BORN: 1937, Mussoorie, India
Cry, the Peacock (1963)
Voices in the City (1965)
Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975)
In Custody (1984)
Journey to Ithaca (1995)
Anita Desai is a leading member of a generation of writers who have carved out a niche for Indian fiction in English—today a burgeoning literary arena with writers of Indian descent or origin chiming in from around the world. Through sensitive psychological probing and sharp social critique, her novels chart the emotional lives of people struggling to find meaning and stability within the framework of a society in transition.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Cosmopolitan Childhood in Northern India Anita Mazumdar was born on June 24, 1937, in the hill resort of Mussoorie in northern India, to Dhiren N. Mazumdar, a businessman, and his German wife, Antoinette Nime Mazumdar. Because of her mixed parentage, Mazumdar learned German, English, and Hindi. Early in childhood, she did not experience her hybrid identity as a
clash of cultures, although at the time questions of hybrid identity were particularly pertinent in India, which gained its independence from Great Britain and separated from largely Muslim Pakistan in 1947 (when Anita was ten). The young Anita's mother lent a European element to what Desai would later describe as the family's otherwise “very, very Indian home”: she told the children German fairy tales, sang and played “O Tannenbaum” on the piano at Christmas, and played recordings of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Edvard Grieg on the gramophone. Books by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Heinrich Heine were on the bookshelves. The parents' friends included Germans, Hungarians, French, Russians, and Britons, and the young Anita's early years were thus shaped by an unusually lively cultural interplay—even for India, itself vibrantly multicultural.
The Writer of the Family As a German married to an Indian, Antoinette Mazumdar was twice removed from the English “raj,” whom both she and her husband hated. She rejected the English practice of sending children away to boarding schools at “home” in England, and Anita was educated by the Grey Sisters of the Cambridge Mission at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School. Anita wrote her first story at seven. Her early scribblings were viewed with some amusement by her family. Later, when she began to publish, amusement gave way to pride. In 2002, long after her marriage and change of name, Desai recalled being labeled “the writer in the family,” a role she accepted because she “really never considered another.” After completing her schooling at Queen Mary's, Mazumdar attended Miranda House, a women's college on the campus of Delhi University. She published occasional pieces in the college magazine, and in 1957 her short story “Circus Cat, Alley Cat” appeared in the New Delhi periodical Thought. That year, she obtained a bachelor's degree with honors in English literature and won the Pershad Memorial Prize for English. For the next year she worked at Max Müller Bhavan, the German cultural institute in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). During this period, tensions between India's Hindu and Muslim populations ran high, as the division of British India into India and Pakistan had been a historically traumatic event—with perhaps half a million people killed and over 12 million left homeless—from which the country has still today not entirely recovered.
The Secret Writer On December 13, 1958, she married Ashvin Desai, a business executive, with whom she had four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran. Recalling this marriage, she later wrote, “The world I entered on marriage was completely uncomprehending of a life of literature. I continued to write but almost in secret, without anyone observing me at work at my desk so as not to create an open conflict.”
After publishing two pieces in local magazines, Desai's first novel, Cry, the Peacock, was published in 1963. From her first work, readers see the stream-ofconsciousness influence of Virginia Woolf on a writer who was seeking to create above-average characters “driven to some extremity of despair,” she once told interviewer Yashodhara Dalmia. Such despair is also experienced by the protagonists of Desai's second novel, Voices in the City (1965). In Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971), Desai moved away from the existential angst of her first two novels to explore the clash of Eastern and Western cultures in an English setting.
International Acclaim and Concerns with Globalization Desai's fifth novel Fire on the Mountain (1977) brought her international fame. The British Royal Society of Literature awarded her the Winifred Holtby Prize for the novel in 1978, and the work won the National Academy of Letters Award in India the same year.
In 1978, Desai published Games at Twilight and Other Stories. The book was well received in the United Kingdom, and in 1979 the novel won Desai the Sahitya Akademi award. In 1980 Desai published Clear Light of Day, perhaps her most autobiographical work to date. The novel was short-listed for the prestigious British Booker Prize. In 1982 Desai published The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story. In an interview with
Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dassenbrock, she elaborated on her sense of an altered India, calling it “a place of increasing violence and of tremendous change … an economic revolution, of course, more than a political one at the moment, a place where life has become extremely difficult to endure.” The revolution she was responding to, both in the interview and in the book, was the revolution brought about in Indian life by economic globalization—a process that many have criticized for its insensitivity to the lives of the people who are being “modernized.”
A particularly notorious example of this insensitivity was the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant released tons of gas into the air, killing somewhere between three and eight thousand people instantly, and an estimated twenty thousand or so more over the long term (with another one to six hundred thousand still injured today, over two decades later). Union Carbide paid some minimal reparations, and Dow Chemical Company, which now owns Union Carbide, has refused to revisit the issue, disavowing any responsibility for the history of its subsidiary. Although Village by the Sea was published before the Bhopal disaster, it was prescient in its concern with the effects of international economic pressures in an India desperate for capital. The novel won the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction in 1983 and was adapted for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1992.
