Anita Desai Desai, Anita (Vol. 97) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anita Desai 1937–

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

The following entry provides criticism of Desai's works through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 37.

Considered one of the foremost Indian authors writing in English, Desai is known for her lucid, finely crafted novels and stories about life in contemporary India. She is praised for what critics consider her profound understanding of intellectual issues and her intuitive grasp of emotional complexities.

Biographical Information

Born in Mussoorie, India, to parents of Bengali and German descent, Desai grew up in New Delhi and wrote in English from an early age. She received a B.A. in English from Delhi University, and began publishing stories shortly after her marriage in 1958. In addition to her writing, Desai has worked as an educator at British and American colleges including Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Girton College at Cambridge University.

Major Works

Maintaining that her primary aim is to discover "the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality," Desai is mainly concerned with the timeless predicament of the individual facing the overwhelming and seemingly incomprehensible power of family and society. In her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), Desai examines a young wife's growing despair as the hopelessness of her marriage drives her to kill her husband and commit suicide. Setting an artistic paradigm for her novels about the tragic paradoxes of family life, Cry, the Peacock also reflects her strong roots in the literary tradition of European Existentialism. In Voices in the City (1965) Desai uses Calcutta as a backdrop for the story of a brother and two sisters drawn into the decadence of urban life. In Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968), Indian immigrants in London face the conflict between Western culture and their own heritage. Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975) depicts marital despair, and Fire on the Mountain (1977) examines the complex relationship of an old woman and her troubled, destructive great-granddaughter. The critically acclaimed Clear Light of Day (1980) is regarded as a masterful study of family attachments and their tremendous power. The atmosphere of the decaying family home and the pressure of a hot, dusty summer underscore the spiritual malaise of two sisters as they analyze and compare their memories only to realize the overwhelming importance of family in their lives. Desai's later works, while still centered on family relationships and the conflict between the individual and society, offer an increasingly sobering commentary on the human condition. In Custody (1984) presents a study of obsession and delusion through the tribulations of an obscure intellectual in desperate need of recognition. Baumgartner's Bombay (1989), generally considered Desai's darkest novel, is the tragic-ironic story of an elderly German-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who escapes to India, lives a marginal existence in the surreal environment of a large Indian city, and encounters his nemesis in the form of a young German who in certain crucial ways acts as the incarnation of the Nazi spirit. Desai describes Baumgartner's Bombay as transcending the tragedies of particular races and nations, focusing instead on the cruel paradox of humankind, represented by marginalized and rejected individuals or social groups living in exile.

Critical Reception

Critics have noted that Desai's investigations of the human condition are characteristically limpid, poetic, and highly suggestive, and that her sophisticated use of imagery and symbolism significantly enriches her elegant narrative style. In particular, commentators have lauded Desai's powerful evocations of atmosphere and place, as exemplified by the haunting description of psychological and spiritual stagnation in Clear Light of Day. Critics find that In Custody brilliantly reveals the darker aspects of human relationships by probing the individual's deep, and often tragically unfulfilled, need for recognition. Clear Light of Day and In Custody were each nominated for the Booker Prize. Baumgartner's Bombay is considered a profound meditation on solitude as the ultimate human destiny and the logical consequence of the author's thesis, developed in previous novels, that human relationships are essentially unsatisfying.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cry, the Peacock (novel) 1963
Voices in the City (novel) 1965
Bye-Bye, Blackbird (novel) 1968
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
The Village by the Sea (juvenile) 1982
In Custody (novel) 1984
Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1989
Journey to Ithaca (novel) 1995

Gabriele Annan (review date 5 September 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dreams in Old Delhi," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4040, September 5, 1980, p. 948.

[In the review of Clear Light of Day below, Annan discusses characterization and plot, concluding that the ending of the book is too explicit.]

"The sense of dullness and hopelessness that reigned over their house took on an aspect of intense waiting." That is how one of the two sisters in this Indian novel [Clear Light of Day] remembers her childhood, and she sounds like one of Chekhov's three. The two works have much in common: the theme of frustrated expectation, an elegiac mood, and a tender amusement at people's absurdities.

