Study Guide

Anita Desai

Anita Desai Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204717-Desai.jpgAnita Desai Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Anita Desai (dee-SI) is one of the best-known contemporary women writers of Indian fiction in English. Born to a Bengali father and a German mother, she is an excellent example of the bicultural heritage of postcolonial India. Desai grew up in Delhi, receiving her education first at Queen Mary’s School and later at Miranda House, one of Delhi University’s most prestigious colleges. Starting to write at the early age of seven, she published her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, in 1963. This work immediately established her as a major voice in Indian literature in English. Since then, Desai has steadily published novels, short stories, and children’s literature.

Well versed in German, Bengali, Hindi, and English, Anita Desai has always preferred to write in the English language. In Cry, the Peacock, she delves into the mind of a hypersensitive young urban wife, Maya, who finds herself coupled with the ascetic Gautama, a man given to abstraction and philosophy. Discovering that the poetic, creative, and romantic side of her own personality is easily rejected by the patriarchal society of which her husband is an emblem, the disturbed young woman quickly slips into insanity. Desai’s instinctive perception of the female psyche characterizes many of her novels and establishes her as a writer with an unusual feminine sensibility.

Her next novel, Voices in the City, encompasses the author’s experiences in the city of Calcutta, represented in the novel as a locus of wealth and poverty, light and darkness. The central characters, again displaced figures, find their own complexities reflected in the chaotic waters of urban Calcutta. Then, moving away from the locale of the Indian city to the English world, the author found new inspiration in the conflicts generated by racial tensions between the Indian immigrants and the postcolonial white population of England. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Desai captures the immigrant’s dilemma on strange, new soil in the image of the blackbird. Nostalgia and alienation, rejection and acceptance of the colonizer’s identity, are dualities deftly braided together in this work of East-West tensions and oppositions.

In 1975 her award-winning novel Where Shall We Go This Summer? was published. Again, Desai returns to her concern with the situation of the middle-class Indian wife in a contemporary urban setting. Sita, the mother of four children and the wife of a pragmatic Bombay businessman, finds herself pregnant for the fifth time and decides to...

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Anita Desai Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anita Mazumbar was born in Mussoorie, India, and grew up in Delhi. Her father, D. N. Mazumdar, was a Bengali businessman, and her mother, Toni, was German. Her parents met when her father was a student in Germany; they married and then moved to India in the late 1920’s. As a child, Desai spoke German at home and Hindi to her friends and neighbors. She then learned English once she started school. She grew up during the World War II years of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, sensing the anxiety in her mother about the situation in Germany. Fearing the devastation and change wrought by the war, Desai’s mother never returned to Germany, a fact that probably inspired some of the facets of the character Hugo Baumgartner in Desai’s novel Baumgartner’s Bombay.

Desai was educated at Queen Mary’s School, Delhi, and then at Miranda House at the University of Delhi. At Miranda House she studied English literature, receiving her B.A. in 1957. Her studies helped to fuel her passion for writing, a compulsion that began at the age of seven. After working for a year in Max Muller Bhavan, Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), she married Ashwin Desai, a business executive, in 1958. Since then, she has lived in Kolkata, Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), Chandigarh, Delhi, and Pune. She and her husband had four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran.

Desai’s writing came to be respected worldwide, and she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, as well as a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. Desai has taught writing at both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College in the United States. In 1993 she became a professor of writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anita Desai Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Anita Desai (duh-SI) was born in Mussoorie, India, on June 24, 1937, of Indo-German parentage—her father, Dhiren N. Mazumdar, was a Bengali Hindu and her mother, Antoinette Nime, was a German. She grew up in Delhi speaking German and Bengali at home and Hindi and Urdu to her friends and neighbors. She learned English only when she went to a mission school. By her own account, she instantly fell in love with English literature and it became her lifelong obsession. Educated at Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School and later at Miranda House at the University of Delhi, she completed her B.A. in English literature with honors in 1957. Soon after her graduation, she moved to Calcutta, where she worked for a year at the Max Mueller Bhavan institute and married Ashvin Desai, an executive, on December 13, 1958. The couple had four children. Her youngest daughter, Kiran Desai, is a successful novelist herself, winning the 2006 Man Booker Prize for her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss (2006).

A gifted writer, Desai began writing at the age of seven. She published her first story in English at the age of nine in an American children’s magazine. Her literary career, however, began with the publication of her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, in 1963. In this novel she presents a probing psychological study of a hypersensitive young woman obsessed with the neurotic fear of death caused by an oppressive marriage. The three parts of the novel showed her growing sense of alienation, her growing hysteria, and her eventual degeneration into insanity. Desai’s effective use of the stream-of-consciousness technique in the novel and the lyrical quality of her prose attracted critical praise and launched her career.

After the success of her first novel, Desai continued to explore the interior landscape of the female psyche for the next fifteen years. Between 1965 and 1980, she wrote five novels of unusual distinction: Voices in the City (1965), Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971), Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), Fire on the Mountain (1977), and Clear Light of Day (1980). Some of these novels received wide critical acclaim both in India and abroad. She received the certificate of excellence from the Authors and Publishers’ Guild of India for Where Shall We Go This Summer? Fire on the Mountain won for her the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Regional Literature and the Sahitya Akademi Award, the most prestigious literary award offered by India’s National Academy of Letters. Her sixth novel, Clear Light of Day, was nominated for England’s celebrated Man Booker Prize.

Two novels,...

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Anita Desai Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Focusing on the inner, private lives of people and exploring their minds, Anita Desai has made a notable contribution to the development of the psychological novel. She has also played a pioneering role, particularly in the context of patriarchal society in India, in exploring female and feminist concerns and in making the woman’s viewpoint, thoughts, and behavior the central focus of her novels. Gifted with a poetic sensibility, she works on the craft of fiction with meticulous care.

Anita Desai Biography (Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Anita Desai is recognized as one of India's leading novelists writing in English. She has been noted for her rich imagery and her focus on...

(The entire section is 295 words.)