Anita Desai Desai, Anita (Vol. 175) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anita Desai 1937-

Indian novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Desai's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 97.

Best known for her studies of Indian life, Desai has written exclusively in English since she debuted in the mid-1960s. Throughout her novels and short stories, Desai focuses on the personal struggles of Anglicized, middle-class women in contemporary India as they attempt to overcome the societal limitations imposed by a tradition-bound patriarchal culture. Set amid the cultural and social changes that have swept India since its independence from Britain in 1947, most of Desai's narratives validate the importance of familial bonds and explore the tensions that exist between different generations. In her later works, Desai has addressed such themes as German anti-Semitism, the dissolution of traditional Indian values, and Western stereotypes of India. As a contemporary Indian female author, Desai has been identified with a new literary tradition of Indian writing in English, which is stylistically different and less conservative than colonial Indian literature and concerns such issues as hybridity, shifting identity, and “imaginary homelands,” a phrase coined by Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

Biographical Information

Desai was born on June 24, 1937, at Mussoorie, a hill station north of Delhi, India, to D. N. Mazumdar, a Bengali business executive, and Toni Nime, a German expatriate. As a child, Desai spoke German at home and Hindi among her friends. At primary school, she learned to read and write English—which eventually became her literary language—publishing her first short story at the age of nine. Despite the somewhat limited opportunities for women in Indian society, Desai attended Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in New Delhi before enrolling at Miranda House, Delhi University, where she earned a bachelor's degree with honors in English literature in 1957. In December of 1958, she married Ashrin Desai, with whom she has four children. Although she regularly wrote short stories since adolescence, Desai officially launched her career as a novelist in 1963 with the British publication of Cry, the Peacock, which was subsequently followed by Voices in the City (1965) and Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968). In the late 1970s, Desai published the critically acclaimed novel Fire on the Mountain (1977), which won the National Academy of Letters Award, and Games at Twilight and Other Stories (1978), her first short story collection. During the 1980s, Desai enhanced her reputation with the novels Clear Light of Day (1980) and In Custody (1984), both of which were short-listed for the Booker Prize, England' s highest literary award. Desai later adapted In Custody as a screenplay, which Ismail Merchant and James Ivory produced as a motion picture in 1993. In 1982 Desai published the children's work Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story, which won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction. In 1990 she received the Padma Shri, India's highest artistic honor. A member of both the Advisory Board for English in New Delhi and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Desai has also taught writing at several universities, including Girton College at Cambridge University, Smith College, and Mt. Holyoke College. In 1993 she joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a creative writing instructor, teaching one semester each year and returning to India for the remainder. Desai has since published the novels Journey to Ithaca (1995) and Fasting, Feasting (1999), which brought her a third nomination for the Booker Prize, and Diamond Dust: Stories (2000), her second short story collection.

Major Works

Most of Desai's works engage the complexities of modern Indian culture from a feminine perspective while highlighting the female Indian predicament of maintaining self-identity as an individual woman. Cry, the Peacock, Desai's first novel, chronicles the morbid dread, descent into madness, and suicide of Maya, a young Delhi housewife who is trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to the much older Gautama, a misogynistic lawyer. The novel foreshadows several of the major recurring themes in Desai's works—the problems of independence and communication, the influence of the West, and the tensions between religious and domestic interaction. Set in the late 1950s, Voices in the City depicts Indian society still in transition more than a decade after India's independence from British rule. The novel is broken into four sections—the first three are named after a trio of young adult siblings from a Himalayan village who, separately and for different reasons, have moved to Calcutta. As the narrative follows each sibling individually, Desai illuminates the myriad ways that their respective social class defines their self-identities. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird, her first novelistic foray into a country beyond India, Desai portrays the intense xenophobia and prejudice that manifested in England during the influx of commonwealth immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. The novel opens with Dev, a young man from Calcutta, arriving in England to attend the London School of Economics. He eventually moves in with two old friends, Adit and Sarah, an Indian-English interracial couple. As Dev becomes enamoured with the English way of life, Adit becomes more and more nostalgic for his family's home in India. As in Cry, the Peacock, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975) centers around a desperate wife looking to escape her marriage. The plot follows Sita, a housewife in her early forties, as she arrives on the rustic island of Manori after a twenty-year absence. She has brought along two of her four children, having abandoned the others with her businessman-husband in their home in Bombay. In the third trimester of yet another pregnancy and convinced that the world is hopelessly marred by cruelty and violence, Sita has returned to the island because she believes that it possesses magical powers which can safely terminate her pregnancy.

