Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043
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 flee the domestic environment that has so curbed her own identity. The island in the sea where the disturbed Sita finds temporary refuge becomes a symbol of the unborn fetus as well as the unborn female, both of which are being rejected by an ill-adjusted world. This concern with female sensibility continues in Desai’s next major work, Fire on the Mountain, which was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Prize in London as well as the 1978 Sahitya Akademi Award in New Delhi. In the same year, a collection of her short stories, Games at Twilight, and Other Stories, was published, and Desai was elected a fellow of the London-based Royal Society of Literature. In Fire on the Mountain, the writer explores the life of an older woman, a great-grandmother living alone at Carignano, a desolate colonial mansion on the ridge of a mountain in northern India. Here, it is solitude rather than the crowded household that becomes the focus of attention. Nanda Kaul is perhaps the older Sita, a woman whose domestic and familial responsibilities are over and who now faces emptiness in her solitary later years. Understatement, coupled with a refined poetic sensibility, makes this one of Desai’s finest works.
The year 1980 brought Desai further acclaim with the publication of Clear Light of Day, which was nominated for England’s celebrated Booker Prize. Noted for its unmatched power of conveying the decadent atmosphere of Old Delhi, the novel portrays the disintegration of an educated middle-class Bengali family against the backdrop of India’s partition and independence in 1947. In Bim, Desai has created a strong and independent woman protagonist who seems to challenge the traditional concept of ideal Indian womanhood in a patriarchal society.
Clear Light of Day seemed to complete Desai’s portrait gallery of memorable women characters. “If I wanted to walk out into the wider world,” she stated in an interview, “I simply had to write about male characters.” Consequently, in her next two works, In Custody and Baumgartner’s Bombay, she shifted the spotlight from women to men and focused on cross-cultural concerns and experiences from a male point of view, thus marking a new stage of development in her career as a novelist. In Custody, which makes a political statement about the decline of the Urdu language in India, was nominated for the Booker Prize, and Baumgartner’s Bombay, which portrays the experiences of a wandering Jew, won a Jewish prize, the Hadassah.
Journey to Ithaca is a novel of spiritual questing, beginning with a young European couple, Italian Matteo and German Sophie, who travel to India in the early 1970’s on the coattails of the hippie-era fascination with all things Eastern. Their quest is paralleled by the life story of Mother, the spiritual leader to whom they become attached. Feasting, Fasting contrasts the competing expectations of women and men in Indian society: Uma is the unwanted, overlooked daughter who cannot be married off and must spend her life waiting on her aging parents; Arun is the beloved son upon whom all hopes and expectations oppressively rest. Their lives are further contrasted due to the fact that Uma remains in India while Arun attends college in the United States; the differences between Indian and American daily life highlight the different types of entrapment each sibling experiences.
Anita Desai is a consummate artist among the Indian writers of English fiction. Though she has been criticized by Indian critics for using a foreign medium of expression, the English language, she has defended herself, like other writers of postcolonial India, by calling for linguistic freedom in a multilingual country. Clearly she has established herself as a major voice in twentieth century Indian literature by exploring, in her fiction, the oppressive condition of the Indian woman as well as the changing face of contemporary Indian society.