Anita Desai Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her novels, Anita Desai (duh-SI) has published many short stories. Her first story was published in 1957, when she was twenty years old. Since then, she has contributed stories to various magazines and periodicals, including the London publication Envoy; Indian periodicals Quest, The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Miscellany; and the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Some of her stories have been collected in Games at Twilight, and Other Stories (1978) and Diamond Dust: Stories (2000). Desai has also written three books for children, The Peacock Garden (1974), Cat on a Houseboat (1976), and The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story (1982). Two of her works have been adapted to film: The Village by the Sea in 1992 and In Custody in 1993.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anita Desai is among the more prominent Indian English novelists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. With her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), she added a new psychological dimension to Indian English fiction. Desai was probably the first Indian English novelist to be concerned primarily with the inner lives of her characters—their fleeting moods, wisps of memory, subtle cerebrations. In her novels, Desai succeeds in capturing these evanescent moments of consciousness, preserving them from oblivion and investing them with the permanence of art. The result is that Desai not only creates something of value for herself out of the endless flux of her own psyche but also provides for readers the opportunity to share this rich inner life through her characters.

Desai’s stylistic accomplishment is noteworthy as well. Unlike many other Indian English novelists, Desai does not find it necessary to experiment with language. In her novels, no clash between English, her medium of expression, and the Indian subject matter is apparent. Indeed, her use of the language is natural and unselfconscious. Her writing is both supple and precise. Though each sentence is carefully crafted, the overall manner is easy, not precious or labored. Stylistically, Desai is thus in the mainstream of twentieth century English novelists.

Desai is a writer of considerable achievement, perhaps the best contemporary Indian English woman novelist. Critical interest in her work has grown steadily since her first novel was published. She received the Royal Society of Literature Winifred Holtby Prize in 1978 and the Sahitya Akademi of India Award in 1979; she has been a member of the Sahitya Akademi English Board since 1972, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1978, a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, and a visiting fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. For The Village by the Sea she received the Guardian Award for children’s fiction in 1982. Her novels Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Fasting, Feasting were all short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How do Anita Desai’s female characters cope with the demands that their society places upon them?

What is the importance of place in Desai’s novels? To what extent does Desai’s description of place interact with the fate of her characters?

Is there a difference in how a female and a male character are portrayed and develop in Desai’s novels?

What is the role of the past in Desai’s novels, and how does it affect the central characters?

Many of Desai’s characters are relative outsiders of the society she depicts. What are some of the effects of their positions as outsiders?

Looking at spiritual leaders in Desai’s novels, how are they portrayed?

Compare Desai’s descriptions of India with that of another locale. Is Desai as effective in evoking non-Indian settings as Indian settings?

Discuss how one of Desai’s female characters develops in the course of one of her novels. What threatens and what promotes her development?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. Places Desai’s work in a historical and postcolonial context.

Bande, Usha. The Novels of Anita Desai: A Study in Character and Conflict. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1988. Bande briefly surveys the critical material written on Desai before going on to detailed discussions of each of her novels up to In Custody.

Budholia, O. P. Anita Desai, Vision and Technique in Her Novels. New Delhi: B. R., 2001. A formalistic analysis of Desai’s work.

Choudhury, Bidulata. Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1995. Part of the Creative New Literatures series, this volume concentrates on Desai’s female characters and their circumstances.

Dash, Sandhyarani. Form and Vision in the Novels of Anita Desai. New Delhi: Prestige, 1996. Examines Desai’s style and themes. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Gopal, N. R. A Critical Study of the Novels of Anita Desai. New Delhi: Atlantic, 1995. A good study of an Indian fiction writer in English.

Jain, Jasbir. Stairs to the Attic: The Novels of Anita Desai. Jaipur, India: Printwell,...

(The entire section is 425 words.)