Anita Desai

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Desai, Anita 1937–

Desai is a novelist and short story writer of Indian-German parentage. Her delicate, lucid prose captures the complexities of India, her home. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

The Times Literary Supplement

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[Voices in the City] is set in Calcutta, in an atmosphere of aimless corruption and destruction. [Mrs. Desai] traces the development of a sensitive and melancholic trio; Nirode, deliberate wastrel, editor of a little magazine, and his two sisters, Monisha, a connoisseur of Russian and English literature married into a large and conventional Calcutta family, and Amla, the youngest, who finds a bitter fulfilment in inspiring a new stage in the development of a middle-aged painter….

Mrs. Desai's virtues are also her faults. She can create atmosphere excellently but the book is overloaded with minute and intense descriptions of momentary emotions. She has great skill in suggesting rapid fluctuations of consciousness. There is no reason why a novel should set out to be completely intelligible to foreigners; it is not possible to write subtly without presupposing certain expectations and knowledge in the reader. But it is often difficult for an English reader to distinguish the indisputable moments of insight through the haze of decorative emotion.

"Bengali Beat," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3306, July 8, 1965, p. 581.

Gabriele Annan

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It is fashionable to say that the Indian novel is taking the place of the Russian. Fire on the Mountain bears a resemblance to Turgenev's First Love. Both are poetic novels. In both at least one of the chief characters is not at all nice, but mysterious, fascinating, and romantic and one of them gradually becomes obsessed with the other. The atmosphere of summer in the summer resorts is similarly strong and pervasive—though the Indian summer with its violent heat and equally violent storms is as different as possible from the white nights of the Baltic. Mrs Desai is marvellous at describing places, weather, atmosphere, sticks, stones, plants, animals, physical movement and physical sensation. Perhaps she does it just a little too much. Her novel is carefully and successfully constructed and although it is so quiet until the final denouement, suspense builds up again and again, particularly throughout the first third when Nanda is quite alone waiting for Raka's arrival.

Mrs Desai is less sure in confronting her characters with one another and in making them speak (or think); surprisingly for such a fastidious writer she sometimes allows them to drift into cliché.

Gabriele Annan, "Flight from Matriarchy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3927, June 17, 1977, p. 721.

Katha Pollitt

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"Fire on the Mountain" is a slight tale very much in the style of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala…. Set in Kasauli, a Himalyan resort of some former grandeur and much present squalor, it gives a bleak but convincing picture of modern India; the dust and blazing sun, the pseudo-English declining gentry, the sullen and starving poor….

[The] aged Nanda Kaul seeks a haven from her troubled land and from her troublesome family, but her privacy is shattered by the arrival of her granddaughter, Raka. Raka is a strange, half-mad child, as aloof as Nanda, and Nanda finds herself trying to draw the girl toward her with fantasies of a glamorous past. Raka, however, prefers to spend her days roaming the hillsides and setting fires. As the contest of wills intensifies, Nanda enlists the aid of her friend Ila Das, a fierce old woman….

Anita Desai's ability to evoke Nanda's isolation, Ila's pathos, the sights and sounds and smells of Kasauli, makes one overlook awkward prose…....

(This entire section contains 308 words.)

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It also makes one wish she had let herself be beguiled from her original outline. The decaying resort and the two disappointed, game old ladies have a real story in them; but not this one, with its pyromania and brutality. Even in masterly hands this plot could produce only the easy thrill of a startling climax; in Anita Desai's talented but less expert hands, it is anything but startling. So the reader has the sense of looking helplessly on as characters of Jane Austen possibilities are marched along to the garish drum of Edgar Allan Poe. If only Anita Desai had been less intent on surprising us with a spurious melodrama, and had given her imagination a chance to surprise herself.

Katha Pollitt, "Heat and Dust," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 20, 1977, p. 72.

Victoria Glendinning

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"Games at Twilight", the title-story [in Anita Desai's collection of short stories,] is a jewel. It recounts something that has happened in one way or another to nearly everyone in childhood…. [The children] play hide-and-seek. Raki has an inspiration to hide in a dusty shed where no one will find him: and no one does. His exhilaration changes to anxiety as time passes, and he suddenly realizes that in any case success must be clinched by a final rush back to the "den". So he dashes out, to find that … no one has even noticed his absence.

It is simply and beautifully done; Mrs Desai is a writers' writer in that anyone who has ever set pen to paper must ask himself just what it is about the writing that makes the story so memorable, and there is, naturally, no simple answer to the question.

