Desai, Anita (Vol. 97)
Anita Desai 1937–
Indian novelist, short story writer, and children's author.
The following entry provides criticism of Desai's works through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 37.
Considered one of the foremost Indian authors writing in English, Desai is known for her lucid, finely crafted novels and stories about life in contemporary India. She is praised for what critics consider her profound understanding of intellectual issues and her intuitive grasp of emotional complexities.
Born in Mussoorie, India, to parents of Bengali and German descent, Desai grew up in New Delhi and wrote in English from an early age. She received a B.A. in English from Delhi University, and began publishing stories shortly after her marriage in 1958. In addition to her writing, Desai has worked as an educator at British and American colleges including Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Girton College at Cambridge University.
Maintaining that her primary aim is to discover "the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality," Desai is mainly concerned with the timeless predicament of the individual facing the overwhelming and seemingly incomprehensible power of family and society. In her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), Desai examines a young wife's growing despair as the hopelessness of her marriage drives her to kill her husband and commit suicide. Setting an artistic paradigm for her novels about the tragic paradoxes of family life, Cry, the Peacock also reflects her strong roots in the literary tradition of European Existentialism. In Voices in the City (1965) Desai uses Calcutta as a backdrop for the story of a brother and two sisters drawn into the decadence of urban life. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968), Indian immigrants in London face the conflict between Western culture and their own heritage. Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975) depicts marital despair, and Fire on the Mountain (1977) examines the complex relationship of an old woman and her troubled, destructive great-granddaughter. The critically acclaimed Clear Light of Day (1980) is regarded as a masterful study of family attachments and their tremendous power. The atmosphere of the decaying family home and the pressure of a hot, dusty summer underscore the spiritual malaise of two sisters as they analyze and compare their memories only to realize the overwhelming importance of family in their lives. Desai's later works, while still centered on family relationships and the conflict between the individual and society, offer an increasingly sobering commentary on the human condition. In Custody (1984) presents a study of obsession and delusion through the tribulations of an obscure intellectual in desperate need of recognition. Baumgartner's Bombay (1989), generally considered Desai's darkest novel, is the tragic-ironic story of an elderly German-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who escapes to India, lives a marginal existence in the surreal environment of a large Indian city, and encounters his nemesis in the form of a young German who in certain crucial ways acts as the incarnation of the Nazi spirit. Desai describes Baumgartner's Bombay as transcending the tragedies of particular races and nations, focusing instead on the cruel paradox of humankind, represented by marginalized and rejected individuals or social groups living in exile.
Critics have noted that Desai's investigations of the human condition are characteristically limpid, poetic, and highly suggestive, and that her sophisticated use of imagery and symbolism significantly enriches her elegant narrative style. In particular, commentators have lauded Desai's powerful evocations of atmosphere and place, as exemplified by the haunting description of psychological and spiritual stagnation in Clear Light of Day. Critics find that In Custody brilliantly reveals the darker aspects of human relationships by probing the individual's deep, and often tragically unfulfilled, need for recognition. Clear Light of Day and In Custody were each nominated for the Booker Prize. Baumgartner's Bombay is considered a profound meditation on solitude as the ultimate human destiny and the logical consequence of the author's thesis, developed in previous novels, that human relationships are essentially unsatisfying.
Cry, the Peacock (novel) 1963
Voices in the City (novel) 1965
Bye-Bye, Blackbird (novel) 1968
Where Shall We Go This Summer? (novel) 1975
Fire on the Mountain (novel) 1977
Games at Twilight and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
Clear Light of Day (novel) 1980
The Village by the Sea (juvenile) 1982
In Custody (novel) 1984
Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1989
Journey to Ithaca (novel) 1995
(The entire section is 53 words.)
SOURCE: "Dreams in Old Delhi," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4040, September 5, 1980, p. 948.
[In the review of Clear Light of Day below, Annan discusses characterization and plot, concluding that the ending of the book is too explicit.]
