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.
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.
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.
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.