Anita Desai Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(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.