"The sense of dullness and hopelessness that reigned over their house took on an aspect of intense waiting." That is how one of the two sisters in this Indian novel [Clear Light of Day] remembers her childhood, and she sounds like one of Chekhov's three. The two works have much in common: the theme of frustrated expectation, an elegiac mood, and a tender amusement at people's absurdities.
The novel begins with the triennial visit of the younger sister Tara and her diplomat husband to the old family home, a decaying, suburban mansion on the banks of the Jumna outside Old Delhi. Here Bim, the older sister, lives with the youngest brother, Baba. Baba is autistic, a childlike, speechless whisp of a man who spends his days playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Donkey Serenade" on an ancient wind-up gramophone. The eldest brother, Raja, has moved away.
The book divides itself equally between the present of Tara's visit and the sisters' memories of the past. "It seemed to [Tara] that the dullness and boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty rugs, in the bloated...
(The entire section is 1056 words.)
SOURCE: "The Ambiguities of Independence," in The New Republic, Vol. 184, No. 8, February 21, 1981, pp. 39-40.
[In the mixed review of Clear Light of Day below, Marsh discusses the themes of identity and autonomy.]
"Only connect" was E. M. Forster's most famous piece of advice, and his most famous novel is about the near impossibility of carrying it out. In A Passage to India, the small moments of connection between friends seem all the more valuable as the riptides of history, social convention, and passion sweep them into misunderstanding and separation. In that book, especially as we read it with hindsight, the oncoming struggles of both India and Pakistan for independence hover over all the action like rarely glimpsed but restless gods who shape the lives of mortals to what may, but probably will not, turn out to be higher purposes.
Anita Desai, an Indian novelist whose father was Bengali and mother German, was barely an adolescent during her country's turmoil over national and religious identity, and much of her work reads like the younger generation's reply to the issues that Forster so presciently and masterfully defined in the 1920s. Beware the loneliness of independence, he warned, remember that it must entail pushing others away. Like Forster, Desai puts her finger directly on the ice that lies at the heart of freedom; she keeps reminding us that it is cold, very...
(The entire section is 1255 words.)
SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Fiction: A New Dimension," in Indian Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, March-April, 1981, pp. 44-53.
[In the essay below, Asnani examines the themes of "alienation and incommunication" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, stating that Desai's "fiction grapples with the intangible realities of life."]
My writing is an effort to discover, underline and convey the significance of things. I must seize upon that incomplete and seemingly meaningless mass of reality around me and try and discover its significance by plunging below the surface and plumbing the depths, then illuminating those depths till they become a more lucid, brilliant and explicable reflection of the visible world.
The fiction of Anita Desai adds a new dimension to Indo-English Writing. Turning inward her fiction grapples with the intangible realities of life, plunges into the innermost depths of the human psyche to fathom its mysteries, the inner turmoil, the chaos inside the mind. Under the impact of the new pressures of the scientific and technological advancement, the world around us shows signs of the disintegration of the individual. It is therefore imperative that the modern Indo-English novel should seek new techniques to articulate these newly experienced inner and outer realities.
Anita Desai's preoccupation with the individual...
(The entire section is 3205 words.)
SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day," in Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 107-12.
[In the generally positive review below, Daniels discusses the themes, characterization, and narrative structures in Clear Light of Day.]
Clear Light of Day is an English novel (as distinct from American, Russian or French), and it surpasses all other novels in English set in India in characterization, poetic use of landscape and integrity of vision. As might have been expected, the publisher's description finds in the novel "echoes we haven't heard since E. M. Forster's A Passage to India." This is somewhat misleading. Anita Desai's novel brings to mind not the Forster of A Passage but the Forster of Howard's End. In broad conception, the similarities between the two novels are obvious: the atmosphere of both novels is built around a house, both might have been titled Two Sisters (in Desai's novel, the sisters—Bim and Tara—share an inner sensibility that sets them apart from others, as is the case with the Schlegel sisters in Forster's novel); both belong to the tradition of the comedy of manners; both use the domestic to suggest the larger social fabric; both rely on symbols that are drawn from the inner as well as the outer world, while managing to convey the nineteenth-century view of man as something continuous with nature.
