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.
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.
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.
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.