In Fire on the Mountain, Desai explores the effectiveness of escapism as a coping mechanism. After a lifetime of dutiful servitude to her family, elderly matriarch Nanda Kaul purchases a house in the isolated hill country of Kasuli and lives out her days in peaceful seclusion. Nanda's tranquility is disturbed, however, after her great-granddaughter Raka arrives on her doorstep, having been forced out of her home by her parents' marital problems. The novel shows the clash of generations between Raka and Nanda, the division of classes between Nanda's isolated hill community and the nearby village, and the conflict between the educational programs sponsored by the central government and the traditions of the local villagers. The collection Games at Twilight consists of eleven short stories that describe events from the everyday life of various members of the Indian middle class. Set against the historical backdrop of Delhi before the Partition of 1947, Clear Light of Day recounts the saga of the Das family, a Hindu clan from Old Delhi. The main characters are three of the four Das siblings: Bim, who is unmarried and teaches history at a women's college; her younger sister, Tara, who lives in America with her diplomat husband, Bakul, and their two teenage daughters; and their elder brother, Raja, who has given up his aspiration to become a poet and lives as a rich, fat businessman in Hyderabad with his Muslim-heiress wife, Benazir, and their five children. The story begins with Tara's visit to the now run-down family homestead in a suburb of Old Delhi, where Bim continues to live and to take care of their autistic younger brother, Baba. Tara has come to India to attend the wedding of Raja's eldest daughter, an event that Bim is boycotting, having long been estranged from her once beloved brother. A novella for young people, The Village by the Sea tells the story of a family beset by misfortune in the traditional fishing village of Thul, on the west coast of India near Bombay. With the mother ill and bedridden and the father an unemployed, abusive alcoholic, the brunt of the family responsibilities devolve upon the elder children, the adolescents Lila and Hari, both of whom have stopped attending school in order to fulfill these duties and care for their two younger siblings.

Since the mid-1980s, Desai has shown a definite shift in her narrative voice, favoring dialogue over interior monologue and focusing on underprivileged characters rather than her usually bourgeois protagonists. In Custody revolves around Deven Sharma, a middle-aged man who once dreamt of becoming a poet but who was forced to take a job teaching Hindi in order to support his wife and child. A sharply incisive social comedy, In Custody dramatizes the tensions between worldly and spiritual concerns through Deven's almost-obsessive attempts to interview Nur, the greatest living Urdu poet. Based on Desai's own Eurasian heritage but narrated from a male perspective, Baumgartner's Bombay (1988) concerns themes of alterity and hybridity. The novel—Desai's first to feature a non-Indian protagonist—recounts the tragic life and violent death of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew who has emigrated to India in the late 1930s from Nazi Germany. The story opens with Hugo's murder and the ensuing chapters alternate between scenes of his last hours and flashbacks that take us chronologically through his life. The first half of Desai's next novel Journey to Ithaca focuses on Matteo, an idealistic Italian, and his temperamental girlfriend, Sophie, a hard-bitten realist German. The countercultural pair marry in 1975 and immediately set off for India, chiefly in pursuit of Matteo's dream of enlightenment, which has been inspired by his reading of Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East. They eventually arrive at an ashram in northern India that is led by a charismatic, elderly woman who calls herself the “Mother.” Although Sophie remains unimpressed by the “Mother,” Matteo is enthralled by what he finds to be the spiritually edifying environment, and they remain for several years, during which time they have two children. Most of the novel's second half consists of Sophie's retracing of the “Mother's” life, which is presented in the form of flashbacks to the early 1920s. Fasting, Feasting relates the disastrous attempts of an Indian daughter to leave her parents' home and achieve independence without marriage. Her parents, referred to as the indivisible unit MamaPapa, barely notice their daughter's aspirations as they lavish all of their attention on their only son. The short story collection Diamond Dust features a selection of tales set in North America and India—although Indian characters and concerns figure in all of them—illuminating Desai's thematic preoccupation with the psychological effects of multiculturalism.