Whereas her novels had been primarily womancentered up to this point, in her next novel, In Custody (1984), Desai moved to write from a male point of view. While focusing on the protagonist's process of incurring resentment and being exploited as he takes a hiatus to seek out his guru, the novel addresses the politics of language in postcolonial India, where the dominance of Hindi threatens the Urdu language and culture with extinction. In Custody was also short-listed for the Booker Prize.
No More Secret Writing Sessions Desai has been honored with accolades that include fellowships, visiting professorships, and prestigious awards such as the Taraknath Das Award for Contributions to Indo-American Understanding in 1989 and the 1990 Padma Shri, one of the highest national awards in India. After her third novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Fasting, Feasting (1995), and the 1999 Moravia Prize for Literature in Rome, Desai continued to explore Indian issues in an international context.
Early in her career, Desai was compelled to write in secret to avoid conflict with her husband's family; today her daughter Kiran is also a novelist. “This makes,” Desai has explained, “for a great intimacy and companionship between us, the first I have ever experienced.” Today, Desai spends most of the year in the United States, where she is a professor emeritus of humanities at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT). Having left India only late in life, she does not consider herself part of the Indian Diaspora, but she is certainly seen by many as one of contemporary India's greatest literary figures.
Works in Literary Context
Desai was a voracious reader of the books on her parents' shelves, including the works of the Bronteës, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust. Gradually she gravitated toward poetry, which became a major influence on her work. From Japanese and Chinese poetry she absorbed the art of fine detail and subtle description. Sufi poetry, especially that of Rumi, and the work of modern Russian poets, including Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam, figure in her list of favorites. In an interview with Pandit, Desai described these writers as the “gurus” from whom she learned the art of writing.
Suggestion Versus Statement As a stylist, Desai is known for her intense and suggestive use of imagery. In In Custody, for example, backward, decaying, and dreary Mirpore functions as an image of contemporary India. The most powerful element in Voices in the City is that of Calcutta, with its many evocative landmarks. At times the imagery lends a poetic quality to her prose. Madhusudan Prasad remarks that Desai's novels have a “mosaic textual density” because “Desai's imagery is wedded to her rich lyricism.” Images recur with cumulative effect as Desai eschews blunt, direct statements, instead using suggestion to highlight thematic issues.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Desai's famous contemporaries include:
Sawako Ariyoshi (1931–1984): This Japanese writer was a prolific novelist. Her works concerned significant social issues such as environmental pollution and treatment of the elderly.
Graham Chapman (1941–1989): An English comic actor who was a core member of the comedy troupe Monty Python.
Joan Crawford (1937–): This American basketball player has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, and Amateur Athletic Union Hall of Fame.
Roberta Flack (1937–): This American jazz and blues singer is a Grammy Award winner for such songs as the 1974 “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” which the Fugees remade in 1996.
Toward an Environmental Psychology Desai evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Calcutta and
other cities, but her focus remains psychological: The city is often a force that controls the mental states of its inhabitants. Desai calls up internal states of mind while recording sharply detailed impressions of social interactions. She uses imagery to create a sharply defined concrete reality that suggests more abstract possibilities.
Over the course of her novels, Desai has evolved from chronicling the inner lives of her characters to an awareness of the links between individual psychology and the social and cultural environment. The protagonists of her novels are often caught in a struggle between desire for freedom and the call of duty or responsibility, often expressed through family relationships. She also explores the problems faced by women in contemporary India, particularly middle-class women expected to lead lives of quiet domesticity in a rapidly changing world. In Voices in the City, for example, Otima, who is associated with the powerful, destructive Hindu goddess Kali, explodes the myth of motherhood by rejecting her children and retreating to her childhood home in Kalimpong.
Works in Critical Context
As the Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement (2005) suggests, “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.” Yet Desai perhaps has not gotten the critical attention her novels merit. Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971) received a mixed response from critics, who had come to expect intense psychologizing and rich, poetic prose from Desai. In Perspectives on Anita Desai, Prasad complains that the novel lacks dense imagery, while others, including S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal, recognized that the novel places Desai within the ranks of postcolonial writers impelled to explore the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. The more recent Journey to Ithaca also received mixed reviews.
Journey to Ithaca (1995) Journey to Ithaca is set during the hippie influx into India in the 1970s. Sophie, a German woman, accompanies her Italian husband, Matteo, on his journey to India in search of peace. In this novel, Desai's shift from an individual to international perspective is even more pronounced—the narrative spans three continents and traces the lives of protagonists from Egypt, Europe, and India. New York Times critic Richard Bernstein praises Desai's “remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture.” But others—like Gabriele Annan in the Times Literary Supplement—complain that “The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as clichés … the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing.” Bhaskar Ghose, however, argues in Biblio that the elegance of Desai's craft “ultimately gives a definition to the story which could have been diffuse, or drearily familiar in the hands of a weaker artist. Within the body of her work, this novel must rank as one of the most ambitious and most tightly crafted works that Anita Desai has undertaken.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by other authors who have treated key aspects of Indian culture and the politics of gender roles:
The English Teacher (1945), a novel by R. K. Narayan. In this semiautobiographical work, English teacher Krishna seeks to evolve from his humdrum life to a place of enlightenment.