The novel begins with the triennial visit of the younger sister Tara and her diplomat husband to the old family home, a decaying, suburban mansion on the banks of the Jumna outside Old Delhi. Here Bim, the older sister, lives with the youngest brother, Baba. Baba is autistic, a childlike, speechless whisp of a man who spends his days playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Donkey Serenade" on an ancient wind-up gramophone. The eldest brother, Raja, has moved away.

The book divides itself equally between the present of Tara's visit and the sisters' memories of the past. "It seemed to [Tara] that the dullness and boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty rugs, in the bloated brassware, among the dried grasses in swollen vases behind the yellow photographs in oval frames." It was far from the usual cheerful chaotic childhood in an extended Indian family. The parents were remote, either shut up in their room or endlessly playing bridge—their refuge from the twin horrors of the mother's illness and Baba's condition. The children grew up neglected until a poor relative was brought in: Aunt Mira gave them love, but only the timid, unpopular Tara was glad to accept it: the older two made fun of the feeble old maid who grew more helpless and incompetent as she relied more heavily on the bottle, eventually drinking away her poor wits and dying in delirium tremens. That was some time after the parents had died in quick succession, the mother of diabetes, the father in a car accident, neither much missed by the children.

Each child is shown as having had its own fantasy of escape from the oppressive milieu. Raja fell in love with the rich, cultured Muslin family across the road, whose father rode a splendid white horse and gave literary and musical parties. Under his influence Raja...

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Meredith Marsh (review date 21 February 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ambiguities of Independence," in The New Republic, Vol. 184, No. 8, February 21, 1981, pp. 39-40.

[In the mixed review of Clear Light of Day below, Marsh discusses the themes of identity and autonomy.]

"Only connect" was E. M. Forster's most famous piece of advice, and his most famous novel is about the near impossibility of carrying it out. In A Passage to India, the small moments of connection between friends seem all the more valuable as the riptides of history, social convention, and passion sweep them into misunderstanding and separation. In that book, especially as we read it with hindsight, the oncoming struggles of both India and...

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Shyam M. Asnani (essay date March-April 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Fiction: A New Dimension," in Indian Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, March-April, 1981, pp. 44-53.

[In the essay below, Asnani examines the themes of "alienation and incommunication" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, stating that Desai's "fiction grapples with the intangible realities of life."]

My writing is an effort to discover, underline and convey the significance of things. I must seize upon that incomplete and seemingly meaningless mass of reality around me and try and discover its significance by plunging below the surface and plumbing the depths, then illuminating those depths till they become a more lucid,...

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Shouri Daniels (review date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day," in Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 107-12.

[In the generally positive review below, Daniels discusses the themes, characterization, and narrative structures in Clear Light of Day.]

Clear Light of Day is an English novel (as distinct from American, Russian or French), and it surpasses all other novels in English set in India in characterization, poetic use of landscape and integrity of vision. As might have been expected, the publisher's description finds in the novel "echoes we haven't heard since E. M. Forster's A Passage to India." This is somewhat misleading. Anita Desai's novel...

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Brijraj Singh (review date July-December 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai," in Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 40-3.

[In the positive review of Clear Light of Day below, Singh discusses Indian elements in the novel as well as the themes of memory and familial relationships.]

A friend said the other day that Anita Desai's latest novel [Clear Light of Day] seemed to be derivative of Virginia Woolf. I do not agree. Any novel that seeks to evoke moods and atmosphere, that mixes memory and yearning in almost equal proportions, and illuminates a consciousness that is conscious above all of itself; any novel, moreover, which, in lighting up this consciousness, brings the...

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Shiv K Kumar (review date July-December 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai: Another View," in The Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 43-6.

[In the following negative review of Desai's prose fiction, which was published in response to Singh's review above, Kumar concentrates on the short story collection Games at Twilight, stating that "I wish to explain why Desai fails to engage the reader's interest."]

Anita Desai is one of our known writers who has published a substantial body of prose-fiction—five novels (Cry, the Peacock, Voices in the City, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day), and a collection of short stories titled Games at...

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Ramachandra Rao (essay date April-July 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Themes and Variations in the Novels and Short Stories of Anita Desai," in Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Vol. 2, Nos. 2-3, April-July, 1982, pp. 74-9.