Critical Reception

Although Desai has not been widely read in her native country—mainly at Indian universities—Western audiences have warmly received her fiction largely due to its unique insights on the often neglected aspects of Indian culture. Most critics have attributed these circumstances to Desai's own dual ancestry as well as her preference for the concerns of Westernized, middle-class characters rather than those facing the majority of Indians. Many reviewers have praised her intellectual rigor and vivid portrayals of India, particularly her insistence on the multicultural dimension of contemporary Indian society. Although some commentators have charged that Desai's fiction depends too heavily on the mundane and trivial, others have defended her attention to detail, arguing that this feature breathes life into her fiction and contributes to its often humorous tone. Critics have equally extolled Desai's short stories, tracing the thematic similarities between her short fiction and novels. However, several reviewers have asserted that Desai's later stories set outside of India are inherently stronger, faulting Desai's skewed perspective on more recent developments in Indian society and noting her inappropriate use of Indian idiom. Postcolonial literary scholars have focused on Desai's use of Indian settings in the majority of her works, contending that colonial appropriation of Indian cultural values remains an obstacle for postcolonial writers. Others have explored the effects of English culture on the subjectivities of Desai's urban Indian middle-class characters, suggesting that the unspoken gendered and imperialist premises of colonial culture inhibit the potential growth and artistic expression of the formerly colonized. Feminist critics have assessed the psychological development of Desai's female characters in terms of the patriarchal Indian family structure while evaluating Desai's representation of the Indian feminine within the context of other Indian literature written by women. Although most of these critics have praised the complexity of the family relationships depicted in Desai's novels, several have objected to their resolutions as either too simplistic or perpetuating patriarchal values.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cry, the Peacock (novel) 1963

Voices in the City (novel) 1965

Bye-Bye, Blackbird (novel) 1968

The Peacock Garden [illustrations by Jeroo Roy] (juvenilia) 1974

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

Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story (juvenilia) 1982

In Custody (novel) 1984

Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1988


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Seema Jena (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jena, Seema. “Characterization in the Works of Anita Desai.” In Voice and Vision of Anita Desai, pp. 16-34. New Delhi, India: Ashish Publishing, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jena surveys Desai's early novels, highlighting the mental development of the female characters in terms of the patriarchal Indian family structure.]

One of the chief delights of fiction is the satisfaction of our desire to know about man as he is himself, and in relation to his society. A novelist should, therefore, carve man's image in his art with an social awareness and insight into life. The Indo-Anglican novelist generally writes in the classical tradition and seeks to project...

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Bharati A. Parikh (essay date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parikh, Bharati A. “Heroines of Toni Morrison and Anita Desai: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Indian Journal of American Studies 23, no. 2 (summer 1993): 17-25.

[In the following essay, Parikh compares the treatment of female relationships in Toni Morrison's fiction with that in Desai's novels, emphasizing the alienation experienced by the characters in their respective cultures.]

What makes a writer memorable, wonderful teller of stories, passionately in love with her people, creating unforgettable heroines and heroes and making them breathe? The answer is Toni Morrison and her world peopled with young black girls, adolescent Sula and Nel, Pecola Breedlove...