(The entire section is 2276 words.)
SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai," in Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 40-3.
[In the positive review of Clear Light of Day below, Singh discusses Indian elements in the novel as well as the themes of memory and familial relationships.]
A friend said the other day that Anita Desai's latest novel [Clear Light of Day] seemed to be derivative of Virginia Woolf. I do not agree. Any novel that seeks to evoke moods and atmosphere, that mixes memory and yearning in almost equal proportions, and illuminates a consciousness that is conscious above all of itself; any novel, moreover, which, in lighting up this consciousness, brings the protagonist to a crisis and then resolves this crisis through an experience of art which further enlarges her consciousness, is bound to have affinities with Virginia Woolf. But here all resemblance ends. For Desai's achievement is original—and Indian. What is evoked so beautifully and successfully throughout the novel is a part of Indian life, and the denouement, when it comes, is very Indian also.
The India of Clear Light of Day is Delhi from just before partition to today, and not all of Delhi either, but a few houses in the Civil Lines area, just off Bela Road, very close to the river. The rhythm of life of middle-class children growing up in such a setting, their play, their hopes and frustrations, the...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)
SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai: Another View," in The Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 43-6.
[In the following negative review of Desai's prose fiction, which was published in response to Singh's review above, Kumar concentrates on the short story collection Games at Twilight, stating that "I wish to explain why Desai fails to engage the reader's interest."]
Anita Desai is one of our known writers who has published a substantial body of prose-fiction—five novels (Cry, the Peacock, Voices in the City, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day), and a collection of short stories titled Games at Twilight. Since her work raises certain basic issues about imaginative writing, particularly the relationship between art and experience, between form and content, I wish to explain why she fails to engage the reader's interest. I shall, however, restrict the scope of this note to her short stories—Games at Twilight.
What strikes the reader on his first encounter with her writing is her overzealous concern with the medium of communication, regardless of the nature of experience embodied in each story. Often she seems to pack an abundance of trivia into each sentence till the words groan under the pressure of overwrought syntactical languor.
This, for example, is how Ravi, a small boy (in 'Games at...
(The entire section is 1795 words.)
SOURCE: "Themes and Variations in the Novels and Short Stories of Anita Desai," in Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Vol. 2, Nos. 2-3, April-July, 1982, pp. 74-9.
[In the essay below, Rao focuses on the short story collection Games at Twilight to examine Desai's "obsessive concern with the 'existential' problems of her characters and the continuity of theme which characterizes her work."]
Anita Desai is a unique figure in the world of Indo-Anglian writing. She is a conscious artist who is aware of her strength and limitations as a writer. In her novels and short stories Anita Desai has repeatedly gone back to the same themes and situations and has employed the same kind of technique for the presentation of her favourite themes. Each new work of hers affords the reader pleasure of the familiar and the satisfaction of having one's expectations fulfilled time and again in the same way.
Cry, the Peacock, the first novel of Anita Desai, is also one of her most characteristic works and, in the opinion of many critics, her best. We find in this novel many of those qualities which have made her one of the most fascinating original writers in Indo-Anglian writing today. The novel deals with a theme which continues to fascinate her. Maya, the heroine of the novel, Cry, the Peacock, is a young sensitive woman obsessed with childhood memories. She is passionately attached...
(The entire section is 3006 words.)
SOURCE: "Anita Desai," in Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1982, pp. 23-50.
[In the following overview of Desai's works, Jain focuses on what he considers her "primary preoccupation": "The absurdity of human life, with the existential search for meaning in it and the inability of men to accept a religious solution."]
