and Other Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.

(Author of introduction) E.M. Forster, Arctic Summer, Hesperus Press (London, England), 2003.

(Author of introduction) D.H. Lawrence, Daughters of the Vicar, Hesperus Press (London, England), 2004.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Thought, Envoy, Writers Workshop, Quest, Indian Literature, Illustrated Weekly of India, Femina, Harper's Bazaar, and Granta.

ADAPTATIONS: The Village by the Sea was filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1992; In Custody was filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions, 1993.

SIDELIGHTS: Anita Desai focuses her novels upon the personal struggles of her Indian characters to cope with the problems of contemporary life. In this way, she manages to portray the cultural and social changes that her native country has undergone since the departure of the British. One of Desai's major themes is the relationships between family members, especially the emotional tribulations of women whose independence is suppressed by Indian society. Her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, concerns a woman who finds it impossible to assert her individuality; the theme of the despairing woman is also explored in Desai's Where Shall We Go This Summer? Other novels explore life in urban India (Voices in the City), the clash between Eastern and Western cultures (Bye-Bye, Blackbird), and the differences between the generations (Fire on the Mountain). Desai was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize three times: in 1980, for Clear Light of Day; in 1984, for In Custody; and in 1999, for Fasting, Feasting.

Exile—physical as well as psychological—is also a prominent theme in Desai's writings. In Baumgartner's Bombay, Desai (whose father was Indian and mother was German) details the life of Hugo Baumgartner, a German Jew who flees Nazi Germany for India, where he "gradually drifts down through Indian society to settle, like sediment, somewhere near the bottom," wrote Rosemary Dinnage in the New York Review of Books. She added: "Baumgartner is a more thoroughly displaced person than Anglicized Indians, and more solitary, for Desai's Indian characters are still tied to family and community, however irksomely. She has drawn on her dual nationality to write on a subject new, I think, to English fiction—the experience of Jewish refugees in India." Pearl K. Bell made a similar statement. "Baumgartner is the loneliest, saddest, most severely dislocated of Desai's fictional creatures," Bell noted in the New Republic. However, he "is also a representative man, the German Jew to whom things happen, powerless to resist the evil wind that swept him like a vagrant weed from Berlin to India." Jean Sudrann, writing in the Yale Review, praised Desai's narrative skill "in making us feel the cumulative force of Hugo's alienation." At a reading at Northeastern University transcribed on Northeastern University Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict Web site, the novelist said of her protagonist: "You remarked about his being so passive a character. Yes, I did mean him to be an entirely passive character. For the whole idea was to show how history sweeps people up and, like a juggernaut, often crushes them under its wheels. I wanted to write about such a person."

Desai's descriptive powers have been acclaimed by several critics. In the New Leader, Betty Falkenberg called Baumgartner's Bombay "a mathematical problem set and solved in exquisite prose." Bell observed that "there is a Dickensian rush and tumble to her portrayals of the bazaars, the crowded streets, the packed houses of an Indian metropolis." In general, Desai's "novels are quite short, but 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."

While noting Desai's mixed German-Indian ancestry, Spectator contributor Caroline Moore commended the author for the authentic Indian flavor of her works. "Westerners visiting India find themselves reeling under the outsider's sense of 'culture shock,' which is compounded more of shock than culture," the critic wrote. "To Anita Desai, of course, the culture is second nature. Yet that intimacy never becomes mere familiarity: her achievement is to keep the shock of genuine freshness, the eyes of the perpetual outsider." This particular engagement with India is evident in many of Desai's novels, as A.G. Mojtabai noted in the New York Times Book Review. "Desai is a writer of Bengali-German descent, who stands in a complicated but advantageous relation to India," said the reviewer. "Insiders rarely notice this much; outsiders cannot have this ease of reference." Mojtabai found that Desai is able to delineate characters, settings, and feelings intricately, yet economically, without extraneous detail or excessively populated scenes: "This author has no need of crowds. Properly observed, a roomful of people is crowd enough, and in the right hands—as Anita Desai so amply illustrates—world enough."

The complexities of outsiders facing Indian culture form the basis of Desai's 1995 novel Journey to Ithaca. The story revolves around an ex-hippie European couple who travel to India for quite different reasons—the husband to find enlightenment, the wife to enjoy a foreign experience. As the husband, Matteo, becomes involved with a spiritual guru known as the Mother, wife Sophie goes on a quest of her own: to find the guru's roots in an effort either to debunk or to understand her. Calling the work "a kind of love triangle set against the madness of extreme spiritual searching," New York Times reviewer Richard Bernstein said of Journey to Ithaca that "Desai writes with intelligence and power. She has a remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture. Nothing escapes her power of observation, not the thickness of the drapes that blot out the light in a bourgeois Parisian home, or the enamel bowl in the office of an Indian doctor." Moore, in the Spectator, though commenting that the main characters are drawn rather sketchily, commended the book as "superbly powerful … emotionally and intellectually haunting, teasing and tugging our minds even through its imperfections."

Gabriele Annan, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, found other flaws in Journey to Ithaca. "This is a curiously inept book for a novelist of Desai's experience," Annan wrote. "The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as clichés," and "the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing." Wall Street Journal contributor Brooke Allen, while admiring Desai's style of writing, also found much of the story unbelievable. Spiritually inclined readers may find the action plausible, but "others will remain incredulous," Allen asserted.