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Pippa Brush (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brush, Pippa. “German, Jew, Foreigner: The Immigrant Experience in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): 277-85.

[In the following essay, Brush examines Desai's articulation of the largely neglected European emigrant to India in Baumgartner's Bombay, emphasizing the multiple marginalization of the protagonist's character.]

In her essay, ‘Writing the Immigrant Self: Disguise and Damnation,’ Canadian critic Aritha van Herk identifies the various stories which are often told in the literature of immigrants: ‘There is first of all the overt story. Then there is the much more complex and multi-foliate...

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Minoli Salgado (essay date summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Salgado, Minoli. “When Seeing Is Not Believing: Epiphany in Anita Desai's Games at Twilight.Journal of Modern Literature 20, no. 1 (summer 1996): 103-08.

[In the following essay, Salgado analyzes the ways the individual stories of Games at Twilight question not only the concept of epiphany but also the potential for spiritual awareness in general, suggesting that Desai treats this culturally transcendent phenomenon within a culturally specific context.]

Epiphany is a central concept in short story criticism. Defined by James Joyce as a “sudden spiritual manifestation,”1 the idea of epiphany seems to be implicitly accepted by a...

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Rajeswari Mohan (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mohan, Rajeswari. “The Forked Tongue of Lyric in Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32, no. 1 (1997): 47-66.

[In the following essay, Mohan explores the effects of English literary studies on the subjectivities of the postcolonial urban Indian middle class in Desai's works, suggesting that the unspoken gendered and imperialist premises of colonial culture limit the potential and aesthetic growth of the colonized.]

Over the last few years, ambivalence has emerged as the paradigmatic stance of postcolonial theory. While this might be attributed to the ascendancy of poststructuralist theory in academic discourses, from...

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Uma Parameswaran (review date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parameswaran, Uma. Review of Journey to Ithaca, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 221.

[In the following review, Parameswaran praises the complexity of the human relationships in Journey to Ithaca but finds their resolutions “too simplistic.”]

Over a span of two decades and ten novels, Anita Desai has built up a solid repertoire and a reputation for sensitive insights into human behavior and finesse of language appropriate for expressing them. Journey to Ithaca is a story of the European “flower children” of the 1960s and 1970s who flocked to India and Nepal in search of a kind of spirituality that...

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Katharine Capshaw Smith (essay date April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Katharine Capshaw. “Narrating History: The Reality of the Internment Camps in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 2 (April 1997): 141-57.

[In the following essay, Smith contrasts the experiences of the imprisoned protagonist of Baumgartner's Bombay with the similar autobiographical account of Heinrich Harrar in Seven Years in Tibet, demonstrating not only the historical veracity of Desai's representation but also its effects on the development of Baumgartner's conflicted character.]

Baumgartner's Bombay is a text deeply concerned with intrusion of history into an...

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Tony Simoes da Silva (essay date July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: da Silva, Tony Simoes. “Whose Bombay Is It Anyway?: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 3 (July 1997): 63-77.

[In the following essay, da Silva focuses on the use of an Indian setting in Baumgartner's Bombay to represent the protagonist's existential crisis, contending that colonial appropriation of Indian cultural values persists in the postcolonial novel.]

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz has long been associated with a shift in the discipline of anthropology that stresses its own arbitrary nature and argues instead for a more modest approach, seeking “what generality...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 27 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Sugar-Sticky.” London Review of Books 21, no. 11 (27 May 1999): 35.

[In the following review, Annan discusses Fasting, Feasting within the context of contemporary Anglo-Indian literature, focusing on its characterization and themes.]

When Tim Parks reviewed Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, in the New York Review of Books he grumbled ‘that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind's attempt to grasp the half of them.’ By the end of his piece he is thoroughly exasperated: ‘By making the double gesture of...

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Shirley Chew (review date 28 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chew, Shirley. “Acting as Sita Did.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5017 (28 May 1999): 23.