The world of Anita Desai's novels is an ambivalent one; it is a world where the central harmony is aspired to but not arrived at, and the desire to love and live clashes—at times violently—with the desire to withdraw and achieve harmony. Involvement and stillness are incompatible by their nature, yet they strive to exist together. Instinct and emotion and passion seem to be strangers in the world of daily routine and scurry away into dark corners to flourish in conditions of solitude, which is presented in its varying shades and meanings. In all her novels there is a striving, on the part of the protagonists towards arriving at a more authentic way of life than the one which is, available to them. There is a need to be loved: Maya, Monisha, Sita—almost all of them—desire this above all else, but they also resist surrender and involvement. Surrender of the self, appears to her protagonists, to be a subtraction from their personal freedom and wholeness. In each successive novel the problem of involvement versus detachment,...
(The entire section is 9654 words.)
SOURCE: "The Poet in All His Squalor," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, p. 7.
[Below, Mojtabai offers a favorable review of In Custody.]
We are all authors. Adding here, deleting there, we people the world with our needs: with friends, lovers, ciphers, enemies, villains—and heroes. The trick is most evident in the case of heroes. As we glance from the great, perfected poem to the shambling, imperfect poet, we begin at once to recast what seems so unedifying to our sight. Surely, we tell ourselves, the author of a poem like this must lead a transfigured life.
Anita Desai's latest novel, In Custody, is a comedy that turns upon such an expectation. The book is set in contemporary India and centers on the world of Urdu poetry. For a number of reasons—some familiar and universal, some less familiar and native to the tradition—Persian and Urdu poets are highly susceptible to idealization. Their poetry, steeped as it is in Sufism, often has the dignity of liturgical utterance, and its ever-recurring images of sensuous love—the rose, the nightingale, the wine, the Beloved, the mole on the cheek of the Beloved—speak, in a readily decipherable code, for the contemplation of God and the ravishments of the mystical life.
Given these associations, it is entirely natural that Deven Sharma, the protagonist of the novel, should look to poetry as an...
(The entire section is 1269 words.)
SOURCE: "A Chekhovian Comedy," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 93, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. lx-lxii.
[In the review below, King offers a favorable assessment of In Custody, stating that "Desai delights us by transforming the expected into the surprising."]
Anita Desai's latest novel [In Custody] explores R. K. Narayan's comic territory of well-meaning, bumbling incompetent people made more absurd when offered possibilities of change, achievement, and fame. But it is unlike a Narayan novel in that the disruption of a timeless passive India by the modern world does not conclude with humility and the acceptance of karma or fate: In Custody shows the improbability of returning to the womb of ambitionless resignation. Desai's comedy is sharper, tougher, more farcical, and less comforting than Narayan's quiet good-natured tolerance of incongruities and paradox. Instead of the intrusion's destroying itself, leaving life to go on as previously, Desai's characters remain haunted by ambitions while nostalgic for the past. They are easily if reluctantly tempted by hope; unable to act decisively, they become victims of themselves.
Since Desai is interested in the pattern of apparently random lives, her novels are posted with directions; but they are also rich in subtexts suggested by settings, history, deviations from character types, unexpected turns of the story. Although In...
(The entire section is 768 words.)
SOURCE: "Life on the Periphery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4450, July 15-21, 1988, p. 787.
[In the review below, Chew discusses the themes in Baumgartner's Bombay.]
Now that Baumgartner's Bombay has appeared, it seems it was inevitable that Anita Desai should have sought, at some point in her career, to draw together in explicit ways the two strands of her heritage, Indian on her father's side, German on her mother's. In this latest novel, she also takes up again a subject that has strong claims on her imagination: the role of the outsider, whether it is a person marginalized by society, or one who opts to live life on the periphery.
Hugo Baumgartner, moreover, is doubly exiled—a Jew who fled Nazi persecution to work and then settle in India, he is permanently estranged from Germany and yet can never be anything other than a foreigner in his adopted country. But, it seems to Baumgartner, such contradictions and ironies were an ingrained feature of his existence, even in childhood: the brash, business-minded father, the sensitive, rather impractical mother; the baby hedgehog killed with too much kindness and milk; the gleaming mirrors with their staid reflections in his father's show-room, the shattered pieces of glass in nightmares, letting loose the darkness and violence on the other side. Later on, there was his own darkness which branded him der Jude and...