The other ten stories, mostly about families and the tensions between parents and children, are all interesting, if not quite in the same class….

Anita Desai has the gift of being able to transfer an image that catches her own imagination to the imagination of her reader, and making it seem important.

Victoria Glendinning, "Mood Indigo," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3987, September 1, 1978, p. 978.

Ben Okri

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Silence is clarity and white heat in Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, a novel about a family reunion, its unease, the disturbing remembrances that accompany it. Tara, now married to a diplomat, revisits her childhood home in Old Delhi and finds that, on the shabby surface, nothing has changed. The mind is forced back into rites of childhood. Anita Desai evokes the heat, the parrots squawking, the changes and nonchanges of characters, their subtle secret movements, and in her evocations is discovery….

But often the vividness of the writing fails to convey a sense of the child's actual life: the vividness is literary. Anita Desai has a pointillist exactitude, conveys the lucency of things sharply sensed in the clear light of day, but lacks apprehension of their depths. Some shadows are clearly missing….

In the general lucency important things suffer. The novel remains a series of images and scenes—Tara secretly seeing her father giving her mother an injection, for example, and suspecting him of killing her mother—and the characters move through them as word-clothed phantoms. Sometimes Anita Desai's sentences are so complete and beautiful that, not taking one beyond themselves, they become their own end.

It is Bim, the older and seemingly more cynical of the two sisters, who experiences most the pain and shadows and darkness of the book…. She is the one who guides and who experiences the clear light of day, of forgiveness and love. She is rooted. She tastes and is deepened by the land; and it is upon her that the revelation of time falls. Clear Light of Day is close to a religious experience, a purifying sensation in which memory becomes imagination and pain becomes revelation.

Ben Okri, "Silences," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2581, September 5, 1980, pp. 22-3.∗

Anne Tyler

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[Anita Desai's] work is known for its texture and for its ability to place us solidly within any scene, however foreign. She constructs her plots with infinite care, relying less upon physical events than upon a mosaic of details, thoughtfully selected and arranged.

In "Clear Light of Day," she describes the airless, stagnant, dreamlike lives of a decaying family in post-partition India; and she draws us into these lives by giving her story an unusual shape. Appropriately, this is a book without apparent movement. It hangs suspended, like the family itself, while memories replay themselves and ancient joys and sorrows lazily float past.

Its outward plot is the visit of Tara, an Indian woman now living abroad, to her family's house in Old Delhi. Both of her parents are dead, and her older brother lives in another city. Only a sister and younger brother remain at home. Bim, the sister, is a history professor—a strong, brisk, competent woman. Baba is utterly withdrawn. (p. 1)

It's evident that Tara leads a bustling life outside India, but once she settles in she becomes the person she was as a girl—someone weighted down by lassitude and indecision and the heavy summer heat. The old patterns reassert themselves: visits to neighbors, visits from neighbors, aimless walks through the rose garden. She and her sister compare their memories, which sometimes agree and sometimes differ. What emerges is a picture of a family so curiously removed from their lives that even death is just a slightly more noticeable absence. (pp. 1, 45)

Why does all this work so beautifully? What keeps us turning the pages of a story that appears to be going nowhere?

First of all, Anita Desai is unexcelled at conveying an atmosphere. Whether it's the atmosphere of a parched, dying garden, or a languid evening lawn concert, or the endless summer mornings of idle children, we are fully there; the mood of the place is thick around us.

And in "Clear Light of Day," it is particularly the atmosphere of deterioration that she conveys—so vividly, in fact, that the deterioration takes on a kind of motion all its own. There's a feeling of depth, of multiple layers, in her description of the cobwebbed gate of a deserted house, the river drying to a muddy trickle, the rotting fruit picked over by birds, the blackened water of the well where a cow drowned long ago….

This should be depressing, but instead it's oddly exhilarating. The effect is one of richness and mystery. At times, it's even funny….

But above all else, what keeps us reading is the invisible motion—first, the journey downward as the sisters sink into the past; and second, the interior journey that Bim undertakes as Tara's visit lengthens. For this is really Bim's book, as it turns out. Bim is the only character whose life has not yet crystallized. Gradually, she travels from calm to irritation, and then to bitterness, and then to the deepest despair. She begins to reconsider her role in the household…. She catalogues all her old grievances against [the family]…. And at last, in a single, wonderful passage, she comes to a full realization of her family's value to her.

