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.
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