(The entire section is 943 words.)
SOURCE: "The Many Who Didn't Belong," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1989, p. 3.
[West is a British novelist and critic. Below, he praises Baumgartner's Bombay, calling Desai a "superb observer of the human race."]
This [Baumgartner's Bombay] is a daring, colorful novel almost impossible to absorb in one reading, and rightly so because it's about imperfect knowledge. The very title, with its quasi-guidebook roll, set me wondering. Does it, like a Fodor's Beijing, flirt with completeness, or does it remind us how subjective all knowledge is and therefore how unreliable? Like Anita Desai, who has a subtle mind, we can get the best of both notions, if we make the key phrase into a title: Baumgartner's Bombay sounds at once authoritative and tentative. If, however, we gently offer Fagin's London or Heathcliff's Liverpool (he was found there, remember), the phrase implies the mellow dignities of bias. What Ms. Desai depicts here is how one particular man's presence in a city alters that city for everyone in it, himself too; and then he thinks: Since I change it, I know it. What can a mote know? We savor Ms. Desai's title as a thoughtful emblem of the novel it adorns.
Hugo Baumgartner, a Berlin Jew who came all the way to India to escape the Nazis, has a seedy apartment behind Bombay's Taj Hotel. He lives for his cats, going out...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
SOURCE: "Exiles," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, June 1, 1989, pp. 34, 36.
[In the following excerpt, Dinnage comments on the "relentlessly dark" tone of Baumgartner's Bombay, calling it "the most pessimistic, but perhaps the most powerful" of Desai's works.]
Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay … deals with expatriation and the distant consequence of genocide;… [the] horror takes place off stage and the central character is a second-generation victim. Desai is half-Indian, half-German; in her books,… many of the characters live with a sense of unease and displacement. Deven, in In Custody, struggles for his literary ideals against small-town academia and an accusing wife; Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain has retreated from all commitments to an isolated hill station; in Clear Light of Day a fragmented family is followed over the years, caught between an Anglicized literary culture and a background of decay and dust and inertia. Threatening her characters is always this sense of entrapment and paralysis, and some of them defy it; but Baumgartner's Bombay is relentlessly dark.
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,...
(The entire section is 679 words.)
SOURCE: "Being and Becoming in Anita Desai's Where Shall We Go This Summer?," in Subjects Worthy Fame: Essays on Commonwealth Literature: In Honour of H. H. Anniah Gowda, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1989, pp. 10-16.
[In the following essay, Chellappan examines existential themes of "being and becoming" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, contrasting the work to The Ramayana and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.]
Meena Belliappa's claim that the novels of Anita Desai clearly indicate the "new direction that Indian fiction is taking in the hands of the third generation of urban centres … a deliberate growing away from a debased tradition, of fiction as romance, to a more meaningful wrestle with reality" is only partially true: they are certainly not romances; their very form turns romance inside out, as most of the novels only question the romantic view of life; but they are not based entirely on social reality either, as they are explorations into the basic metaphysical questions, such as the relationship between being and becoming; and in this process they deal with such contraries as light and darkness, illusion and reality, sky and sea, to which the male-female dichotomy provides the primary symbol. The purpose of this paper is to trace this pattern in Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), Anita Desai's fourth novel, which occupies a central place in her...
(The entire section is 2937 words.)
SOURCE: "The Quiet and the Loud: Anita Desai's India," in Imagining India, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 45-58.
[In the essay below, Cronin examines Desai's treatment of India and Indian life and culture in such works as The Village by the Sea, Fire on the Mountain, and Clear Light of Day.]