Anita Desai has created an entire little civilization here from a fistful of memories, from a patchwork of sickroom dreams and childhood games and fairy tales. "Clear Light of Day" does what only the very best novels can do: It totally submerges us. It takes us so deeply into another world that we almost fear we won't be able to climb out again. (p. 45)

Anne Tyler, "Novels of Other Times and Places," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1980, pp. 1, 45.∗

Katherine Paterson

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Clear Light of Day is about the journey backward and inward of two sisters, their exploration of what it means to be part of a family, to draw "from the same soil, the same secret darkness." It is a book about shared memory, how often it divides and deceives, but how, sometimes, miraculously, it heals and unites. Nearly all the action of this book takes place within the confines of the dusty house and garden of the Das family. Tara's visit [to her childhood home in Old Delhi] is the frame through which Desai leads us back into the sisters' childhood in British India and their youth, especially the fateful summer of partition, 1947, when from the terrace they could see the fires from the riot-torn city of Delhi….

I have the feeling when writing about [Clear Light of Day] that all the proper adjectives have been used up in other reviews of lesser books and the best approach would be to take the space allowed me and fill it with large block letters urging anyone who cares about reading or writing to READ THIS BOOK, but I resist the temptation. Anything in large block letters would violate the beautiful complexity of Desai's work.

The story has all the intricacy of a nautilus shell, infinitely and exquisitely chambered, curling back upon itself as Desai tells and retells an incident, showing not only how memories differ from one family member to another but also from the incident that prompted the memories. She takes us into the midst of the Indian heat, the dust, the untamed bougainvillea, the raucous birds squabbling over the fallen guava fruit, the bedraggled roses hiding a shining snail, describing everything in such consummate detail that a setting that should appear alien and uninviting becomes as startlingly familiar as the houses of our own childhoods….

Unlike many Eastern writers, Desai does not simply set the scene and leave the rest for the reader to do. She allows us to come to know why certain things have happened as they have in this family…. At the same time, Desai is able to reveal that despite appearances, the sisters have not changed so much as the reader first thinks.

A writer who reads this book must ask herself how Desai does it. How does she take a simple image like the snail on page one and repeat it through the course of the book, so that with each repetition it gathers power until on page 122 when she speaks of the children "following the path of the silent snail," the phrase rings in our ears like John Donne's bell? Then there is the matter of the well, the dark well in the back garden now covered with green scum into which the cow stumbled and where her body was left to decay. Here, what could have been a ponderous, melodramatic gimmick in less skillful hands is delicately and hauntingly invoked, an image that inspires increasing dread, throbbing in our temples when Bim, the strong, dependable member of the family, confesses in a moment of weakness: "I always did feel that—that I shall end up in that well myself one day." Yet, isn't it also the well, mystically cleaned of its dark secrets, that Bim alludes to when she understands at last how alike she is to Tara. "They were more alike than any other two people could be. They had to be, their hands were so deep in the same water, their faces reflected it together."

This is a wonderful book, a book where passages must be read and reread so that you may savor their imagery, their language, and their wisdom. A book that makes you call up your friends long distance to make sure they don't miss reading it. A book that gives you courage to bring up your own childhood memories from the deep well in the back garden and expose them to the clear light of day.

Perhaps it is Desai's dual ancestry, racial and cultural, that makes it hard for me to say who she is like, to set her amongst her literary kin. I suspect, however, that years from now, hers will be a standard to which the work of other writers will be compared.

Katherine Paterson, "Memories of an Indian Summer," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), January 11, 1981, p. 3.

John Leonard

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"Clear Light of Day" is a wonderful novel about silence and music, about the partition of a family as well as a nation, about memories that are as mutilated as the mulberries, about a past that is the unseen extra member in a party of explorers in an Antarctica of emotions, about childhood and boredom and waiting and deterioration and the desperate need for something "brighter," some "color and event and company."…

Nothing seems to happen in "Clear Light of Day," and yet everything happens, on the veranda, or while sitting down to leftovers in little saucers, "like meals for a family of kittens." We are made to know a deracinated bourgeoisie, the colonized, as they dream and repent. (p. 58)

There are moments when Anita Desai … clashes her symbols too noisily. The white cow is required to drown in the black well far too often…. And how many times must a snail be mistaken for a pearl?

But "Clear Light of Day" is clearly art, and the spinster Bim is as complicated a character as any reader, even if E. M. Forster and Paul Scott, could ask for. (pp. 58-9)

John Leonard, "'Clear Light of Day," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), November 24, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1981, pp. 57-9).

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