Fasting, Feasting, Desai's third novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, "tells the apparently spare story of one Indian family and the varying fates of its two daughters and single son; it is only on the novel's final, quiet page that Desai's intricate structure becomes clear and the complexity of her emotional insight makes itself felt," explained Sylvia Brownrigg in Salon.com. Uma, the oldest daughter, is charged with the care of her demanding parents, while her sister, Aruna, is unhappily married but has escaped the responsibilities that hinder her older sister. Arun, the brother, is the focus of the second half of the novel. He is smothered by his parents' expectations of his life, and he eventually finds his way to Boston where he attends school, staying with an American family, the Pattons, during a break between semesters. "Arriving in the United States, Arun had exulted in his newfound anonymity: 'no past, no family … no country.' But he has not escaped family after all, just stumbled into a plastic representation of it," commented J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books. The Pattons, with their excesses, counter the values of the Indian household. "Arun himself, as he picks his way through a minefield of puzzling American customs, becomes a more sympathetic character, and his final act in the novel suggests both how far he has come and how much he has lost," explained a critic for Publishers Weekly.

Critics were overwhelmingly positive in their assessment of the novel. "Fasting, Feasting is a novel not of plot but of comparison," wrote Brownrigg. "In beautifully detailed prose Desai draws the foods and textures of an Indian small town and of an American suburb. In both, she suggests, family life is a complex mixture of generosity and meanness, license and restriction." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented: "Desai has been compared to Jane Austen, and, indeed, she is a deceptively gracious storyteller, writing like an embroiderer concealing a sword as she creates family microcosms that embody all the delusions and cruelties of so-ciety-at-large." Though Coetzee faulted Desai's America as feeling "as if it comes out of books," he lauded her writing, particularly her portraits of India. "Desai's strength as a writer has always been her eye for detail and her ear for the exact word … her gift for telling metaphor, and above all her feel for sun and sky, heat and dust, for the elemental reality of central India."

Desai is frequently praised by critics for her ability to capture the local color of her country and the ways in which Eastern and Western cultures have blended together there, and for developing this skill further with each successive novel. A large part of this skill is due to her use of imagery, one of the most important devices in her novels. Because of this emphasis on imagery, she is referred to by reviewers such as World Literature Today contributor Madhusudan Prasad as an "imagist-novelist" whose use of imagery is "a remarkable quality of her craft that she has carefully maintained" in her mature novels. Employing this imagery to suggest rather than overtly explain her themes, Desai's stories sometimes appear deceptively simple; but, as Anthony Thwaite pointed out in the New Republic, "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." In the London Observer, Salman Rushdie described Desai's fiction as being "illuminated by the author's perceptiveness, delicacy of language and sharp wit."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology in R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and Salman Rushdie, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 1993.

Bellioppa, Meena, The Fiction of Anita Desai, Writers Workshop, 1971.

Choudhury, Bidulata, Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai, Creative Books (New Delhi, India), 1995.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 37, 1986.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Khanna, Shashi, Human Relationships in Anita Desai's Novels, Sarup & Sons (New Delhi, India), 1995.

Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey, editors, Postcolonial Literature: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Pathania, Usha, Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya, Kanishka Publishers (New Delhi, India), 1992.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Sharma, Kajali, Symbolism in Anita Desai's Novels, Abhinav Publications (New Delhi, India), 1991.

Singh, Sunaina, The Novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study in Feminist Perspectives, Creative Books, 1994.

Sivanna, Indira, Anita Desai as an Artist: A Study in Image and Symbol, Creative Books, 1994.

Solanki, Mrinalini, Anita Desai's Fiction: Patterns of Survival Strategies, Kanishka Publishers (New Delhi, India), 1992.

PERIODICALS

Belles Lettres, summer, 1989, p. 4.

Booklist, December 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Fasting, Feasting, p. 739.

Boston Globe, August 15, 1995, p. 26.

Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1985.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 20, 1988.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1995, p. 799.

Lancet, January 12, 2002, Robin Gerster, "Geographies of the Imagination (Diamond Dust and Other Stories)," p. 178.

Library Journal, February 1, 2000, Dianna Moeller, review of Fasting, Feasting, p. 115; June 1, 2000, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Diamond Dust, p. 206.

Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1980.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 3, 1985; April 9, 1989.

New Leader, May 1, 1989, Betty Falkenberg, review of Baumgartner's Bombay.

New Republic, March 18, 1985; April 3, 1989; April 6, 1992, p. 36; August 15, 1994, p. 43.

New York Review of Books, June 1, 1989; December 6, 1990, p. 53; January 16, 1992, p. 42; March 3, 1994, p. 41; May 23, 1996, p. 6; May 25, 2000, J.M. Coetzee, review of Fasting, Feasting, pp. 33-35.

New York Times, November 24, 1980; February 22, 1985; March 14, 1989; August 30, 1995, p. B2.

New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1977; June 22, 1980; November 23, 1980; March 3, 1985, p. 7; April 9, 1989, p. 3; January 27, 1991, p. 23; September 17, 1995, p. 12.

Observer (London, England), October 7, 1984, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1999, review of Fasting, Feasting, p. 55.

Spectator, June 3, 1995, pp. 41-42.

Time, July 1, 1985; August 21, 1995, p. 67.

Times (London, England), September 4, 1980.

Times Higher Education Supplement, April 7, 1995, pp. 16-17.

Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1980; September 7, 1984; October 19, 1984; July 15-21, 1988, p. 787; June 2, 1995, p. 501.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 23, 1981; March 5, 1989.

Wall Street Journal, August 24, 1995, p. A14.

Washington Post Book World, January 11, 1981, p. 3; October 7, 1984; March 31, 1985; February 26, 1989.

World Literature Today, summer, 1984, pp. 363-369; winter, 1997, p. 221.

Yale Review, spring, 1990, p. 414.

ONLINE

Northeastern University Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict Web Site, http://www.violence.neu.edu/ (April 18-20, 2001) "Third World Views of the Holocaust."

Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (February 17, 2000), Sylvia Brownrigg, review of Fasting, Feasting.

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