'Quiet writing, like Anita Desai's, can be more impressive than stylistic fireworks', wrote Victoria Glendinning in The Sunday Times. Anita Desai may let fireworks into her stories, but not into her style. At the end of The Village by the Sea, Hari and his sisters celebrate Diwali: 'Hari carried the basket of fireworks onto the grassy knoll in the coconut grove, and, to the sound of Bela's and Kamal's excited shrieks, he set off a rocket into the sky where it exploded with a bang into a shower of coloured sparks'. The rocket bangs, the girls shriek, but the prose stays quiet. In [Salman Rushdie's] Midnight's Children the 'saffron minutes and green seconds' that separate India from its moment of independence tick by. Crowds—'the men in shirts of zafaran hue, the women in saris of lime'—watch a celebratory firework display, 'saffron rockets, green sparkling rain'. There is a part of most English readers that distrusts such flamboyance, and recoils from it with relief to the sober, guilt-free pleasures of Anita Desai's quiet prose. But there remains a nagging worry that it may not be easy at...
(The entire section is 5965 words.)
SOURCE: "History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 37-46.
[In the essay below, Newman examines "the relation between discourse and history" in Baumgartner's Bombay.]
Anita Desai has always sidestepped any recognition of language as a social fact, disavowing political intent and describing her work in "universalist" terms. In interview she maintained that she had avoided many of the ideological problems created by the use of English, by not writing "social document" novels.
By writing novels that have been catalogued by critics as psychological, and that are purely subjective, I have been left free to employ, simply, the language of the interior. [Ramesh K. Srivastava, in Perspectives on Anita Desai, 1984]
In Baumgartner's Bombay, however, Desai departs from her previous practice, in order to interrogate the relation of discourse to history, the language of the interior to that of the outer world. In this connection various intertextual devices are significant—letters, literary references, songs, nursery rhymes and travellers' tales.
The novel opens with the murder of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew, by a young German, many years after Baumgartner's escape from Nazi Germany to India. As the recurrent image of the...
(The entire section is 4666 words.)
SOURCE: "Ambiguous Tragic Flaw in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain, in International Fiction Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1990, pp. 3-8.
[Below, Phillips examines elements of Greek tragedy in Fire on the Mountain.]
The Indian author Anita Desai creates in Fire on the Mountain (1977) a perfect tragedy in the Greek mode. Though fiction, Fire on the Mountain contains the nobility of character, tight structure, sense of retrospective inevitability, ambiguous flaw, and recognition of complicity which Aristotle so admired in 5th-century B.C. plays. Nanda Kaul is a noble woman who, after a long life spent serving a large family, wants only to retreat to a quiet sanctuary, Carignano. Instead, the family puts a great-granddaughter, Raka, into her charge. Raka proves to be as independent and unapproachable as Nanda, and, in her rebelliousness, sets fire at the end of the book to the hillside on which her great-grandmother's house perches. During the forest fire, another old woman, Ila Das, who serves as an alter ego both for Nanda (a tired, elderly woman) and for Raka (someone demanding Nanda's care), is raped and murdered. Nanda, devastated, may recognize that she herself has contributed to Raka's anarchy, by not reaching out to her sooner. Moreover, she has contributed to Ila's murder, by refusing to offer Ila a place to stay. Nanda is somehow responsible for all the violence, although she has...
(The entire section is 3065 words.)
SOURCE: "In the Path of the Mother," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4809, June 2, 1995, p. 20.
[In the following mixed review of Journey to Ithaca, Annan faults the narrative for being full of "gaps and improbabilities," but praises Desai's sincerity and even-handedness.]
Journey to Ithaca is not so much an Odyssey as a quest for an Eastern Holy Grail. Anita Desai sets the Prologue in a garden by Lake Como, where Matteo's young English tutor is introducing him to Eastern mysticism by reading him Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East. A few years later—it is now 1975—Matteo marries a German girl called Sophie. Both do it to get away from their parents. Matteo is still obsessed with India, so that is where they go, backpacking from one grotty lodging to another, and finally from an austere and unfriendly ashram in a slum to a benign and beautiful one in the Himalayan foothills. There Matteo falls under the spell of the holy Mother, an engaging old woman of unknown origin, wise, formidable, practical, high-spirited and possessed of a mysterious spiritual attraction—an Eastern Saint Teresa.