Kanthapura (1938), a novel by Raja Rao. In this work, the author closely explores the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi as a passive resistor of British rule and investigates the mythologizing of the great leader.
Nectar in a Sieve (1955), a novel by Kamala Markandaya. In this award-winning work, the author presents an in-depth look at the culture clashes between urban and rural Indians.
A Room of One's Own (1929), an exposition by Virginia Woolf. In this book-length essay, the author explores the early politics of women writers and writing.
Responses to Literature
- Several of Desai's favorite themes include youth, age, and death; the minutiae of human relationships; art and life; illusion and reality; time and change; cultural differences; and the pressures of survival in an increasingly difficult world. Desai considers these themes in the context of Indian cultures and histories. In your study group, choose a theme and investigate its real-life context in Desai's India. Share your findings with peers. For instance, who in a given context “should” be the repository of wisdom? What happens (or what is expressed differently) when a story is told from the perspective of an individual not expected to be a purveyor of wisdom? How do characters display feelings of alienation as Indians in a mixed culture?
- Desai centers much of her writing on postcolonial India and the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. What makes an encounter truly “cross-cultural”? Consider Desai's descriptions of interactions between a variety of different characters; what makes some of these interactions cross-cultural and others not? How do you think Desai would define the boundaries of culture, and why? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of concrete passages from Desai's fiction.
- Desai has noted that most of her novels describe the lives of women before the feminist movement gathered momentum in India. Investigate the goals of feminist literary criticism, and consider how you might apply such a reading to a Desai novel. What has this mode of reading helped you to notice that you might not have otherwise?
“Anita Desai.” Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, volume 25. Thomson Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Desai, Anita. “A Fire Had to be Lit,” in The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory, Volume 2. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1991, pp. 97–103.
Jussawalla, Feroza and Reed Way Dassenbrock. “Anita Desai,” in their Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 157–79.
Pandit, Lalita. “A Sense of Detail and a Sense of Order: Anita Desai Interviewed by Lalita Pandit,” in Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Eds. Pandit and Patrick Colm Hogan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 153–72.
Prasad, Madhusudan. Anita Desai: The Novelist. Allahabad, India: New Horizon, 1981.
Ghose, Bhaskar. “Review of Journey to Ithaca.” Biblio (December 1996).
Bernstein, Richard. “Review of Journey to Ithaca.” New York Times (August 30, 1995).
Dalmia, Yashodhara. “An Interview with Anita Desai.” Times of India (April 29, 1979): 13.
Annan, Gabriele. “Review of Journey to Ithaca. Times Literary Supplement (June 2, 1995).
Ball, John Clement, and Kanaganayakam, Chelva. “Interview with Anita Desai.” Toronto South Asian Review 10, no. 2 (1992): 30–41.
British Council. Contemporary Writers: Anita Desai. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth124.
The South Asian Women's Network (SAWNET). Anita Desai. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.sawnet.org/books/authors.php?Desai+Anita.
Voices from the Gaps. Anita Desai, b. 1937. Retrieved March 14, from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/desai_anita.html.
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.
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
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.
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Anita Desai (dĕsī´), 1937–, Indian fiction writer, b. Mussoorie as Anita Mazumdar, grad. Delhi Univ. (B.A., 1957). A prolific novelist, she often paints a subtly intelligent and darkly evocative picture of modern India. Desai is particularly noted for her portrayal of women and of the vicissitudes of middle-class Anglo-Indian family life. She published her first novel, Cry, the Peacock. the story of a failed marriage that ends in violence, in 1963. Since then, her novels have included the semiautobiographical Clear Light of Day (1980); In Custody (1984, film 1994), about a declining Urdu poet; Baumgartner's Bombay (1988), in which a Jewish refugee confronts Indian culture; and Fasting, Feasting (1999), which explores Indian and American family life. Desai has also written short stories, e.g., Diamond Dust (2000); three novellas, brought together in The Artist of Disappearance (2011), and childrens' books. She has taught at English and American colleges and is an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, 1971–, also a novelist, won the Man Booker prize for The Inheritance of Loss (2006).
See biography by E. Y. L. Ho (2005).
DESAI, Anita. Indian, b. 1937. Genres: Novels, Children's fiction. Publications: Cry, The Peacock, 1963; Voices in the City, 1965; Bye-Bye, Blackbird, 1971; The Peacock Garden, 1974; Where Shall We Go This Summer?, 1975; Cat on a Houseboat, 1976; Fire on the Mountain, 1977; Games at Twilight, 1978; Clear Light of Day, 1980; A Village by the Sea, 1982; In Custody, 1984; Baumgartner's Bombay, 1988; Journey to Ithaca, 1995; Fasting, Feasting, 1999; Diamond Dust: Stories, 2000. Address: MIT Program in Writing & Humanistic Studies, Rm 14E-303, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, U.S.A.