[In the essay below, Rao focuses on the short story collection Games at Twilight to examine Desai's "obsessive concern with the 'existential' problems of her characters and the continuity of theme which characterizes her work."]

Anita Desai is a unique figure in the world of Indo-Anglian writing. She is a conscious artist who is aware of her strength and limitations as a writer. In her novels and short stories Anita Desai has repeatedly gone back to the same themes and situations and has employed...

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Jasbir Jain (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anita Desai," in Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1982, pp. 23-50.

[In the following overview of Desai's works, Jain focuses on what he considers her "primary preoccupation": "The absurdity of human life, with the existential search for meaning in it and the inability of men to accept a religious solution."]

The world of Anita Desai's novels is an ambivalent one; it is a world where the central harmony is aspired to but not arrived at, and the desire to love and live clashes—at times violently—with the desire to withdraw and achieve harmony. Involvement and stillness are incompatible by their...

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A. G. Mojtabai (review date 3 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet in All His Squalor," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, p. 7.

[Below, Mojtabai offers a favorable review of In Custody.]

We are all authors. Adding here, deleting there, we people the world with our needs: with friends, lovers, ciphers, enemies, villains—and heroes. The trick is most evident in the case of heroes. As we glance from the great, perfected poem to the shambling, imperfect poet, we begin at once to recast what seems so unedifying to our sight. Surely, we tell ourselves, the author of a poem like this must lead a transfigured life.

Anita Desai's latest novel, In Custody, is a comedy that turns upon...

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Bruce King (review date Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Chekhovian Comedy," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 93, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. lx-lxii.

[In the review below, King offers a favorable assessment of In Custody, stating that "Desai delights us by transforming the expected into the surprising."]

Anita Desai's latest novel [In Custody] explores R. K. Narayan's comic territory of well-meaning, bumbling incompetent people made more absurd when offered possibilities of change, achievement, and fame. But it is unlike a Narayan novel in that the disruption of a timeless passive India by the modern world does not conclude with humility and the acceptance of karma or fate: In Custody shows the...

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Shirley Chew (review date 15-21 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life on the Periphery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4450, July 15-21, 1988, p. 787.

[In the review below, Chew discusses the themes in Baumgartner's Bombay.]

Now that Baumgartner's Bombay has appeared, it seems it was inevitable that Anita Desai should have sought, at some point in her career, to draw together in explicit ways the two strands of her heritage, Indian on her father's side, German on her mother's. In this latest novel, she also takes up again a subject that has strong claims on her imagination: the role of the outsider, whether it is a person marginalized by society, or one who opts to live life on the periphery.


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Paul West (review date 9 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Many Who Didn't Belong," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1989, p. 3.

[West is a British novelist and critic. Below, he praises Baumgartner's Bombay, calling Desai a "superb observer of the human race."]

This [Baumgartner's Bombay] is a daring, colorful novel almost impossible to absorb in one reading, and rightly so because it's about imperfect knowledge. The very title, with its quasi-guidebook roll, set me wondering. Does it, like a Fodor's Beijing, flirt with completeness, or does it remind us how subjective all knowledge is and therefore how unreliable? Like Anita Desai, who has a subtle mind, we can get the best of...

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Rosemary Dinnage (review date 1 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exiles," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, June 1, 1989, pp. 34, 36.

[In the following excerpt, Dinnage comments on the "relentlessly dark" tone of Baumgartner's Bombay, calling it "the most pessimistic, but perhaps the most powerful" of Desai's works.]

Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay … deals with expatriation and the distant consequence of genocide;… [the] horror takes place off stage and the central character is a second-generation victim. Desai is half-Indian, half-German; in her books,… many of the characters live with a sense of unease and displacement. Deven, in In Custody, struggles for his literary ideals...

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Anita Desai with Florence Libert (interview date 1 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Anita Desai, in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 47-55.

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K. Chellappan (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Being and Becoming in Anita Desai's Where Shall We Go This Summer?," in Subjects Worthy Fame: Essays on Commonwealth Literature: In Honour of H. H. Anniah Gowda, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1989, pp. 10-16.

[In the following essay, Chellappan examines existential themes of "being and becoming" in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, contrasting the work to The Ramayana and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.]