Sophie is jealous of her, and resents Matteo's absorption in the work and rituals of the ashram. So she walks out with their two small children, dumps them on Matteo's parents in Italy, and sets off to investigate the Mother's provenance and career—presumably...
(The entire section is 1164 words.)
SOURCE: "Where Love Has Flown," in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8708, June 3, 1995, pp. 41-2.
[Below, Moore offers a mixed review of Journey to Ithaca, stating that the novel "may not be Anita Desai's best book; but I suspect it will prove her most memorable."]
Despite its title, Journey to Ithaca is more about exile than homecoming: fulfilments in this fine work are apt to be ambivalent, possibly illusory. It is the combination of this cool ambivalence with a richly sensuous involvement, balancing immersion and detachment, subtlety and warmth, that is characteristic of Anita Desai's finest work.
These qualities are, perhaps, the legacy of Anita Desai's own inward semi-exile. Her father was an Indian: a Bengali, whose roots lay in East Pakistan, but who, in his own exile, brought up his family in Delhi. Her mother was German: a disturbing inheritance in the war. Anita Desai grew up speaking English, German and Hindi, with a love for Bengali and literary Urdu. She was brought up 'to be totally Indian'; and until now, her novels have been set in India. Yet like so many great novelists, she does and does not belong to the culture in which she was raised.
Westerners visiting India find themselves reeling under the outsider's sense of 'culture shock', which is compounded more of shock than culture. To Anita Desai, of course, the culture is second nature. Yet...
(The entire section is 1599 words.)
SOURCE: "Spiritual Quest Discovers a Reality Only Too Real," in The New York Times, August 30, 1995, p. B2.
[In the generally positive review below, Bernstein comments on plot, themes, and characterization in Journey to Ithaca.]
The search for meaning, or, as one of the spiritual insurgents in Anita Desai's new novel puts it, for the Divine Visage, can tear life to shreds. It makes people blind to others, contemptuous of mere reality. And yet, of course, those deranged by their quest for the Light dwell in a glow of heroism and purity. When the Buddha sat for 40 days and 40 nights under the bodhi tree he was not tending to household chores. We envy the spiritual searchers and we worship them, even as we find them vaguely disreputable.
Journey to Ithaca, Anita Desai's 10th novel and her first since the celebrated Baumgartner's Bombay, is a kind of love triangle set against the madness of extreme spiritual searching. Like Ms. Desai's other novels, it is also about India, a bewildering territory of degradation and dreams where foreigners especially (and all three people in this triangle are foreigners) can feel either utterly alien or at home. Indeed, while some may be captivated by the promise of a Higher Truth, others are so repulsed by the political and economic reality that they regard searching for Truth in India as a form of self-delusion, a solipsism of the perplexed....
(The entire section is 1032 words.)
Jain, Jasbir. "The Use of Fantasy in the Novels of Anita Desai." In Explorations on Modern Indo-English Fiction, edited by R. K. Dhawan, pp. 227-37. New Delhi: Bahri Publications Private Limited, 1982.
Explores Desai's utilization of fantasy and its impact on her narrative technique.
Kher, Inder Nath. "Madness as Discourse in Anita Desai's Cry, The Peacock." Commonwealth Novel in English 5, No. 2 (Fall 1992): 16-23.
Examines the characterization of Maya in Cry, the Peacock, arguing that Desai successfully demonstrates the inaccuracy of the diagnosis of madness imposed on Maya.
Krishnaswamy, Shantha. "Anita Desai: The Sexist Nature of Sanity," In her Woman in Indian Fiction in English (1950–80), pp. 236-80.
Argues that Desai's novels "constitute together the documentation, through fiction, of radical female resistance against a patriarchally defined concept of normality."
Mann, Harveen Sachdeva. "'Going in the Opposite Direction': Feminine Recusancy in Anita Desai's Voices in the City." Ariel 23, No. 4 (October 1992): 75-95.
Asserts that Voices in the City, which many critics have treated as a man's story with a male...
(The entire section is 327 words.)