[In the following review, Chew assesses the familial subject matter of Fasting, Feasting, implicating the text in the perpetuation of patriarchal society.]

In an article in the TLS of September 14, 1990, entitled “A Secret Connivance,”; commenting on the general oppressiveness of women's lives in India, Anita Desai noted that “Even if in reality [a woman] is nothing but a common drudge, first in her father's house and then her husband's,” she must, bearing in mind accepted role models, conduct herself “as Sita did, as Draupadi did.” While...

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Frederick Luis Aldama (review date winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aldama, Frederick Luis. Review of Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 240.

[In the following review, Aldama outlines the plot of Fasting, Feasting, suggesting that the change of settings for the novel' s conclusion compromises the integrity of the narrative.]

Anita Desai's novels typically gravitate around women (mostly middle-class South Asians) who come of age in the sweltering clime of India's outback and within households heavy with patriarchal oppression. In her new novel, Fasting, Feasting, the protagonist Uma, much like Desai's earlier characters Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain...

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Sarah Curtis (review date 26 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Curtis, Sarah. “Aunts and Daughters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 21.

[In the following review, Curtis compares the themes and characters of Diamond Dust to other works by Desai.]

With her customary quiet confidence, Anita Desai establishes her territory in the opening paragraph, sometimes in the opening sentence, of each of the nine stories in [Diamond Dust]. From the start of “Royalty,” we know not just that the Indian household is off to the hills to escape the summer heat of Delhi but that they are rich and Oxford-educated: not only have so many of their clothes been packed away but so have their books and...

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Shyamala A. Narayan (review date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Narayan, Shyamala A. Review of Diamond Dust: Stories, by Anita Desai. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 104-05.

[In the following review, Narayan prefers the stories set abroad in Diamond Dust to those set in India, objecting to the latter's discomfiting perspective on contemporary Indian society and inappropriate use of Indian idiom.]

Author of ten novels, including Fasting, Feasting (1999; see WLT 74:1, p. 240), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Anita Desai is also a short-story writer. The stories in Diamond Dust, her second collection, are quite different from those in Games at Twilight and Other...

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Robin Gerster (review date 12 January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerster, Robin. “Geographies of the Imagination.” Lancet 359, no. 9301 (12 January 2002): 178.

[In the following review, Gerster praises the themes, style, and settings of Diamond Dust.]

English-language writers from Commonwealth countries tend to be lumbered with the role of “representative” of their country of origin. Thus India's Anita Desai is usually dubbed an Indian writer. This is not necessarily a limiting description, but it is a prescriptive label that inspires those cliches beloved by western commentators on Asian writers—a “clash of cultures,” “East meets West,” and so on. Of course, the westernisation of India and the cultural...

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Cindy Lacom (essay date fall 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lacom, Cindy. “Revisiting the Subject: Disability as ‘Third Dimension’ in Clear Light of Day and You Have Come Back.NWSA Journal 14, no. 3 (fall 2002): 138-54.

[In the following essay, Lacom examines the social contexts and ideologies of disabled characters in Clear Light of Day and Fatima Gallaire-Bourega's You Have Come Back, demonstrating the relationship between postcolonial and feminist studies and disabled persons.]

When considering the work of post-colonial scholars, it becomes apparent that missing from the list of the oppressed and marginalized are those who are doubly colonized with physical and mental...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Chakravarty, Radha. “Figuring the Maternal: ‘Freedom’ and ‘Responsibility’ in Anita Desai's Novels.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29, no. 2 (April 1998): 75-92.

Chakravarty examines the maternal tropes of Where Shall We Go This Summer?, Clear Light of Day, and Journey to Ithaca in terms of the novels's thematic concerns with the relationship between freedom and responsibility.

Choudhury, Bidulata. “Anita Desai: The Growth and Development of the Artist.” In Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai, pp. 37-53. New Delhi, India: Creative Books, 1995.


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