Meena Belliappa's claim that the novels of Anita Desai clearly indicate the "new direction that Indian fiction is taking in the hands of the third generation of urban centres … a deliberate growing away from a debased tradition,...

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Richard Cronin (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Quiet and the Loud: Anita Desai's India," in Imagining India, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 45-58.

[In the essay below, Cronin examines Desai's treatment of India and Indian life and culture in such works as The Village by the Sea, Fire on the Mountain, and Clear Light of Day.]

'Quiet writing, like Anita Desai's, can be more impressive than stylistic fireworks', wrote Victoria Glendinning in The Sunday Times. Anita Desai may let fireworks into her stories, but not into her style. At the end of The Village by the Sea, Hari and his sisters celebrate Diwali: 'Hari carried the basket of fireworks onto the grassy knoll in the coconut grove,...

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Judie Newman (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 37-46.

[In the essay below, Newman examines "the relation between discourse and history" in Baumgartner's Bombay.]

Anita Desai has always sidestepped any recognition of language as a social fact, disavowing political intent and describing her work in "universalist" terms. In interview she maintained that she had avoided many of the ideological problems created by the use of English, by not writing "social document" novels.

By writing novels that have been catalogued by critics as...

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K. J. Phillips (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ambiguous Tragic Flaw in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain, in International Fiction Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1990, pp. 3-8.

[Below, Phillips examines elements of Greek tragedy in Fire on the Mountain.]

The Indian author Anita Desai creates in Fire on the Mountain (1977) a perfect tragedy in the Greek mode. Though fiction, Fire on the Mountain contains the nobility of character, tight structure, sense of retrospective inevitability, ambiguous flaw, and recognition of complicity which Aristotle so admired in 5th-century B.C. plays. Nanda Kaul is a noble woman who, after a long life spent serving a large family, wants only to retreat to a...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 2 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Path of the Mother," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4809, June 2, 1995, p. 20.

[In the following mixed review of Journey to Ithaca, Annan faults the narrative for being full of "gaps and improbabilities," but praises Desai's sincerity and even-handedness.]

Journey to Ithaca is not so much an Odyssey as a quest for an Eastern Holy Grail. Anita Desai sets the Prologue in a garden by Lake Como, where Matteo's young English tutor is introducing him to Eastern mysticism by reading him Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East. A few years later—it is now 1975—Matteo marries a German girl called Sophie. Both do it to get away...

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Caroline Moore (review date 3 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where Love Has Flown," in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8708, June 3, 1995, pp. 41-2.

[Below, Moore offers a mixed review of Journey to Ithaca, stating that the novel "may not be Anita Desai's best book; but I suspect it will prove her most memorable."]

Despite its title, Journey to Ithaca is more about exile than homecoming: fulfilments in this fine work are apt to be ambivalent, possibly illusory. It is the combination of this cool ambivalence with a richly sensuous involvement, balancing immersion and detachment, subtlety and warmth, that is characteristic of Anita Desai's finest work.

These qualities are, perhaps, the legacy...

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Richard Bernstein (review date 30 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Spiritual Quest Discovers a Reality Only Too Real," in The New York Times, August 30, 1995, p. B2.

[In the generally positive review below, Bernstein comments on plot, themes, and characterization in Journey to Ithaca.]

The search for meaning, or, as one of the spiritual insurgents in Anita Desai's new novel puts it, for the Divine Visage, can tear life to shreds. It makes people blind to others, contemptuous of mere reality. And yet, of course, those deranged by their quest for the Light dwell in a glow of heroism and purity. When the Buddha sat for 40 days and 40 nights under the bodhi tree he was not tending to household chores. We envy the spiritual...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Jain, Jasbir. "The Use of Fantasy in the Novels of Anita Desai." In Explorations on Modern Indo-English Fiction, edited by R. K. Dhawan, pp. 227-37. New Delhi: Bahri Publications Private Limited, 1982.

Explores Desai's utilization of fantasy and its impact on her narrative technique.

Kher, Inder Nath. "Madness as Discourse in Anita Desai's Cry, The Peacock." Commonwealth Novel in English 5, No. 2 (Fall 1992): 16-23.

Examines the characterization of Maya in Cry, the Peacock, arguing that Desai successfully demonstrates the inaccuracy of the diagnosis of...

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